Eyad Abu Shakra

What Is the Price of Containing Lebanon’s Collapse?

What ever happened within a few months that made it possible to overcome the obstacles preventing the formation of a new Lebanese cabinet? Is it possible that compassion just happened to overwhelm the previously cruel hearts, so they reacted positively to the pain of the hungry and the sick who are deprived of medicine? Or, may be the horrific economic collapse has now affected even the popular base of its instigators?

My personal view is that the real answer lies elsewhere.

In Lebanon there have been two parallel dimensions to old and deep crises that have turned every competition, into a disagreement, then a conflict, and finally a war of obliteration!

This is very much part of the identity of this small Levantine area ever since it grew from ancient city-states. Those later became principalities, feudal-lordships, “special-status” autonomous district under international condominium - as was case of “the Mutasarrifiyyah” -, and finally, entities drawn by international deals. Such deals transcended local “tribalisms”, although the deal makers have exploited these “tribalisms”, invested and traded in them until now.

The truth is that Lebanon’s “petty tribal chieftains” have not suddenly woken up from the slumber of obstruction, spite, sick extremism and brazen grudge. Moreover, there has been no real change in the process of choosing someone to form a cabinet, that will be nothing but a façade for the status quo, which the major regional and international powers are happy to coexist with and manage its ambitions.

From past experience, we know that foreign powers which claim to “care” about Lebanon, are only interested in creating suitable conditions for “agreements” which now transcend a fragile entity the maintenance of which may be too “costly” compared to the benefits in keeping it. For what is the need of a “minor” middleman when “major” players are in full agreement? And what could be the role of a nation deserted by its best people, and suffers from ruined institutions, spiraling debts and deteriorating culture, affinities and common interests by its remaining population.

These questions, among others, were being asked by many Lebanese during the last few months against a background of an acute government crisis. But the moment Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri relinquished his attempts to form a new cabinet, the whole scene suddenly changed. Political “dark rooms” and intelligence-fed media sprang into action, launching campaigns of leaks and misinformation, nominating candidates and insinuating about favorite successors.

Almost immediately, there was an active “bazaar” peddling the names eligible “prime ministers to be”, as if the problem was about the scarcity of candidates, not the constitutional powers of the prime minister, his right to choose his team and his freedom of movement which is needed to judge his political performance.

Hence, the goal became encouraging every “aspiring” Tom, Dick and Harry to come forward, in a concerted effort to “consume” any serious candidate Sunni politician, demean his sectarian authority, and undermine his powers. Indeed, it went further to marginalize the Lebanese constitution itself, which recognizes the prime minister as the “head” of a government that represents - as a whole, with its equal number of Christian and Muslim ministers - the executive branch in the country.

Afterwards, tactical maneuvering began, as several groups and blocs started to reposition themselves in preparation for all incoming eventualities when a new Sunni candidate is agreed upon.

The “Shiite duo”, whose sectarian interest has often pushed them to appear as a unified coalition, chose a quiet stance. Its moderate “Arabist” faction, Amal Movement led by Speaker Nabih Berri, has traditionally been keen to avoid a big break with the Sunnis, and disregard to Lebanon’s Arab identity and interests. This is why Amal has always been distrustful of the Aounist Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the most extreme sectarian Christian party, while maintaining cordial relations with the major Sunni and Druze leaderships.

Even Hezbollah, the fully-fledged Iranian faction in the duo, and despite its full involvement in Iran’s regional strategy – including its anti-Sunni “alliance of minorities” policy – has apparently found no need to tie itself with the Aounists’ all-out war against the de facto leaders of the Sunnis and Druze, let alone lead the fight against them. For this reason, Hezbollah has so far avoided provoking and antagonizing the Sunni community by nominating one of its Sunni puppets to the post.

In the absence of a Shiite cover, the options, confrontation and escalation narrowed significantly for the Aounists, led by the Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Thus, they had to resort to another “scenario” they have mastered, and is built on two tactics: feigning victimhood, and resuming political obstruction.

In fact, as soon as ex-Prime Minister Najib Mikati emerged as a favorite candidate the Aounists declared their opposition to him for being “America’s nominee” and their preference of the “Arabist” Dr. Nawwaf Salam. Interestingly, the latter had already declared that he was not a candidate; in addition to fact that Hezbollah (the Aounists’ major ally) had “vetoed” him before.

The truth is that the Lebanese president and his FPM did not want Mikati for two reasons:

1- Because he tied his nomination to a set of conditions that would not subject him to the pressures and blackmail that Hariri had to endure.

2- Because he is a member of the “Ex-Prime Ministers Grouping” (with Hariri, Tammam Salam and Fouad Siniora), which often backed Hariri against the Aounists’ assaults and their continuous efforts to undermine and abolish the Taif Accords.

On the other hand, in rebranding themselves as the “victims” of the “Muslims multi-sect bloc”, the Aounists intended to provoke a Christian reaction sympathizing with them against their Christian foes the Lebanese Forces, who are still demanding early general elections. The irony here is that had it not been for the Aounists’ alliance with Hezbollah, their leader would have never been elected president; and yet they are now trying to tell their sectarian base that they are being attacked by a broad “Muslim alliance” (Shiite, Sunni and Druze) aiming at weaking the presidency, and with it the status of the Christians.

The above gives a simple idea about the calculations of the local Lebanese factions, but it uncovers only one part of the overall picture. The most important factor that has helped change the scene, and restart the engine of forming the new cabinet, is an international “understanding” led by the US and France.

Washington and Paris have been involved with the details of the Middle East file, but with considerations far larger than Lebanon. Among these considerations are the following:

1- The “agreed” limit to Iran’s ever-expanding presence and influence in the eastern part of the Arab world, and how much freedom is left to Iran as it flexes its muscles not only across the region’s political borders, but also its international waterways.

2- Israel’s central interests, which intersect with many of Iran’s; which is something that no discerning analyst can now overlook.

3- Turkey’s future under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist banners, its land and marine ambitions, as well as its cultural, economic and religious interests.

Thus, if Lebanon’s chaotic collapse was allowed to continue at its present rate, it could become a poisonous cyst whose rupture may cause untold damage. And, back to the issue of “cost”, the “cost” of Lebanon’s eruption and final collapse looks now much higher than that of “managing” its crises, and “containing” them one way or another.