Analysis: The end of the Cedar Revolution?

Months after Lebanese parliamentary elections there is still no gov't.

lebanon flag wave 88 (photo credit: )
lebanon flag wave 88
(photo credit: )
Months after the parliamentary elections in Lebanon there is still no government. Outrage at the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri led to the formation in 2005 of an unlikely anti-Syrian coalition of more than a dozen political parties and movements - Sunnis, Druse and Christians, which came to be known as the Cedar Revolution or the "March 14" movement, led by the son of the slain leader, Sa'ad Hariri. The coalition won the June 7 elections handily and Hariri was poised to form a stable government so badly needed to tackle the many problems besetting the country. Negotiations were under way, portfolios were being discussed... and then Walid Jumblat, the Druse leader announced that he was withdrawing his Progressive Socialist Party from the coalition, arguing that its main objective, getting Syria out of Lebanon, had been achieved. Now that the country was fully independent, he said, it was time to plan for the future. His party intended to go back to its leftist platform and to fight for "Arab Palestine" while trying to mend fences with Syria. It would position itself in the middle, together with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, generally considered as neutral who will have five ministers in the new government. Suleiman is known to enjoy warm relations with Syria, which had given its agreement to his nomination after months of constitutional crisis. Though Jumblat's intentions were not immediately clear, his declaration threw the country into turmoil. The clear-cut anti-Syrian majority 71 representatives in the parliament out of 128 lost the 10 members of Jumblat's party. They now may or may not vote with the 57 representatives of Hizbullah and his allies, the Shi'ite Amal movement and the Christian followers of Michel Aoun. A disappointed Sa'ad Hariri, who had seen victory slip out of his grasp decided to take a short vacation in France "until he sees his way out." The political system is in a state of chaos. Members of the newly elected parliament keep repeating that there is an urgent need for a government, but no one seems to know how this can be achieved. Jumblat's former allies, Sunni and Christians, are keeping a low profile in order not to further damage their relations with his party since they need it to form a stable government. The only one to venture a concrete suggestion was Samir Geagea, head of the Christian Lebanese Forces Party. He suggested the establishment of a technocrat government not linked to political parties. An excellent idea with little chances of success. Having thrown his bombshell, Jumblat met with the Lebanese president, and promptly declared he had been misunderstood. Though he is leaving the March 14 movement, he told journalists, he does not intend to hinder Hariri's efforts to form a government and indeed is ready to support such a government. How, and under what conditions, he did not say. If his words had been meant to clarify the situation, they failed miserably. Some commentators were quick to note that the Druse leader was known to change his mind frequently and that it was only a matter of time before he quit the coalition in the hope of reaping some real or imaginary benefits. His had been the most vociferous voice raised against Syria; he had called to forcibly topple the Damascus regime. But in Lebanon nothing is ever as it seems. Jumblat had also enjoyed good relations with Syria in the past, though his own father Kamal had been assassinated by the Syrians. Immediately after the June elections he had met with Hassan Nasrallah and had stated that it was time to give the Shi'ite majority the representation in the government it deserved. Did he do so because he felt threatened by Hizbullah? Last year his troops failed in their fight against that organization and had to lay down their arms. Renowned commentator Abdel Rahman Alrashad, director of the Al-Arabia Saudi satellite television channel and a liberal thinker, does not agree. In an article published on August 5 in the London daily A-Shark Al-Awsat, he argued that Jumblat's move was logical. The March 14 coalition was only temporary and its purpose was to get the Syrians out of Lebanon; that purpose was achieved. The Syrian army has left the country; an international court has been set up to investigate Rafik Hariri's assassination and diplomatic relations have been established between Syria and Lebanon. Jumblat must now turn his attention to his responsibilities as head of the Druse community. Alrashad believes that other members of the coalition will follow suit and start thinking of their own sectorial interests. Alrashed's analysis came as a surprise and many believed that he was voicing Saudi Arabia's aim, which is to mend its relations with Syria and sees the demise of the anti-Syrian coalition as an important piece in its policy. But how true is all that? Did Syria really relinquish its grip on Lebanon? Can the country pursue its own path with no interference from Syria, Iran (and Iran-affiliated Hizbullah) and start addressing its pressing social and economic problems? This is highly doubtful. Yes, Hizbullah was weakened by its poor electoral showing, and its Iranian patron is not doing so well following its own elections; yes, recent events such as the explosion in a munition cache in south Lebanon in direct violation of Resolution 1701 put Hizbullah on the defensive. Nevertheless Syria is still smuggling arms to the organization, which now boasts of three times the number of rockets it had before the Second Lebanon War and is making an all out effort to get surface-to-air missiles with the capability of downing IAF planes. This has led Israel to warn not only Hizbullah but also the Lebanese government - since the movement is part of the present government, and will be part of the new government when it is finally set up - not to plan attacks on Israeli targets from Lebanon. Regarding Syria-Lebanon relations, not all issues have been resolved. The border between the two countries is yet to be delineated; there are an unspecified number of Lebanese prisoners in Syrian gaols and Damascus is still strongly supporting Hizbullah. Syria is inciting Lebanon to demand an Israeli withdrawal from the Shaba farms area, which was taken from Syria in the 1967 war but which is now touted as Lebanese. This issue was first raised by Hizbullah after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 in order to justify the movement's refusal to lay down its weapons, on the ground that not all Lebanese territory had been liberated. It was eagerly embraced by the pro-Syria head of Lebanese intelligence general Jamil Elsayyed, who coined the word "occupation" and is wont to boast he dealt a shrewd blow to the Israelis. What part did Syria play in the recent turmoil? Last week a former cabinet minister from a small pro-Syrian party came back from Damascus bearing a message from Syria affirming the readiness of that country to help all Lebanese fight the dangers facing their country. In an interview with A-Shark Alawsat on August 9 he said that "Syria was ready to assist the Lebanese to defuse the crisis and form a government," adding that the leaders of all parties, Hariri included, were invited to Damascus. He stated that it had been demonstrated that Syria did not assassinate Rafik Hariri, quoting the findings of an article of Der Spiegel a few months back. In the meantime Hariri the son came back from France and met on Tuesday with Jumblat, who told him he would not put obstacles in the way of the formation of the government. The Druse leader went on to meet with a Hizbullah delegation. In another development, the Lebanese president, the outgoing Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and Jumblat all declared in separate statements that "Israeli threats" made it urgent to form a government - a common enough Arab reaction when the situation has reached an impasse: Attack Israel and you have a consensus. It seems as if Lebanon is back to square one. Hizbullah is bouncing back from its electoral defeat. The anti-Syrian coalition, which was supposed to bring stability and to present a united front against Syria, is disintegrating, and with it the hopes of the US for the formation of a pro-Western government in Beirut. Thus could the official Syrian daily Tishrin announce on Tuesday that Jumblat's declaration had erased four black years and proved that people had been wrong to believe that America would produce miracle solutions. Syria is no longer isolated, it concluded, and indeed all the world - Europe and the US included - were eagerly seeking cooperation with Damascus.