Tag Archives: Lebanon

National Dialogue and Hizbollah’s Weapons

by Sune Haugbolle.

Here is my take on the National Dialogue discussions that began today in Beirut.

The National Dialogue was launched in 2006, prior to Israel’s July-August 2006 war against Lebanon, as an ambitious attempt to tackle the fundamental differences between the country’s ‘March 8′ and ‘March 14′ coalitions. The last round was held in June 2009, ahead of parliamentary elections. Today’s resumption of talks signals a thaw in internal relations that was highlighted by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s state visit to Damascus in December 2009. Yet it also reflects rising tensions in the region.

The topic that will overshadow all others is a new defence strategy, and (although Hizbollah won’t like it to be mentioned) the role of Hizbollah’s weapons. The weapons topic has been shelved since the government recognised the group’s right to resistance against Israel in December. A revival of the discussion was inevitable, given its highly controversial nature.

President Michel Suleiman’s call to resume dialogue followed a February 28 report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 summer war with Israel. In the report, Ban urged Suleiman to push Lebanon’s parties towards consensus on a defence strategy.

Suleiman’s decision to hold meetings may also have been the result of US pressure.

Israeli threats

National Dialogue discussions coincide with heightened tensions caused by an exchange of threats between Israel on the one hand and Hizbollah, Syria and Iran on the other. The tensions have put renewed international spotlight on Hizbollah’s weapons.

The Shia party is believed to have increased its arsenal of rockets from 15,000 before the 2006 war to 40,000 today, some of which may be able to reach Tel Aviv. During a February 16 speech, Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah offered a new vision of strategic parity with Israel — an uneasy ‘balance of terror’ — stressing Hizbollah’s ability to strike Israel’s interior.

Nasrallah’s decision to raise the stakes has provoked fears that Israel will feel forced into pre-emptive action against Lebanon, even if no conflict breaks out over Iran.

Israeli leaders have vowed to fight ‘all’ of Lebanon in the event of an outbreak of conflict (as opposed to targeting Hizbollah alone), as a result of the movement’s participation in government.

Nasrallah in Damascus

Nasrallah answered Israeli threats by closing ranks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad when they met last month in Damascus . The meeting conveyed two main messages:

First, that Washington has failed to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, and is unlikely to see more success in the near future. This was highlighted by the timing of the meeting, which occurred immediately after the US decision to reopen its embassy in Damascus, illustrating Syria’s newfound confidence and willing defiance.

And second that, in the event of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran’s primary answer will be through Hizbollah and will therefore involve Lebanon.

Suleiman’s dilemma

Nasrallah’s conduct in Damascus as a ‘pseudo’ Lebanese minister of foreign affairs has drawn strong criticism from many March 14 leaders, who reiterate the sovereign right of Lebanon’s government to decide over matters of war and peace. This puts President Suleiman in a difficult situation at the National Dialogue meetings.

He will be determined to ensure national unity, having from the beginning of his tenure tried to position himself centrally. The dialogue meetings could be a means to calm tensions and avert conflict, but only if Suleiman is seen as a neutral arbiter. He must thus avoid siding too openly with March 14 against Hizbollah.

He will also need to respond to international pressure on the weapons issue. He will hope that the National Dialogue gives the impression that the Lebanese state — and not Hizbollah — still makes decisions on war and peace.

Finally, he must decide on the extent of Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) cooperation with UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon. The two sides have recently performed joint manoeuvres on Mount Hermon, ostensibly designed to stem the flow of arms to Hizbollah. More extensive LAF cooperation with the UN could force a verbal confrontation with Nasrallah.

Outcomes

One should not expect too much from this week’s session. In reality, all parties know that, as Hizbollah demonstrated in the May 2008 fighting, its hand cannot be forced by any Lebanese party. It is also clear that no consensus can be reached in the current heated situation; and that the meeting is primarily a result of Suleiman needing to demonstrate to the West that he is doing something.

Therefore, the meetings are largely symbolic, though the stakes are high. If things go badly, the discussions could underscore the gulf between March 8 and March 14, reversing the tide of their improved relationship under the Hariri government. In any case, March 14 and others will treasure having a platform to express their deep concerns over the prospects a new war with Israel, which may in the end restrain Hizbollah. In the best case scenario, provide the platform for real negotiations in the future about a defence strategy formula that integrates Hizbollah’s weapons into the LAF.

War drums

Despite the fact that Hizbollah will not disarm and Israel increasingly sees the group as an existential threat, a regional war involving Hizbollah is unlikely in the coming months.

Having learned the lesson from the 2006 war, the group will not get easily drawn into a new conflict and will resist minor Israeli ‘provocations’, let alone staging military operations against Israel. In order to maintain national and international legitimacy, it is necessary for Hizbollah to fight a defensive war, if anything at all.

On the Israeli side, despite the usual gung-ho rhetoric, the leadership cannot politically justify an unprovoked attack on Hizbollah. It may seek an excuse, thus provoking Hizbollah into small clashes, but the latter is aware of this and will seek not to respond. The Israeli leadership will heed US warnings and refrain from attacking Iran before more diplomatic efforts have been exerted. If it does strike, it will do so no earlier than the autumn.

In the longer term, a clash is more likely — whether it arises from an Israeli strike on Iran, or some other action. Hizbollah will wait until a war fits its strategic thinking, since the need to maintain domestic legitimacy at present tops its strategic agenda. Nevertheless, these priorities are not set in stone; strategy may change should there be a shift in the balance of power within the group.

In conclusion, Suleiman faces a hard task containing the March 14 coalition’s deep reservations about Hizbollah’s weapons. If he succeeds, the National Dialogue meetings could strengthen the government. If not, Lebanon will once again appear divided, risking the stability of the fragile unity government, and increasing the chance of outside powers taking advantage of domestic divisions, as they routinely do in times of conflict in Lebanon.

