The political story in Lebanon is changing so quickly that I’m loathe to forecast how things are going to play out over the next couple of weeks. A few quick thoughts, though, on the calculations of the various players and the choices they face:
1. Tables are turned
Lebanon’s Sunnis are calling for a “day of rage”, but it’s more apt to call it a day of deep hypocrisy and cynicism. Consider the following:
- In 2005, after winning a majority in the elections, the March 14th coalition wanted to nominate a Shiite Speaker of Parliament other than Nabih Berri. The main Shiite parties, Hizbullah and Amal, made a big fuss over this and claimed that such a move would violate that infamously vague clause of the Lebanese Constitution (Preamble, j), which states that “there shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of communal existence.” March 14th acquiesced and appointed Berri.
- In 2006, Hizbullah and Amal withdrew from the Siniora government and then called it illegal and unconstitutional because of the lack of Shiite participation. Speaker Berri then refused to allow Parliament to convene for over a year and a half, so as to prevent the body from ratifying the Lebanese government’s cooperation agreement with the UN Special Tribunal (later passed via Chapter VII), and voting on Emile Lahoud’s presidential successor. (I recommend reading Gary Gambill’s superb discussion of the 2006 constitutional crisis for more background on this issue.)
So, these two parties — Hizbullah and Amal — have played the “consensual democracy” card to the hilt over the past six years, using its logic to demand executive appointments, block legislation, and, eventually, bring down Hariri’s government. And yet, today, these same parties are the ones acting like the fish-out-of-water majoritarians whom they accused March 14’s leaders of being between 2005-09.
Meanwhile, March 14th supporters are calling for a day of Sunni rage, burning cars, and rioting in the streets, while the West threatens Hizbullah to respect Lebanon’s pact of communal coexistence. How d’ya like them apples?
2. Consensual vs. majoritarian democracy
While I sympathize with those who chafe at the hypocrisy of March 8th’s newfound majoritarian impulses, I strongly support the democratic principle that legitimizes Hizbullah’s current move. The March 8th coalition is now Lebanon’s parliamentary majority. They should have the right to bring down this government and form their own. Governments fall all the time, all around the world. This should be able to happen in Lebanon without sparking sectarian protests.
On a slightly more abstract note, I found myself wondering today (as I did back during the 2006-08 constitutional crisis), what effect the majority coalition’s pro-democracy rhetoric would have on Lebanon’s political culture in the long term. The fact that we’ve seen both sides of the political divide appealing to a majoritarian logic within the space of six years seems significant to me. No?
Obviously, what I would like to see happen is for this new method of choosing prime ministers (and speakers) to be enshrined in the Constitution, such that we don’t keep flip-flopping between consensual and majoritarian procedures every other year. A precedent has been set. Let’s stick with it. But you can bet that won’t happen.
3. Another desperate move?
Setting aside the cynicism of Hizbullah’s political strategy, I continue to think that it’s somewhat desperate and uncharacteristically short-sighted. What has Hizbullah really achieved by replacing Hariri with Miqati? The Daily Star (now owned by Hariri, fyi), argues vociferously against Miqati’s candidacy today in its editorial, on the basis that he is not a consensus candidate and that he would have had to agree to March 8th’s conditions with regard to the Tribunal before being nominated.
But even if Miqati did agree to doing the opposition’s (excuse me, “the new majority’s”) bidding, isn’t it obvious that he can’t end Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL on his own? He needs the cabinet to vote on it. And since both he and Nasrallah are currently calling for a national unity government, the Miqati government would effectively be hamstrung by the same conditions that Hariri’s was, and so any move to withdraw the Lebanese judges from the court, stop financing, and abrogate the cooperation agreement could be torpedoed by Hariri’s coalition. The only way that Hizbullah and its allies could ram through their agenda on the STL would be by either:
- denying March 14th a blocking third in the cabinet, which would be the biggest act of chutzpah I’ve seen since… well, since Hizbullah appointed a Sunni PM other than Hariri;
- counting on the fact that Hariri would refuse to join their government, thus giving March 8th leeway to do whatever they wanted.
The first option is highly unlikely; the second is deeply unsatisfactory, as it will simply re-energize Hariri’s base in Lebanon, and make Hizbullah look like it is willing to contravene every principle, custom, and precedent of Lebanese consociationalism in order to suffocate the STL. And it wouldn’t work! That’s what so desperate and puzzling about this whole strategy. The court has been set in motion. The evidence is going to be made public sooner or later. It’s just that it will now come out with an angry Sunni audience in Lebanon led by a politician who has less to gain than ever from playing by Hizbullah’s rules. Had they tried to find a way to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, they could have at least made Hariri do the talking when Lebanon got around to formally denouncing the STL indictments. Now it will have to be Miqati, who has already been branded as a Hizbullah puppet. (That’s too bad, because I think he’s actually light years more competent and a better fit to be PM than Hariri will ever be.)
What would you do if you were in Hariri’s shoes? Join the government and play the role of spoiler (as Hizbullah/FPM have done since 2008)? Or stay out of the government, hoping that March 8th will fall on its sword before the 2013 elections? The floor is open.
PS: Andrew Exum has a very interesting piece on where Israel fits into this picture.