The Syrian-Saudi negotiations over the fate of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) are a persistent topic in the Arab press these days. According to an interview with Saad al-Hariri which will appear tomorrow in al-Hayat, an agreement about how to mitigate the STL’s repercussions has already been reached, and is just waiting implementation on the Lebanese scene. For background on this issue, I recommend reading the International Crisis Group report, as well as a recent opinion piece by Michael Young.
It will be interesting to see how the Syrian-Saudi agreement is unveiled and presented to the Lebanese public. The gist of the “concessions” expected of Hariri is straightforward: he will be required to help distance Lebanon from the Tribunal in some fashion. Whether this involves going so far as to end Lebanon’s cooperation with and recognition of the STL is uncertain, but we can assume that he will, at the very least, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the STL’s proceedings, and categorically reject the validity of any indictments against members of Hizbullah.
On the other hand, the question of what concessions (if any) will be extracted from Hizbullah is much more perplexing. Unlike Hariri — who has already made some initial concessions — Hizbullah has not indicated that it will budge from its maximalist position of rejecting the STL as a Zionist plot targeting the resistance. In the International Crisis Group’s discussion of the “contours of a possible deal” (see pp. 28-29) there is no hint at what price Hizbullah and its allies might pay to make the STL become a distant memory. The formulas presented are all essentially March 14 concessions.
The current situation reminds me of an encounter I had several years ago when I was living in Morocco, studying the music of the great chaabi ensemble, Nass el-Ghiwane. I spent the first couple months of my stay in Fes, where I befriended a rug merchant named Ahmad who owned a small shop deep in the old medina.
Over the course of the year, I bought several rugs from Ahmad, which I gave as gifts to friends and family members. As one might expect, each purchase was preceded by a long bargaining process, accompanied by cups of mint tea and endless amusing discussions about history, religion, and politics.
As I neared the end of my stay in Morocco, I set off to visit Ahmad with the intention of buying one last rug from him. It was a beautiful piece: a large, hand-knotted crimson rug with faint tracings in an eggshell color, hanging on a wall in the shop. I had been eyeing it covetously throughout my time in Morocco, but the asking price was well above my budget: $400, which was at least four times more than my piteous, penniless self had previously spent on any other rug in his shop.
When I came to him and expressed my interest, he smiled knowingly and replied: “Of course, ya habibi. Name your price.”
I gritted my teeth and said, almost apologetically, “I’ve got a hundred dollars. Can we make a deal?”
As it turns out, I was telling the truth. I had no more than one hundred dollars left in my savings, but Ahmad didn’t know that, and so he assumed that my offer was part of a routine bargaining strategy. He thereupon settled into his familiar protestations about the value of the rug, the craftsmanship, and the great loss he would incur by giving it away for such an insultingly low sum.
Over the next two hours, Ahmad’s asking price fell steadily as we chatted in our usual meandering way. My offer, however, remained the same: “One hundred dollars. Take it or leave it.”
As afternoon turned to evening, a group of Ahmad’s friends assembled in his shop, watching this negotiation with amusement. Finally, Ahmad gave up. “Ok. One hundred dollars,” he said. “But you have to buy me a pack of cigarettes.”
I started to insist that I didn’t even have the money to buy him a pack of cigarettes, when his brother leapt to his feet, grabbed me by the arm, and led me outside.
“You will go buy him a pack of cigarettes,” he hissed at me, pressing some of his own money into my hand.
I was baffled. “Why? What does it matter?”
His brother shook his head and left me in the street holding a couple of coins for cigarette money.
It took me a while to understand this strange exchange, but it eventually became clear. The symbolic value of the pack of cigarettes was more important to Ahmad, in the context of our bargaining process, than the $100 I paid him at the end. Why? Because it represented something above my original offer. It was more than what I had originally offered to pay. Even if it was only a paltry amount, and even if the whole bargaining process was an elaborate charade, the fact that he had extracted something from me that I hadn’t been willing to pay was a necessary condition of a successful transaction.
This is not so different, I would suggest, than the position that Hariri finds himself in today. He has already brought his “price” down by exonerating Syria and recognizing the existence of “false witnesses”. He has also exonerated Hizbullah’s leadership from any connection with the crime and offered to help sell the narrative that the perpetrators were rogue elements. All that’s left is for him to join his opponents in claiming that the STL was infiltrated by Israel and that his father was the victim of a Zionist plot.
That he can probably do. But I would argue that he needs something in return — the proverbial “pack of cigarettes” — or else, I believe, he will not be able to contain the fallout of Sunni humiliation and frustration that will result from the lopsided transaction.
This doesn’t mean that any paltry concession by Hizbullah will be enough to enable Hariri and his government to sweep the STL under the rug. Depending on the nature of the evidence in support of the indictments, selling at such a low price — with or without a pack of cigarettes from Hizbullah — may be more politically damaging for Hariri than simply resigning from his post. But in the absence of some kind of meaningful concession from Hizbullah, it is hard to see what kind of solution Syria and Saudi Arabia could possibly have in store.