Why Lebanon’s economy continues to thrive

by Sune Haugbolle.

After a long hiatus due to the fact that I was finishing my book, here is an analysis of the Lebanese economy. It is somewhat baffling, and a nice piece of good news from the Levant, that in a time when Western countries fear a lapse into recession, the Lebanese economy continues to thrive.

Lebanese politics ended 2009 on a positive note with the visit to Damascus on December 20 of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. It was the first such visit since the assassination of his father in February 2005. His visit signalled that Hariri, backed by France and Saudi Arabia, is willing to accept a regional role for Syria.

This year has started in the same vein: Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, another staunch government critic of Syria, has now moved to what he calls a ‘centrist’ position, leaving open the possibility that he, too, will achieve reconciliation with Damascus. Since regional reconciliation holds the key to national reconciliation in Lebanon, the thaw between Syria and its enemies in Beirut bodes well for national unity, political reforms and economic progress during 2010.

By Lebanese standards, 2009 was a quiet year. The chief development was the drawn out government formation process, which concluded in November with the election of Hariri to the premiership. The improvement in political stability had a positive effect on the economy, which showed signs of having completed its recovery following the politically disastrous period of 2005-08.

Thus, Lebanon saw the second highest growth rate in the region after Qatar, with government and World Bank estimates at 7%. The conservative lending strategy of its banks protected it from some of the effects of the global recession. The World Bank estimates that growth will continue at the same rate in 2010.

Moreover, bank deposits grew by 20% thanks to increased savings from Lebanese nationals living abroad. Foreign exchange reserves also increased to a record level of 28.6 billion dollars. Despite the fact that many Lebanese expatriates lost capital in the downturn, this has been outweighed by the fact that local banks are now seen as a safe haven.

Stability also boosted tourism. In the first ten months of the year, Lebanon attracted 1.57 million visitors, an increase of 42.7% over 2008. Although average spending per tourist was down on previous years due to the global recession, the tourist sector thrived on increasing numbers rather than fewer but wealthier visitors from Arab and European countries. Finally, the balance of payments recorded a surplus of 12 billion dollars, the highest in recent history.

Lebanon’s remarkable ability to prosper amid the global recession has boosted investor confidence, both at home and abroad. Yet the heavy debt burden continues to cloud the outlook: it is now estimated at 51 billion dollars, or 155% of the country’s GDP, and is expected to rise by a further 5 billion dollars this year.

Inefficiency and corruption are endemic in state institutions and must be addressed if the country is to reduce its debt. Finance Minister Raya Haffar Hassan has vowed to focus public spending in 2010 on a number of key areas.

One of them is transport. A high-speed railway has been proposed along the coast to alleviate the heavy environmental costs imposed by road traffic. New roads are also planned, with special emphasis on integrating the underdeveloped northern regions into the economy.

Another important area to address is modernisation of public education is planned in order to bridge the gap between public and private schools, and to alleviate sectarian divisions among the youth. Moreover, new power plants are envisaged to alleviate frequent power cuts and reduce high electricity prices, and the government has promised to improve efficiency of the information and communications technology sector, which is so crucial to facilitate private business activity and attract foreign investment.

Such large public projects are likely to require an increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) — a move which could undermine the government’s current popularity. On the other hand, these projects will create new jobs and further reduce unemployment, which was down from 18% in 2008 to 10% last year.

Reform of infrastructure and education are in line with the pledges made to donor states at the Paris III meeting in 2007. So far, only half of the total 7.6 billion dollars pledged to help authorities reduce the public debt, achieve reforms and stimulate the economy, has been disbursed. The remainder is tied to proposals that are still awaiting parliamentary approval, the most important of which involve privatisation. Here the government will find itself in some difficulty:

The composite nature of the coalition and deep divisions among ministers threaten to stymie economic reforms. Hizbollah, which holds two ministries, is opposed to privatisation. Its ally, Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, controls the Telecoms and Energy and Water Ministries, seen as crucial to privatisation efforts.

Telecoms Minister Charbel Nahas has expressed concern that selling the entire cellular network to private companies could turn a public monopoly into a private one. However, the current providers will come under scrutiny and be forced to improve their services, which are among the most expensive in the world.

Although Lebanon is plagued with an acute power shortage, and the national Electricite du Liban is in poor financial shape, a viable private alternative is still lacking. This suggests that no restructuring of the electricity sector, which accounts for almost half of the national budget, is likely in the short term.

Despite these difficulties, the prospects for 2010 look good for Lebanon’s economy. Barring major political crises, the economy will continue to expand, even if sharp divisions in the government will impede its ability to conduct the much-needed economic reforms.

Lebanon’s government deadlock explained

 by Sune Haugbolle.

My last piece on Jumblatt’s defection from March 14 somewhat optimistically predicted a short delay in the government formation process. Since then things have gone really sour again. Here is an analysis of the obstacles and their implications.

Since the June parliamentary elections, the March 14 coalition has failed to use its victory to dictate the terms of a new government. The negotiations have faltered on March 8′s demand for a blocking third of cabinet posts. More deep-seated disagreements over Hizbollah’s weapons and Lebanon’s regional alliances add to the complications.

In July, the two camps appeared to have agreed on a compromise solution granting 15 posts to March 14 (short of a majority) and ten to March 8 (short of veto power), with President Michel Suleiman choosing five and thus having a decisive say. However, in recent weeks disagreement over the exact allocation of ministries has taken the process back to the start, and raised the tone of personal bickering and media slander to its shrillest level since 2008.

Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun has been at the centre of the latest crisis in government formation. On August 16, Aoun demanded that his Reform and Change bloc be allotted the Interior Ministry and that his son-in-law, caretaker minister Gebran Bassil, keep the Telecommunications Ministry for another term.

