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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

Jul 04th
Home arrow News Content arrow Blog arrow Blog Items arrow Opinions and Editorials arrow Rhetoric aside, both camps in Lebanese crisis may be content to leave presidency empty
Rhetoric aside, both camps in Lebanese crisis may be content to leave presidency empty PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dailystar   
Sunday, 20 January 2008


With opposition and majority benefiting, logjam could last until 2009 elections

By Michael Bluhm
Daily Star staff
Saturday, January 19, 2008 


BEIRUT: The March 14 governing coalition and the March 8 opposition widely and loudly declaim their desires to elect a consensus president to fill the void atop the state, but the ongoing vacuum actually presents a number of benefits to each of the feuding camps, several analysts told The Daily Star on Friday.

Lebanon has been without a president since Emile Lahoud stepped down on November 23, creating a vacuum which allows opposition champion Hizbullah not to have to face up to the thorny questions of its arms, UN resolutions and the nation's security strategy, said retired General Elias Hanna, who teaches political science at Notre Dame University and elsewhere.

The Syrian-backed opposition also stands to gain little real power if it secures a blocking one-third minority in a proposed national unity government, while joining such a Cabinet would anger many opposition supporters, who have long heard nothing but strong invective regarding March 14 from opposition leaders, said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The March 14 Cabinet, on the other hand, has tacked on the president's powers since Lahoud's exit, enjoys the perks of heading the ministries and can rely on firm international support, she added. In the end, these benefits of a presidential void increase the chances that Lebanon might remain without a president until the general elections slated for May 2009, said Oussama Safa, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

Installing a new president and government would mean the political leadership would have to address Lebanon's strategic doctrine - identifying its threats and how to confront them - as well as UN Resolution 1701, which calls for the disarmament of armed groups such as Hizbullah and tightening control over Lebanon's borders, Hanna said. The absence of a president, though, leaves the uncertainties and tensions surrounding these issues for another day - a state of affairs which suits Hizbullah, he added.

"Whatever you do in the next step, it's going to be more limiting to the freedom of action for Hizbullah," Hanna said. "When you have a government, you have to control the security issues, the intelligence issues. All of this brings Hizbullah to the table, at the intelligence level, at the military level, which will put limits on them. When you have a president, it's going to be a new era."

"You cannot wage war having a president and a unity government," he added, referring to the summer 2006 conflict with Israel, which began after Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid and the Jewish state responded by going to war.

Media reports have detailed how Hizbullah has since the war erected new defenses north of the Litani River, the northern edge of the area monitored by the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, but Saad-Ghorayeb said the March 14-led Cabinet had put up obstacles to by seizing a handful of arms shipments destined for the resistance.

In spite of that, Hizbullah might still favor the enduring vacuum over participating in a unity Cabinet with the Western-backed March 14 faction, she added. Even if Hizbullah's demands were met for a consensus president, a blocking third in the government and a new electoral law, it would all translate in practical terms only into "little more than veto power," she said.

The opposition would be able to block the passage of any significant measures it disliked, but March 14 ministers would likely still have the votes to ratify many mundane matters by a simple majority, she added.

"This is much more of a reactive, defensive role than an active political role," Saad-Ghorayeb said. "For them just to settle for this little third also downsizes their political and popular weight."

The opposition would have a hard time explaining to its supporters becoming partners with March 14, as opposition leaders have long painted the March 14 camp as a fifth column for US interests in Lebanon and the Middle East, she added. Dozens of opposition stalwarts still inhabit a tent city in Beirut's downtown, erected in December 2006 to force the resignation of a government the opposition has labeled unconstitutional and illegitimate.

"I imagine they would not be pleased to see the opposition ... settle for little more than veto power," Saad-Ghorayeb said. Opposition politicians "have demonized March 14 to such an extent that it's impossible they could actually do business. It was inconceivable, to begin with, to envisage these two groups - March 14 and Hizbullah - coexisting. Later on, [the opposition] did not believe the government would really give in to its demands."

Regardless of the vacuum, Hizbullah has almost never held government posts and has been able to rail at the feeble state's shortcomings without having to take any blame, she said.

If Hizbullah took part in a unity government, "they would have to bear some accountability for it, even if they weren't voting on these issues," she said. "It would just be easier for them not to be in power."

If Hizbullah and the opposition were to secure more than one-third of the Cabinet's seats, it would at least gain the power to bring down the government, because the Constitution decrees that a Cabinet must resign if one-third of its ministers resign.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah has lately broadened the scope of issues concerning it, a sign that the movement is crafting a campaign platform and wants more than a blocking third in the future, said Saad-Ghorayeb, author of the 2002 book "Hizbullah: Politics and Religion."

"There's a process of preparing a program that is being articulated now for a first time," she said. "I think they're preparing themselves for the next parliamentary elections. I think [Hizbullah] would prefer to wait it out until the next parliamentary elections, when the opposition would likely enjoy a majority."

At the same time, the March 14 camp has found its authority enhanced by assuming presidential powers, even though Prime Minister Fouad Siniora promised that the government would not take any drastic measures, Safa said.

"Instead of their mandate being weakened, it's now actually stronger," Safa said. "It's advantageous to March 14 in the sense that they're not going to be forced to compromise."

March 14 can also depend on unwavering support from the US and the West, decreasing its incentives to hand over power to a new president and administration, Saad-Ghorayeb said.

"At the end of the day, the international community is recognizing this government," she said. "If they didn't have this support, they would never be this intransigent.

"They're not as paralyzed as they were with Lahoud. It's becoming easier and easier for this government to function in a vacuum. It's clear that March 14 is not going to budge."

With each side getting something out of the circumstances, Safa said the presidential void could well last until the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2009. "Both sides are comfortable," he said.

The two camps have come to a "tacit understanding" that Lebanon can survive in a state of vacuum until the vote, Saad-Ghorayeb said.

The Arab League initiative and others "amount to little more than stalling for time, conflict management," she said. "It's just a coming to terms with the reality that things are going to be this way for a while."


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