Today has been a very silly day in Lebanese politics. A cabinet session scheduled to address various issues unrelated to the funding of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) had to be canceled because ministers belonging to General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement decided not to turn up.
The reason? According to various sources, it was to send a signal that the FPM is prepared to resign and “turn the tables on the opposition”, with respect to the STL funding issue, which must be brought to a vote at next Wednesday’s cabinet meeting. Minister of Energy Gebran Bassil told the AFP that the signal had to do with the FPM’s unhappiness with the government’s performance, not necessarily on the issue of the STL.
Let’s remind ourselves that the FPM is the majority partner in the Mikati government. In other words, they are the government. There is no meaningful opposition to their policies. So how can they be disappointed in the government’s performance?
Even by the cynical standards we’ve grown accustomed to, this latest move by the FPM takes the cake. Between 2005 and 2009, they complained because they weren’t given the Presidency. Between 2009 and 2011, they complained because they didn’t have enough seats in government. And now that they are the single largest bloc in the cabinet, they are threatening to bring down their own government because of its poor performance?
In an Arab world where tyrants are struggling to hold on to their seats, Lebanon’s leaders are trying to find ways to get out of theirs as quickly as possible.
No one is fooled that this move doesn’t have everything to do with Najib Mikati’s own vow to resign if the STL’s funding is not approved at next week’s meeting. But the FPM’s counter-threat to resign first is an escalation typical of the blustering and irrational theatrics of Michel Aoun. “You think you can scare us with your resignation, Najib? Well then, we’ll resign first! Ha!”
Amateur psychological analysis aside, what does this puzzling strategy tell us about what the STL funding issue means to the March 8 coalition? Obviously, there’s no way that Hizbullah can support the STL since they are being targeted by it. Nor can one expect AMAL to break with Hizbullah on any issue. But the FPM surely could have elected to play some kind of conciliatory or mediating role rather than walking such a hard line. Why be more Catholic than the Pope?
My own conversations with a few FPM insiders over the past couple days suggest that there is considerable befuddlement and frustration with the position that the party finds itself in.
And let’s not forget that resigning and bringing down the current government would only make matters worse — for Aoun, for Hizbullah, and ultimately for Syria. By pushing the magic button and sending Lebanon into its familiar tailspin, Aoun can dodge the STL funding bullet. But this measure will certainly not bring the STL’s activities to a halt. All it will do is create chaos in the near term and possible sanctions in the long term.
Maybe Aoun and Hizbullah would prefer that kind of combative atmosphere to the current situation, where they look worse and worse each day as the Arabs, the Turks, the Europeans, and the Americans keep heaping more pressure on Damascus. Or maybe Aoun is just bluffing. We’ll know sooner rather than later.