This uncompromising stance has prompted March 14 to criticise Hizbollah’s inability or unwillingness to mediate. Saad al-Hariri has made it clear that he is unlikely to accept Aoun’s conditions, which means that for now negotiations are deadlocked. Unless there is truth to al-Akhbar’s story from yesterday about a Saudi-Syrian push to kickstart talks, the most likely scenario now seems to be that the deliberations over a new cabinet will be postponed until after the end of Ramadan in late September.

As ever, domestic political wrangling in Lebanon reflects regional power struggles. Courtesy of US rapprochement, Syria has moved decisively out of the cold, and returned to its favoured position as the necessary diplomatic bridge between Iran and the West. Damascus’ relations with Saudi Arabia have yet to improve, as a scheduled meeting between King Abdallah and President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in late July was cancelled. Syria’s relations with Egypt, another key ally of Hariri, have been deep-frozen because of Egyptian allegations that Hizbollah members have been spying and plotting bomb attacks in Egypt. The first trial took place in Cairo yesterday, and the fallout is surely more bad blood between Egypt and Hizbollah.   

On the other front, Assad has moved to shore up relations with embattled Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad during a state visit on August 19. Here, Assad emphasised the necessity of resolute defence against Western influence in the region.

Syria’s strengthened position indirectly provoked the latest breakdown in government negotiations, when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt declared on August 2 that he would leave March 14. As I argued in my earlier piece, his aim was to hedge against Syria’s rising influence, and his defection has been widely seen as a victory for Damascus.

This is because Jumblatt, who is known for his ever-changing allegiances, has, since 2005, formed one-third of a strong coalition of Christian, Sunni and Druze opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon, which has dominated Lebanese politics. Although it does not sound the death knell for March 14, Jumblatt’s defection still marks a tide change in Lebanese politics and opens up opportunities for new alliances in the coming months:

First, although Jumblatt has hardly embraced the Syrians, they are in a much stronger position in Lebanon. Hariri, now left with distinctly anti-Syrian Christian allies Amin Gemayel and Samir Geagea, may feel compelled to move towards a more conciliatory position, lest he alienate his Sunni constituency.

Second, while taking no concrete action, Jumblatt has spoken with members of both March 8 and March 14, and is locating himself in a central position between the two without joining either. He has signalled that he will be associating himself with Suleiman, adding to the possibility of a strong conciliatory bloc emerging — which would mediate between the two existing groups — and may also include Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri.

If such a strong third bloc does materialise, Aoun may also be tempted to reconsider his alliance with Hizbollah, which has not landed him the presidency or gained him much actual influence.

The biggest decisions to be taken are surely Saad Hariri’s. As prime minister-designate, and with Suleiman preferring a neutral role, the onus is squarely on Hariri to form a government, but he is left with some hard choices following Jumblatt’s defection. He has several options:

He could of course accommodate Aoun’s demands, which would make him look defeated by Aoun and Hizbollah, but would leave March 8 with no legitimate reasons to oppose a quick government formation.

Alternatively, he could carry through a planned visit to Damascus, which has been postponed. Effectively this would mean giving up his resistance to Syrian influence on the government formation process, particularly as the Syrians have signalled that they want Hariri to visit Damascus before the cabinet is finalised.

Finally, he could continue to oppose Syrian pressure. By not going to Damascus so far, Hariri has been signalling that he intends to resist the Syrian endeavour to re-impose some sort of hegemony over Lebanon. US discouragement of such a visit and Hariri’s reluctance to do business with a regime he believes to be responsible for his father’s assassination are also playing a part. As Michael Young suggested recently, they may have also contributed to the cancellation of the scheduled meeting in Damascus between Abdallah and Assad.

In conclusion, although March 14 would like to see a new government formed, Hariri appears ready to hold out for regional events which would tip the balance in his favour. This could either be US President Barack Obama’s expected Middle East peace initiative next month. While Obama’s peace plan might deflect attention from Lebanon, it could also prompt Syria to work with Saudi Arabia over Palestinian reconciliation and accept a new Lebanese government in return for inclusion in the peace process.  

Alternatively, Hariri could be waiting for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to issue an indictment naming Hizbollah as a participant in the assassination of Hariri’s father, as predicted by the German magazine, Der Spiegel, earlier this year. This would leave Syria weakened and more eager to reach an agreement.

Whatever he does, Hariri holds the keys to further progress. If he chooses to accommodate Aoun’s demand for a key ministry, he may be able to form a new government and hence avoid the more serious choice between openly accepting or rejecting Syrian hegemony. If not, deadlock could well continue at least until the end of Ramadan.

It’s that flippin’ Jumblatt again!

by Sune Haugbolle.

Summer’s almost gone, and CUMINet is coming back to life. And so, it seems, is Lebanese politics. Walid Jumblatt – the eternal flip-flopping turncoat of Lebanese politics – yesterday announced that he is parting ways with the March 14 coalition. Jumblatt, who has been hinting his departure for a while, chose an awkward moment to announce it, just days before a new cabinet was expected to be sworn in.

Jumblatt’s latest volte-face raises an interesting questions: how many times can a Lebanese leader change sides before losing credibility? Well, Jumblatt may just have made a 180 too many – he has certainly made a few through the years.  The problem is that his influence is not what it once was on the Lebanese scene. So while his latest move is obviously bad news for March 14, it may not sound the death knell for the tattered coalition. They still have the International Tribunal to fight for and too keep them united - not a small thing, and not an objective Jumblatt’s departure is likely to change.

What are his reasons for leaving? The first and most important is security. Jumblatt has seen the return of Syria as a powerful hegemon in Lebanon since the end of the Bush era, and even before. Courtesy of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Syria, Damascus has moved decisively out of the cold. In that sense Jumblatt is not foreshadowing anything this time (an ability observers often praise him for), but merely reacting to well-established facts.

