Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Politics in Lebanon: a whiter shade of gray

Politics in Lebanon are a great spectator’s game. Take the last few days for example. Uncertainty is running high once again in Lebanon now that the recent talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran did not seem to produce the desired results. Before the meeting was held, many people from across the political spectrum were expressing their hope that a solution was in sight now more than ever.

Some went even further, like resigned Hezbollah minister Mohammad Fneish who told reporters that a solution has been reached and threatened to escalate the anti-government actions if anybody would oppose this. Except for the threat, it was good to hear on Monday this announcement of the solution to the current crisis. People were getting their hopes up that the Saudi-Iranian talks did, indeed, have positive results.

Both countries wield a lot of influence in Lebanon since Saudi Arabia has the ear of the Sunnis, while Iran obviously has the close attention of Hezbollah. Now with these two sponsors of Lebanese politics agreeing with each other, a local solution must be in the making.

But…it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. Sure enough, a few clouds appeared on the otherwise cleared up sky. It started yesterday with the Saudi minister of foreign affairs who said that the talks between his country and Iran did not necessarily mean a change in the Lebanese situation. Although he didn’t say the talks with Iran ended without results, he didn’t specify a concrete achievement either. So where did that leave Lebanon?

Nabih Berry tried to salvage the situation yesterday by stating that he would announce a solution within a few days, but after the non-committal statements from Saudi Arabia, nobody really shared his optimism anymore.

Things got worse when the outlines of a possible solution became clear. To no one’s surprise, Hezbollah wants a blocking vote in parliament in return for their support of the UN Tribunal. Rumors have it that Saudi Arabia and Iran were in agreement over this. If true, this would mean that the Sunni politicians (Prime Minister Siniora and other members of the Hariri block) are willing to give Hezbollah this veto right, much against the wishes of the Christians and the Druze, who are vehemently opposing this.

For Hezbollah to have a blocking vote, they need more than 1/3 of the ministers’ seats. Out of the current 30 ministers, they would need at least 11 to realize their veto right. The pro-government parties have thus far offered a solution of giving Hezbollah 10 seats with 1 neutral minister. This would not give a veto right to Hezbollah. However, it would take away the veto of the pro-government parties also because they get only 20 seats, 1 short of having a veto right.

If anything, the Saudi-Iranian talks have had one result, namely the increase in suspicion of the Christians and Druze about the motives of the Hariri block. The stance of Saudi Arabia willing to give Hezbollah the veto right in return for their support of the UN Tribunal, has lead Christians and Druze politicians to doubt the reliability of their Sunni colleagues. The latter, it seems, will sacrifice anything to realize the UN Tribunal with the support of Hezbollah, while the former wouldn’t mind accepting outside help in realizing the Tribunal by using a Chapter 7 resolution, which would bypass Lebanese parliament.

As always in Lebanon, both sides are right and wrong at the same time. That’s what makes this country such a fascinating one: you really have to think hard to get a grasp of what’s going on…and even then you’re more often wrong than right.

The Sunnis would be right to get the support of Hezbollah for the UN Tribunal. As argued before on this blog, Lebanon’s political system is a delicate balance of power and fundamentally based on cooperation. This system collapses once a major group like Hezbollah is outside the political scene, like what’s happening now. The whole country has come to a standstill. Pushing through the UN Tribunal by using the Chapter 7 solution, would not change anything. Yes, the UN appetite for justice would be served, but at what expense for the Lebanese? Also, bypassing the Lebanese parliamentary system via a Chapter 7 resolution, means giving up faith in the democratic system in Lebanon. Furthermore, giving in to Hezbollah now will be compensated by the outcome of the UN Tribunal, which is expected to be devastating for Syria and thus would reduce Hezbollah’s influence accordingly.

The Christians and Druze would be right by saying that Hezbollah has lost the recent elections, even though they shaped the elections as much as they could to their liking. Out of respect for democratic rules in Lebanon, Hezbollah should not be “rewarded” with a veto right for losing the elections and subsequently ruing the country. Furthermore, what’s to guarantee that Hezbollah would not repeat their destructive actions next time they don’t agree with the majority opinion? In their minds, Hezbollah is not fit for democracy and is using undemocratic means to get what they want. Giving in now means giving up on the rule of law and would allow Syria back in.

As can be seen, “right” and “wrong” are quite unpractical concepts in Lebanon. Nothing here is black and white, it’s always a whiter or darker shade of grey.