By Michael Bluhm
Thursday, January 20, 2011
BEIRUT: Lebanon will likely have to wait months for a new government, despite the ongoing and fervent international mediation, a number of analysts told The Daily Star Wednesday.
The actions that Hezbollah and its March 8 allies are willing to undertake on the ground could radically alter the timetable, but the Shiite group wants to avoid armed violence for now, the analysts said. At the same time, negotiations mediated by Qatar and Turkey to reach a settlement to the political crisis seem hopeless, as President Michel Sleiman almost certainly will not emerge with hopes for a new cabinet from the parliamentary consultation sessions that he postponed until Monday and Tuesday, the analysts added.
“I don’t think the president will start his compulsory parliamentary consultations next week,” said Hilal Khashan, who teaches political studies at the American University of Beirut. “We are in the middle of an unfolding crisis.”
“It will be months and months” before a new government arises, Khashan added. “Neither of the parties is willing to budge. This will be a long, drawn-out crisis.”
Even though the Turkish and Qatari foreign ministers shuttled between leaders of the deadlocked march 14 and March 8 political camps Tuesday and Wednesday, their mediation lost any chance for success after Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday that it was pulling out of the bargaining, Khashan said. Riyadh is the only regional power capable of brokering a deal on behalf of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose family has for decades been a close partner of the kingdom, Khashan added.
“The diplomatic gate has been shut for now,” he said. “If the Saudis say they are not part of any talks, it means any talks are futile.” The Saudis appeared upset that Syria did not fulfill its pledge to rescind arrest warrants for some two dozen Lebanese politicians and officials as part of an earlier Saudi-Syrian initiative to defuse tensions, Khashan added.
If Sleiman were to hold the binding consultations next week, Hariri looks to have enough support among parliamentary blocs to be named prime minister again, the analysts said. Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, who departed the March 14 faction in August 2009, could use his 11 MPs to swing a parliamentary majority from Hariri to the March 8 candidate, but the Druze leader would probably choose to tab Hariri because failing to assent to the Sunni sect’s most powerful politician could open the door to others bypassing him in future government consultations, said political analyst Simon Haddad. “Jumblatt obviously will name Hariri because of communal considerations,” he added.
Even if Hariri is secures the nomination next week or in the near future, the unbridgeable gulf between the rival camps over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon would prevent him from being able to cobble together another unity government including March 8 representatives, said Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Hariri would “be unable to form a government anytime soon, given the differences between himself and the opposition,” Salem wrote in an article for the center’s website. “A solution appears a long way off.”
Hariri could present a prospective cabinet without the participation of March 8, but Sleiman would hesitate to approve any government without members of both factions, said retired General Elias Hanna, who teaches political science in various universities.
With control over the naming of the government and the timing of the parliamentary consultations, Sleiman will play a crucial role in handling the partisan dispute – and his longstanding stance favoring consensus should prevent any unilateral government from coming into being, Hanna added.
“The president is the linchpin of the game,” Hanna said, adding that the former head of the Lebanese Armed Forces would also find himself under considerable pressure.
In addition to Sleiman’s disapproval, the chances for a government comprised only of March 8 figures are made even more remote by the certain international condemnation and isolation such an executive would provoke, Khashan said.
March 8 politicians had intimated that they were seeking a unified front to nominate former Prime Minister Omar Karami in the consultations, but he would not gain the votes in Parliament of the Sunnis who could potentially abandon Hariri but aspire themselves to supplant him, such as caretaker Economy and Trade Minister Mohammad Safadi, Khashan added.
“A March 8 government is out of the question,” he said. “This would cause Lebanon to be treated by the West as a pariah country.”
March 8 coalition leader Hezbollah made clear Tuesday, however, that the opposition will also use a variety of methods to achieve its political goals. Hezbollah members, clad uniformly in black and coordinating their movements, fanned out through several Beirut neighborhoods from roughly 3-7 a.m. Tuesday.
All the analysts said that they believed Hezbollah would not use its superior arsenal to decide the political crisis.
“I would rule out an attempt by Hezbollah to storm Beirut and take it by force,” Khashan said. “I don’t see a repetition of May 7, 2008.”
Tuesday’s show of force was a reminder “that they can easily overwhelm the streets,” Khashan added. “The aim was political – that does mean resorting to action.”
Hezbollah does not need to unleash its weapons because its political position is strong enough that March 14 cannot rule without the group, while its partisans can take to the streets without opposition for as long as they want, Hanna said.
“They control everything,” Hanna added. “You can’t form a government without asking them.”
Nevertheless, Hezbollah and its March 8 partners appear to be planning to put pressure on March 14 and the international community by using many of the same tactics they employed to express their opposition to the policies of the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora from 2006-08, Salem said.
“That could include sit-ins, demonstrations [and] closures” of roads or Rafik Hariri International Airport, Salem added.
“That’s something that could happen in the next few days. If this constitutional crisis is going to take time, the opposition could take extra-constitutional measures,” he said.
As both sides plot their next moves, a settlement to the stalemate seems blocked by the unwavering and irreconcilable positions over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the analysts said. The dynamic of negotiations to blunt the force of the tribunal’s indictment, which Nasrallah said would target Hezbollah members, has changed since tribunal prosecutor Daniel Bellemare submitted the indictment top the pretrial judge Monday, Hanna said.
Nasrallah had long said conditions for talks would be different before and after the indictment, Hanna added.
Although the draft indictment has now officially left Bellemare’s office, the essence of the dispute still comes down to March 8 wanting Hariri and his allies to renounce the court, while they refuse to give ground in their support for the tribunal, the analysts said.
“You have no solution for the tribunal,” Hanna said. “We are going toward a long, long crisis.”
Although the formation of a new government remains implausible under these circumstances, the equation could well be rewritten when the tribunal releases the names of those indicted and the evidence against them, Salem said.
“This situation that we’re in now will probably change dramatically when the indictment is announced,” he said. “Something’s coming which could change the ballgame in unpredictable ways.”