It is doubtful that we will see Jumblatt kiss and make up in Damascus any time soon, given the amount of garbage (‘Nazis’) he managed to throw at Bashar al-Asad and his regime over the last four years. But he will be hoping that at least he will not be seen as an arch-enemy of Damascus any longer.  

Furthermore, being surrounded by Shiite neighbours, his Shuf Mountains fiefdom needs neighbourly relations with an ever stronger Hizbollah to improve rapidly. And he knows that relinquishing the tough stance on Hizbollah’s weapons propagated by some of his, now former, allies in March 14, is the ticket that will allow him to enter into friendlier relations with the Shiite party.   

It is not yet clear where exactly Jumblatt will place himself in the, now re-shuffled, jigsaw of Lebanese politics. But the most likely move would be to join President Suleiman and possibly Nabih Berri in a third block the role of which will be to mediate when March 14 (or what is left of it) and March 8 are at loggerheads in a new coalition government.

Due to Jumblatt’s announcement cabinet seats, which were ostensibly all but lined up on Monday, will now have to be reshuffled, and a new government may not be formed before the end of this week or early next week.

Lebanon’s economy continues to surprise

by Sune Haugbolle.

As a small distraction from the dramatic events in Iran, and Rasmus’ great coverage of them, here is an in-depth analysis of Lebanon’s curious economy, which has been booming in the midst of a financial crisis.

Now that the elections are over in Lebanon, it is time to look forward. It is likely that the formation of a new unity government will take some time, the sticking point being March 8’s wish for a blocking third of the cabinet.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at Lebanon’s economy which so far has shown an amazing ability to weather the international financial crises of the last year. There have been predictions lately from the Central Bank that economic growth could exceed 6% this year. The figure contradicts earlier predictions of a 2009 growth rate of 3%, down from 8% last year.

An unlikely success story

Lebanon has, indeed, been one of the unlikely success stories of the global financial crisis. The vital tourism and construction industries are booming, and capital is flowing into the country. As optimistic Lebanese leaders, bankers and businessmen have emphasised, the success is primarily due to conservative bank-lending and bank-investment regulations, limiting exposure to mortgage-backed instruments and other products that have hurt the balance sheets of other international banks, including many Gulf countries.

A result of the country’s long experience with perpetual instability in the national and regional political environment, conservative lending policies, backed up by a solid flow of remittances from millions of Lebanese abroad, have immunised the Lebanese economy from political turmoil. Apart from the months immediately following the 2006 war with Israel, the Lebanese economy has experienced uninterrupted growth since 2001.

Healthy bank sector

A few years back Lebanon’s state regulations were subjected to heavy criticism from domestic and international bankers. Now the financial crisis has turned Lebanese banks into a safe haven in the region, and the economy has thrived.

The proof is in the pudding: Bank deposits have grown steadily, rising 15% in the first three months of the year from the year-earlier period, foreign currency reserves were estimated at 17.6 billion dollars in January 2009, up from 9.8 billion at the end of 2007, and foreign liquid assets stood at 22.3 billion at the end of March 2009, a record high.

Danger signs

The banking sector’s success is remarkable but does not detract from the fact that Lebanon’s economy is well integrated into the global economy and will therefore inevitably feel some effects of its downturn in 2009. There are particular reasons for concern:

First, private investors have incurred great losses in national and international investments. The Beirut stock market alone has lost more than 5 billion dollars since mid-2008.

Second, the lack of capital investment will be felt in the crucial construction, telecommunication and service sectors in the medium term, particularly if the crisis continues throughout 2009.

Third, growth in recent years has mainly been restricted to these sectors. Although the construction sector has continued to expand in the first months of 2009, over reliance on construction is problematic because it is linked to remittances and Gulf capital.

Fourth, the stability of the Lebanese housing market depends on continued construction.

Remittances

A serious slowdown in remittances could therefore potentially start a domino effect in the Lebanese economy, hitting construction and real estate. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of Lebanon’s GDP comes from remittances from the more than 12 million Lebanese living overseas.

The IMF estimates that remittances will decrease globally by up to 10% over the next year. This means that thousands of Lebanese work in the Gulf countries, whose economies have been badly hit by the crisis. Furthermore, decreased investment from the Gulf would affect the real estate sector, which has been one of the main drivers of Lebanon’s growth.

Despite suggestions of the opposite, it is unlikely that unemployed highly skilled migrants will actually return to Lebanon and invigorate the economy as long as wages are so low. Statistics suggest that Lebanese migrant workers who have lost their jobs in 2008 have eschewed the low wages in Lebanon and instead preferred to look for work in emerging markets outside the Gulf, such as Iraqi Kurdistan and India.

Official figures suggest that repatriated capital has continued to increase in 2009 so far, but those figures could change as job losses begin to take effect. Lebanese exports to the Gulf are also expected to fall.

Public debt

The downside of Lebanon’s success story is enormous public debt, currently at 47 billion dollars, or 170% of the country’s GDP, and growing by 8%. More than 60% of that debt is locally owned, with more than a quarter of the Lebanese banks’ assets in treasury bonds. Public debt is around 60% of total credit owned by the banks which is, by international standards, very high. The Lebanese banking system is therefore highly exposed to the sovereign.

Reforms?

The state will continue to borrow heavily from local banks and international financial groups until the government adopts radical reforms to reduce haphazard spending and increase revenues. This is because the state continues to record budget deficits, in the first quarter of 2009 of 1.8 billion dollars.

On the positive side, the economy has proven capable of dealing with the negative numbers. Excessive liquidity in the local markets means that local banks will have no problem financing outstanding bonds in 2009.

Finance Minister Mohammed Shatah is one of the heroes of this situation. He has been lauded by US officials for his willingness to implement economic reforms. In April, Washington provided a grant of 50 million dollars in recognition of the Finance Ministry’s efforts to improve Lebanon’s fiscal position and set a stronger economic growth path as part of a 250 million dollar package linked to progress on economic reform.

