by Nasr Salem (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 4, Jumada' al-Ula', 1429)
The election of Michel Sulayman on May 25 as Lebanon’s twelfth president closed the chapter on one of the longest political crises to have gripped the country since its ‘independence’ in 1943. Sulayman, a former commander of the armed forces, took oath of office immediately after he was elected with 118 votes out of the 127 legislators attending the parliamentary electoral session. In his inaugural speech Sulayman, who underlined the importance of pruning accusations of treason out of the Lebanese political rhetoric, called on the country’s political class to avoid squandering the achievements of the resistance on internal squabbles. He paid homage to the Hizbullah-led resistance and called for "a national defence strategy that protects the homeland and goes hand in hand with a quiet dialogue to benefit from the [experience of the] resistance." The newly elected president also emphasised the importance of "brotherhood" in relations between Lebanon and Syria, which he said should be conducted "within the framework of mutual respect for the sovereignty of both countries."
Filling the post of the president, which had been vacant for six months because of the crisis that had pushed the country to the brink of another civil war, was made possible by an agreement reached on May 21 in Doha (the capital of Qatar) between the Hizbullah-led opposition and the pro-western parliamentary coalition known as the March 14 Coalition, after five days of intense talks. The Doha Declaration called for a parliamentary session to elect Sulayman as president. It also envisaged the formation of a thirty-member national unity government: sixteen from the parliamentary majority led by Sa’ad al-Hariri, leader of the Future Movement and son of the late ex-prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri (who was assassinated in February 2005), eleven from the opposition and three to be appointed by the new president. This arrangement is a concession to the opposition, which has been the demanding an effective veto power over crucial government decisions by allocating to it a so-called "blocking third" (al-thuluth al-mu’attil) of cabinet seats, thus reviving the convention of consensus in cabinet decisions that has shaped Lebanese government practice for most of the post-civil war period. In return the opposition agreed to call off a sit-in which it had started in Beirut in December 2006 to pressurise the government to give in to its demand for a third of the cabinet’s seats.
Within hours of the announcement of the Doha agreement, opposition protesters taking part in the open-ended sit-in began to dismantle the tents that they had put up in front of the prime minister’s offices in downtown Beirut. Both sides also agreed to base the parliamentary elections next year on Lebanon’s electoral law of 1960, which divides the country into smaller constituencies to ensure better representation of various communities, thus enabling the opposition to increase its presence in the legislature. This was another key opposition demand, but a concession was made to Hariri by introducing amendments to the three constituencies of Beirut. Finally, the two sides agreed to end mutual criticisms and recriminations, not to resort to force as a means of settling political disputes, and to attend talks convened by the new president to outline the extension of state authority throughout the country. This is considered a diluted form of the demand that Hizbullah disarm; this had been advocated by government loyalists who had insisted on including Hizbullah’s arms on the agenda of the Doha talks.
Many Lebanese leaders tried to cast the agreement as an embodiment of the slogan "no victor, no vanquished" (la ghalib wa la maghlub), which has gained currency in the country’s political discourse since the resolution of the civil war in 1958. But the fact is that the deal is a victory for Hizbullah and a setback for the government of prime minister Fouad Siniora and its western and Arab backers, namely the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, who had pushed the confrontation with Hizbullah in the first place. It reflects changed realities on the ground since the swift blitz-like takeover on May 8-9 of districts controlled by loyalist militias in Beirut and the surrounding areas by opposition fighters. Pressure tactics intended to squeeze Hizbullah have once again ended up increasing and consolidating its influence and weight, robbing the government of what little moral authority it had left.
The opposition’s resort to arms came after its supporters, who were taking part in a civil-disobedience campaign, were repeatedly fired on by supporters of the March 14 coalition. The opposition’s protests were timed to correspond with a one-day strike called for May 7 by the General Labour Confederation. The strike, which began peacefully, soon degenerated into scuffles and street clashes between opposition supporters and government loyalists in several quarters of Beirut. By the next day, opposition supporters began to be targeted by gunfire from Future Movement snipers and gunmen. The attacks prompted Hizbullah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah to call off his party’s previous commitment not to use its weapons, which it retained at the close of the fifteen-year civil war in 1990 because of its role in shouldering the burdens of resistance to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, in internal disputes. "Whoever shoots at us, we’ll shoot at them," Nasrallah told a news conference held via closed-circuit television.