Outlook

March 14’ victory in the June 7 elections is unlikely to detract from the overall positive outlook for the Lebanese economy. If anything, new Prime Minister, whether Fouad Siniora, Saad Hariri or a third choice, will team up with Shatah and his team of financial advisers. The result could be a renewed push for more wide-ranging privatisation.

In conclusion, Lebanon’s economy will continue to do well in the rest of 2009. This is mainly the result of clever financial policies from the central bank and a flexible banking sector. Barring a sharp fall in remittances, the banking sector will continue to safeguard against a downturn in the Lebanese economy in the short to medium term.

The Lebanese Elections: Outcome and Analysis

by Sune Haugbolle.

Here are my two cents on last Sunday’s Lebanese elections:

Saad al-Hariri’s March 14 coalition of Sunni, Druze and Christian parties retained control of parliament in elections on June 7, winning 71 of 128 seats.

The margin of the win – 68 plus three from associates against 57 for the opposing March 8 coalition – came as a surprise. The result effectively reproduces the parliament of the last four years, condemning Hizbollah and its allies to another electoral period in opposition. The prospect of a continued pro-Western government in Lebanon could aid US attempts to create momentum in regional peace negotiations.

The result
Despite reports from international election observers of widespread vote-buying, Lebanon’s 2009 parliamentary elections were conducted relatively freely, fairly and quietly. Big crowds queued at polling stations for hours, and a sometimes hateful tone emerged in the electoral campaign. Yet heavy security ensured that voting took place without any major violent incidents. The peaceful picture was somewhat marred by gunfights near Tripoli yesterday evening between rival supporters.

Voter turnout surpassed 54%, a record in Lebanese history and 10% higher than the fiercely fought 2005 elections. The number signals a growing popular belief in Lebanon’s democracy since 2005, despite political unrest since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, contrasting with poor showings at elections in the 1990s and early 2000s when Lebanon was under Syrian tutelage.

The high turnout may also have helped the March 14 coalition clinch a majority in key districts — Beirut I, Batroun, Koura, Besharreh and Tripoli. Elsewhere results were much as expected: March 14 dominated Beirut, the Shuf, most of north Lebanon, Western Bekaa and Zahle. Hizbollah and fellow Shia party Amal made clean sweeps in the south Lebanon districts of Nabatieh, Marjayoun, Hasbaya, Tyre, Bint Jubeil and Zahrani, while former General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) won all seats in the districts of Kesrouan, Byblos, Baabda and Jezzine.

Hizbollah
Hizbollah officials have reacted graciously in defeat. The party won all eleven seats which it contested and can therefore argue that it won the elections even if March 8 did not. It will also feel that the result does not change the status quo. It will therefore insist on a blocking third in a unity government, allowing it to continue to obstruct the passing of legislation if necessary. Furthermore, Hizbollah will continue to make clear that it will not tolerate any questioning of its role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of its weapons arsenal, and the fact that Israel is an enemy state.

As several Lebanese commentators have suggested, the outcome may suit it better than winning a majority, which would have made it the governing party and forced it to produce results. Instead it now retains its well-rehearsed role as the critical oppositional voice, which may explain the rather low-key reception of the result.

Christian battle
For March 8′s other main constituent, Aoun’s FPM, the defeat will generate more soul-searching Aoun lost in key districts to rival Christian leaders from the Phalange and Lebanese Forces parties. This is the second major political defeat to Christian rivals for Aoun, having already lost the presidency to Michel Suleiman last year.

Aoun must face that he has failed to persuade the majority of Lebanon’s Christians with his programme based on anti-corruption, secularism and bridge-building with Lebanon’s Shia parties, amid widespread scepticism about Hizbollah. The defeat could lead to an internal coup in the FPM, whose younger leaders have previously voiced unhappiness with ‘the General’.

Unity government
As leader of the majority party in parliament, Saad al-Hariri will be given the task of leading negotiations for a new government and set the direction of national policy. He will have no other choice than to aim for another all-embracing ‘unity government’, the third since 2005.

The key question is the extent to which March 14 will now use their relatively comfortable majority in negotiations. Hariri has signalled his unwillingness to grant the opposition veto power by giving them one-third of the seats in the new government, reasoning that it will lead to more paralysis of the kind that has stalled political life and lawmaking for long periods since 2005.

Hizbollah and its allies, on the other hand, will make veto power an absolute demand, arguing that the terms of the Doha agreement that resolved the crisis in May 2008 are still valid. Another problem is the post of Prime Minister. Following the successful elections and an electoral campaign which has seen him assume real leadership for the first time, Hariri may feel that now is his moment to seek the premiership. March 8 will likely oppose this, preferring a friendly candidate such as former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, or a more neutral figure like outgoing Premier Fouad Siniora.

These points of disagreement could lead to a drawn-out government formation process. In a worst-case scenario, Lebanon could be without a government for months, increasing the risk of violent clashes, and bringing back the fundamental schisms over which Lebanon’s political life has been log jammed for the last four years, namely Hizbollah’s weapons, support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and whether Lebanon should ally itself with Syria and Iran, or with the West and its Sunni Arab allies.

Regional context
As always in Lebanon, much depends on the regional context. US President Barack Obama’s less confrontational approach and nascent Syrian-Saudi rapprochement may already have contributed to the calmer atmosphere. If the Obama administration’s regional peace efforts gain momentum, and the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria continues, a regional thaw could rub off on Lebanon.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell will be in Beirut on June 14 for talks with Suleiman. A win for Mir Hossein Moussavi in this week’s Iranian elections and renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts could generate further optimism.

Such progress would lessen the mistrust between political parties in Lebanon. Hizbollah could accept Hariri as prime minister and even relinquish the blocking third in exchange for guarantees regarding its weapons. At the same time, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has been moving towards rapprochement with Syria and Hizbollah in recent months, could become a crucial bridging figure. And if all goes well, national defence strategy negotiations aimed at defining a national role for Hizbollah’s weapons could be resumed.

Policy challenges
Suleiman stressed yesterday that a new government must focus on political and administrative reforms. His comments reflected fear that a new unity government could be just as sclerotic as the previous ones. After extended periods of political stalemate in the last four years, Lebanon faces a long list of overdue social and economic policy challenges.

First, there is the electoral law, which was amended last year but is still far from meeting international standards. It requires changes in order to secure a democratic transfer of power in the future.

Then there are overdue reforms of the judiciary, which is needed in order to tackle widespread corruption. And most pressingly, despite Lebanon’s success in riding out the international financial crisis, large sectors of society need to be integrated better in the economy through better education and job creation. Work is also needed to begin to bring down Lebanon’s 42 billion dollar foreign debt. All this will require the immediate attention of the new cabinet.

In conclusion, this election result leaves the balance of parliament unchanged and Lebanon’s underlying problems unaddressed, but has strengthened both the (perception of the) country’s democratic institutions and the legitimacy of the March 14 government. The formation of a unity government is likely to be delayed by fundamental disagreement over foreign policy and national security, but could be aided by any breakthrough in US peace efforts in the region.

The Spiegel affair

by Sune Haugbolle.

On Saturday the German magazine Der Spiegel published an article claiming that Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigators believe Hizbollah is linked to the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The article quotes an unnamed person close to the tribunal for saying that there is now hard evidence, in the form of a number of connected cell phones belonging to the perpetrators of the killing and key Hizbollah members, that the Oerpational Unit of the Shiite organization organised the crime.  

I tend to think that the timing of this leak alone is fishy, and I am not convinced that the story is real. But who is to say in a world of Arab politics shrouded in truths and lies. Either way you look at it, the Spiegel article is remarkable. There seems to be two possibilities. Either we are dealing with a terrible truth, shocking to Lebanese as well as to outside observers (me included) and diplomats, which must surely be dodged politically lest Lebanon is to be thrown into sectarian and military turmoil. Part of that truth could also be that the Party of God is split to an extent that one part of the organization acts independently. That is speculation of cause. It is also pure speculation to start thinking about which regional power must have been involved. It is hard not to speculate, though, and people are speculating massively as I am writing this, inside and outside Lebanon, and in the blogosphere of course. For some, the Speigel story is nothing more than a confirmation of earlier suspicions. Hizbollah’s detractors have brought up that the car used for the killing came from the Dahiya, which suggests that Hizbollah must have had some knowledge of the operation.

The second possibility is that we are dealing with a partial or full fabrication, as Hizbollah officials and associated media in Lebanon have suggested today.

There have been suggestions that Der Spiegel could have links to Israeli security services, or at least israeli sympathies. Even if the story turns out to be a fabrication somehow accepted by the editorial board of the Spiegel magazine – who must have known that they were dealing with explosive stuff and therefore presumably made sure that the source was trustworthy – and the magazine is forced to withdraw the story, the mechanisms of public life in Lebanon will make sure that a new “truth” about Hariri death, rivaling the narrative of a Syrian plot which many have favoured to this day, has been born. A truth, conspiracy theory or not, will take on a life of its own, circulate, be verified, preached to the converts, and perhaps used politically. Those who have axes to grind against the Party of God, and they are many, will grind their axes happily. None more so than the segments of the Sunni community, which have been locked in street battles with Shiites in West Beirut several times in recent years. The Druze who clashed with Hizbollah last May in the Shouf also have grudges and scores to settle. 

First reactions from Jumblatt and Hariri suggest that the leaders of these groups are very aware that whether true or not the Truth must now be contained. Jumblatt even evoked (for God knows which time) the specter of Ayn al-Rumaneh and a new civil war. IF –and that is a big if in my opinion – the leak turns out to be some kind of media strategy from the Tribunal, in an attempt to prepare the world for the terrible Truth, rather than presenting it out of the blue once the hearing begin in earnest next year, it is possible that the story will blow over for now but then suddenly reappear as the real thing. A worrisome scenario. Let’s all really really hope that this is baloney, German style.   

The Hariri tribunal could spell end of quiet for Lebanon

by Sune Haugbolle.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon – the international court established to try the suspected killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri – opened on March 1 in The Hague.

We shouldn’t expect too much dirt to materialise for a while. But in the long run, what will the tribunal mean to regional politics? And how will it influence Lebanese politics leading up to the June elections. Here is my analysis.

The UN Security Council unilaterally set up the tribunal in 2007 after the speaker of the Lebanese parliament refused to call a session to ratify the statutes to create it.

It is housed in the Netherlands, which already is home to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal and International Criminal Court, primarily for security reasons.

As the first Middle Eastern court of its kind, the tribunal will use Lebanese law applied by a mixture of Lebanese and international judges. Its heaviest punishment is life imprisonment.

The court’s first act is likely to be a request for the Lebanese government to hand over four generals held in custody since 2005, as it has been given 60 days to transfer all arrested suspects from Beirut to The Hague. On February 25, three other suspects were freed by the Lebanese judicial authorities in Beirut. The three are considered ‘small fish’ who may have assisted in carrying out the crime but, unlike the generals, played no alleged role in planning it. Although they may later be summoned by the court, letting these potentially incriminating persons go is widely seen as a gesture by the Lebanese government towards Syria.

Hizbollah has called for the four generals to be released on grounds that the investigation is unfinished. This claim was rejected by the Lebanese investigating judge Sakr Sakr as well as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The spat over the suspects last week signals the re-emergence of mounting tension brought on by the Hariri tribunal as Lebanon looks ahead to parliamentary elections scheduled for June 7. So far, the country has remained remarkably quiet. Since the Doha Accords in May, President Michel Suleiman has been largely successful in subduing the feud between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, which threatened stability in the country several times between 2005 and 2008. This quiet period could now be over.