The civil disobedience was declared to pressure the government to rescind two decisions that targeted Hizbullah. One decision was to ban Hizbullah’s independent telecommunications network, an important component of its command and control system. The other was to dismiss General Wafiq Shoqayr, the security chief at the Beirut international airport. The decisions were instigated by Walid Jumblatt, Progressive Socialist Party leader and March 14 stalwart: he had called, at a press conference on May 3, for a probe into Hizbullah’s private communications network, the expulsion of the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, and the banning of Iranian flights to Beirut because they might be carrying arms and other materiel toHizbullah.
Nasrallah characterised the decisions as "a declaration of war … against the resistance and its weapons for the benefit of America and Israel. The communications network is the significant part of the weapons of the resistance." He vowed that street protests would continue until the government repealed its decisions, and went on to say: "I have said that we will cut off the hand that targets the weapons of the resistance … Today is the day to carry out this decision."
The fighting prompted Arab foreign ministers to intervene, dispatching a delegation, led by Qatari prime minister and foreign minister Shaykh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabir al-Thani that managed, after two days of intense discussions, to persuade Lebanese leaders to convene in Doha for talks under the auspices of the Arab League. However, this breakthrough was only achieved after the government revoked its two decisions on the Hizbullah communications network and the airport security chief.
Agreement on Sulayman as a consensus candidate had been reached long ago, but Nabih Berry, the parliamentary speaker, who is a key opposition leader, refused to convene the legislature to elect him unless other opposition demands were met. Foremost among these demands was granting the opposition an effective veto power over crucial government decisions. The demand was prompted by Hizbullah’s growing distrust of the Siniora government since the war in July-August 2006 against Israel, during which the prime minister depicted the war, which started after Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers to exchange for Lebanese detainees and prisoners in Israeli jails, as a "calamity" that had befallen the country "because of Hizbullah’s unilateralism". As soon as the guns fell silent, government politicians renewed their vociferous demands that Hizbullah disarm; likewise the government’s involvement in the post-war reconstruction efforts has been at best weak, at worst obstructionist.
As the political winner, Hizbullah, which possesses the most powerful single military force in Lebanon, now faces more pressure to compromise in an atmosphere of changeable alliances, in which sectarian loyalties and divisions run deep and often take precedence over common national causes and priorities. Hizbullah has been reluctant to use its weapons to seize actual power and thus risk international isolation, plunging the country into another cycle of civil strife. It has opted instead for a carefully calculated strategy of political engagement that seeks to secure its weapons, provide political cover for the resistance, and limit the US’s growing influence in the country. Hizbullah’s reluctance to use force to settle political disputes was evident in the restraint opposition fighters practised during the recent clashes. Captured government militiamen were immediately handed over to the Lebanese army, and opposition fighters were ordered off the streets soon after they had routed their foes. Because it has obtained veto power over crucial government decisions, the Hizbullah-led opposition is less likely to resort to street action along the lines of its anti-government activities over the past eighteen months, which have virtually paralysed the country.
The deal has ushered in a period of political accommodation between rival political forces without a complete resolution of the fundamental issues that have brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war. The strength of the new accommodation will be tested in the parliamentary elections next year. In the parliamentary elections of 2005, the March 14 alliance secured its 72 seats in the 128-seat parliament because the voting was conducted in accordance with rules set up by an unfair electoral law enacted in 2000 under Syrian tutelage. The law was based on massive gerrymandering that tended to box large segments of Christians, most of whom were supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Michel Aoun, into constituencies where the majority of voters were anti-Aounists or supporters of Jumblatt, who was then pro-Syrian. A four-way electoral coalition, bringing together Hizbullah and speaker Berry’s AmalMovement, on the one side, and the Future Movement and Progressive Socialist Party and their allies, on the other, enabled the March 14 Coalition to hold the parliamentary majority. The new rules will make it harder for the ruling coalition to retain a strong majority and will benefit Hizbullah’s Christian allies in the FPM. Between now and the elections next year, most political activity in the country, including the distribution of seats in and conduct of the new cabinet, will be obsessed with a heated drive by all sides to maximise their opportunities at the ballot-box.