Days before the launch of the tribunal, Saad al-Hariri signalled that his Future Movement will not share power in a unity government if Hizbollah and its allies win the election. Although other March 14 leaders may still favour a power-sharing agreement, Hariri’s remarks suggested that elections are unlikely to produce a repeat of the broad unity governments that have dominated in Lebanon since the 2005 elections.

March 14 leaders such as Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea have openly stated their expectation that the tribunal will lead to incrimination of Syrian top officials. The return of fiercely anti-Syrian rhetoric to Lebanese politics comes after a period when many leaders appeared to be accepting a Syrian-Lebanese rapprochement. It will have a polarising effect on Lebanese politics.

As the court begins its work, political comments will provide fuel for disagreement and add to the expected rise in sectarian tensions surrounding the elections.

In a worst-case scenario, victory for a Hizbollah-led coalition in the June elections could put the Lebanese government’s full support for the tribunal in jeopardy. The court has a budget for this year of 40.3 million euros (50.7 million dollars) of which Lebanon pays 49%. If Hizbollah was indeed to abandon Lebanese support for the tribunal, it would spark a serious political crisis. However, it is probably more likely that Hizbollah would stick with the tribunal. 

The first UN investigator to investigate the assassination, Detlev Mehlis, has recently, in an interview with al-Hayat, restated his belief that the plot’s complexity suggests that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role. In contrast, his two successors as chief investigator, Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, have revealed little about the progress of the investigation. However, since a date was set for the court’s opening by Bellemare, who now assumes the role of general prosecutor, it has been clear that the investigation has gathered enough material to begin the process, which will eventually lead to hearings and trials.

Despite the politically explosive content of the case, the actual workings of the court look set to be slow and arduous, for the following reasons:

- The court’s work is likely to take at least four years to finish, and progress may be slow. Robin Vincent, the tribunal’s registrar, has made it clear that formal charges or trials should not be expected before 2011.

- No judges have yet been named and the court still has no rulebook for prosecutors and judges. The appointment of Lebanese judges has been extremely controversial and remains unfinished.

- Syria is unlikely to cooperate and freely hand over suspects, which could slow down the proceedings considerably. Vincent has said that the tribunal could hold trials in absentia, but it is questionable how effective such trials would be.

Despite its likely slow progress, the Hariri court will inevitably throw negative light on Syria. That is particularly troubling for Damascus as it seeks to make real the many promises of a speedy thaw with the new US administration.

Western powers expect Syria to work actively against the court and have in response formed an ‘administrative committee’ consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France and Japan, to ward off diplomatic pressure on the tribunal. The Syrian leadership, for its part, will continue to reject all charges while maintaining a semblance of cooperation with the UN.

While the Hariri court may weaken President Bashar al-Assad’s image as a moderate whose central position is vital to US Middle East policy, he will seek to balance the pressure by stressing Syria’s ties to Hamas, seen as crucial for Palestinian reconciliation and a renewal of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks; to Hizbollah, which will emerge in a new and more official role in charge of Lebanon’s government if it wins the June elections; and to Iran, whose nuclear file tops the Obama administration’s list of pressing issues in the Middle East. Syria, as always, will play the “centrally placed” card. And get away with it, most likely.

The more troubling question is how polarising the tribunal will be in Lebanon here and now. Certainly, the results of the Hariri tribunal will not materialise for several years, and only when they do can we start to debate its regional influence. But there is a strong chance that its effects in the short term will be to polarise Lebanese politics and hinder the formation of a unity government after the June elections.

UPDATE, 4/3

For those of you in Copenhagen, I will be speaking about truth and reconciliaiton in the Middle East today, here.

Heat wave in Copenhagen (and Mitchell in Beirut)

by Sune Haugbolle.

So, a US attempt to encourage direct Lebanese-Israeli peace talk is rumoured in parts of the Arab press. Is it based on real insights into the thinking of Obama’s Mid-East team, or is it another al-Siyassah duck? The Kuwaiti newspaper, known for its sensationalist scoops, which most of the time seem to be based on wild speculation or even politically motivated lies, but sometimes actually appear to have nailed the truth, on Tuesday brought an interview with an anonymous Egyptian diplomat ostensibly in the know that Mitchell is to visit his half-native Lebanon in April in order to jump-start Lebanese-Israeli peace talks, practically dead since 1983. The Daily Star took the story seriously enough to put it on the front page (although that’s not saying an awful lot).

 

 

Looking at the political reality in the region, which I just observed at closed range two weeks ago, the prospect of Mitchell arriving in Beirut with a message of peace between Lebanon and Israel seems just as likely as a heat wave in Copenhagen tomorrow. In fact, it looks a lot more like a desperate attempt to plant a feel-good story in the press by those who have been taken aback by the results of the Gaza war on regional politics. And I am not talking about the killing of hundreds of civilians here (that can hardly surprise anyone anymore) – I am talking about the sheer hatred towards Israel in all quarters of the Arab populations which has just about sidelined the Saudi-Egyptian axis. How on earth would Mitchell be able to walk into Beirut with as much as a mention of talks with Israel on his lips?

 

 

In Beirut, I got the sense, from talking to a wide range of Shiite and other observers, that, more likely, we are heading for another round of confrontation if not in the short then in the medium term. Sadly, Hassan Nasrallah’s promise of revenge for Imad Mughniyeh last week and Ehud Barak’s even more visceral response yesterday only add to the evidence that the fruits of Gaza (you know, those grapes of wrath) could well be picked in Lebanon. True, Hizbollah have elections to win in June. But there are different strains of thinking in the movement, different priorities and different objectives. And the group that believes in the ultimate battle with the Zionist enemy above everything else has just been given one thousand three hundred and fourteen (so says the Ministry of Health in Gaza) more good reasons to fight in the last month. So to the wishful thinkers in the region who believe that nothing has changed (or, as a newscast asked me on Danish TV last week, that “the slate has been wiped clean” between the US and the Arab world with Obama coming to power), someone should break it to them that there’s been a war, and that there could be well another one around the corner.

 

 

 

Aoun’s visit to Damascus and (failed) Christian reconciliation

by Sune Haugbolle.

Hello folks, here is an analysis of Aoun’s visit to Syria and the situation in the Christian community that I wrote yesterday. The language is not really so bloggy as the piece was written for another format, but I think the analysis can be useful. There’s a bit of “Lebanon 101” information in there which the Lebanon connoisseurs among you can just ignore.

Yesterday, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, strongly criticised the recent visit of Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, to Damascus.

Aoun proclaimed his visit a “historic reconciliation”, while President Michel Suleiman said that ties with Syria are “back to normal”. The reactions of the three most prominent Christian leaders point to the deep divisions in the Christian community, which will be pivotal in the parliamentary elections expected in May or June 2009.

Christian divisions

Most of Lebanon’s communities are heavily associated with one side or the other of the March 14/March 8 divide. The Shia community overwhelmingly backs the March 8 coalition; the Sunni and Druze communities heavily favour the March 14 alliance. The Christians, however, are split between both sides.

The current divisions among Christians date to the 1975-90 civil war, which witnessed numerous internecine battles and massacres; in some cases family rivalries are even older. During the post-war period of Syrian control, the main Christian fault line ran between charismatic but absent anti-Syrian leaders such as Samir Geagea, Amin Gemayel and Michel Aoun, and a broader political class that cooperated with the Syrians. Since the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops, powerful Christian families and political parties have been split along somewhat different lines:

Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Gemayel’s Phalange aligned with the Western-backed March 14 alliance, which also includes Sunni leader Sa’ad al-Hariri’s Future Movement and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party.

Free Patriotic Movement head Aoun and northern Maronite scion Suleiman Franjieh aligned with the Syrian-backed March 8 coalition, which also includes the Shia parties Hizbollah and Amal.

Reconciliation efforts

Hizbollah’s demonstration of force in May 2008 alerted the government to the limits of Western backing, leading to the signing of the Doha Agreement, a national unity government, and the arrival of centrist Maronite Christian President Michel Suleiman. In the aftermath, encouraged by Suleiman, representatives of the two Christian camps have engaged in several attempts at reconciliation, which all parties claim to support but about which none can agree:

During a September 21 rally to commemorate members of the Lebanese Forces killed during the civil war, Geagea offered a general apology for wartime “mistakes”, but also demanded that his rivals abandon their partnership with Hizbollah.

Aoun and Franjieh responded by arguing for a reconciliation process focusing on the legacy of the civil war, rather than complicating the matter with current issues; such a focus is of particular relevance given Geagea’s alleged role in the 1978 slaying of Franjieh’s father, mother and sister.

The exchange illustrated that the divide between Lebanon’s Christian groups is entangled with current political conflicts as well as violence in the past, making a successful reconciliation process unlikely in the foreseeable future. By going to Damascus, Aoun signalled to Geagea and the March 14 coalition that his alliance with Hizbollah and Syria is not open to negotiation. As a result, Christian competition is likely to intensify in the run-up to elections next year.

Reactions

By associating himself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Aoun hopes to ride the wave of Syria’s rapprochement with the West and current position of strength in the region. The Syrian media and March 8 media in Lebanon hailed his visit as a historic turning point in Lebanese-Syrian relations. These commentators argue that:

- stronger diplomatic ties between the two neighbours are justified by their deep economic, social and cultural linkages;

- Syria is an important ally against potential Israeli aggression;

- the visit is a natural continuation of the normalisation process initiated by Suleiman’s state visit to Damascus in July; and

- the visit is helpful for Muslim-Christian relations in the region.

Media associated with the March 14 alliance paint Aoun’s visit as a betrayal of the national interest. They argue that:

- the Syrian regime should not be invited to reclaim the role of overseer of Lebanese politics that it commanded before 2005;

- the visit is an unwarranted boost for Assad in his quest for international rapprochement;

- Aoun has hijacked Suleiman’s agenda for his own political gains, and by doing so risks muddling the process; and

- Aoun’s self-portrayal as the representative of all Christians in the Middle East is ludicrous given the intense disdain for him among March 14 supporters.

Strengths and risks

Aoun appears to be in a good position to repeat his electoral success of 2005. The very public Syrian endorsement of Aoun could:

- tighten the bond with his Shia partners in the March 8 coalition, Amal and Hizbollah, whose support could be decisive in the large number of mixed Shia-Christian districts; and

- convince Christians of his ability to lead and make important strategic decisions.

At the same time, the visit carries risks. There are indications that Aoun might well be misjudging the strength of Christian antipathy toward Damascus:

- Some of Aoun’s allies in 2005, including the influential Greek Orthodox leader Michel Murr, appear cooler towards him in the wake of his alignment with Hizbollah and reconciliation with Syria.

- While Aoun will undoubtedly win a far greater proportion of the Shia vote than in 2005, when Hizbollah tacitly backed the March 14 coalition, some polls show significantly diminished support for Aoun in his heavily Christian home district of Kesrouan.

- Aoun’s Gaullist approach to leadership has begun to produce dissent within his party.

In conclusion, Aoun’s embrace of Syria has further polarised Lebanon’s Christians. While a smart strategic move at a time of rebounding Syrian influence in the region, Aoun’s visit will likely cost him support in his own community in advance of critical parliamentary elections. The key question will be whether his outreach to the Shia pays off at the polls.