Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Can Lebanese Chaos Be Averted?

The downfall of long-time Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has prompted a great deal of ink about the fate of other Arab autocrats. Is Tunisia, like Solidarity in Poland, the spark that will set off a chain reaction and freedom and democracy in the Middle East? Will other regimes use some imagination to deal with the turmoil spreading from under the rock of oppression or will they simply push down harder on the rock to make sure absolutely nothing seeps out?

Initial reactions are not promising. Other than checking the status of their get-away planes and Swiss bank accounts the autocrats’ reactions have been typical – buy off potential threats by lowering prices of key commodities rather than deal with the real underlying issues. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have quickly lowered prices of key items to pre-empt any disturbances over rising prices. Saudi Arabia may also have felt it had to do something to cut off protests after it solidified its reputation for never turning away a despot in need by granting asylum to the unpopular Ben Ali. Syria has increased its heating oil allowance by 72% to the equivalent of $33/month for a total cost more than $300 million. Even moderate Jordan has similarly announced a package of $225 million in cuts for several fuels and staples including sugar and rice rather than risk the wrath of the people. It remains to be seen if these moves are enough to contain the virus of political freedom. It will be more difficult than in the past. With Facebook, tweets, and other electronic communications channels the autocrats can no longer control the news flow as much as they did. Their people may just require more than a reduced price for bread.

While the Tunisian events have been unfolding, there is a time bomb in Lebanon steadily ticking away. The prosecutor for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has issued an indictment in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He was killed with a huge car bomb that claimed another 22 innocent people. The indictment is being reviewed by a tribunal judge before the terms are released. But the widely held belief is that it will condemn the Iranian-supported group Hezbollah along with Syrian agents. Hariri was strongly opposed to Syria meddling in Lebanese affairs, and many believe that Syria played a key role in the assassination. The fact that 10 Lebanese politicians opposed to Syrian control have been killed since 2005 is a clue that these suspicions may not be groundless.

A further clue to Hezbollah involvement is that the group pulled its members out of the Lebanese government last week in protest about the indictment and its possible conclusions. Hezbollah wants the government to distance itself from the Special Tribunal and stop cooperating with it. The odds of this happening are not great because, among other things, the acting Lebanese government is headed by the son of the assassinated prime minister. Operating on the premise that offense is better than defence, Hezbollah is trying to discredit the tribunal and has predictably called it a tool of the United States and Israel. Hezbollah added that it will not allow any of its members to be arrested as a result of the indictment. With its heavily armed and disciplined militia that is not an idle claim.

Meanwhile representatives from just about every other country inside and outside the region are meeting to try to find a way to stop Lebanon from sliding into bloody chaos after the indictment is released to the public. Lebanon is a delicate construct of deeply incompatible religious, economic and political interests that seems to survive on nuances and deals that slither around this incompatibility without ever challenging it. There is a fear that something as direct and blunt as a United Nations-sponsored indictment rendered by the Tribunal’s Canadian prosecutor will tear these relationships apart with disastrous consequences.

Syria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and France are desperately trying to find a solution that will square the circle. Egypt is not directly involved, but there are reports its agents are busily working away in the Sunni regions of Lebanon. The result of all these meetings so far is a collection of inane statements that make Texas beauty pageant winners sound like Rhodes Scholars. The prime minister of Turkey, a relative late comer to intra-Arab affairs and included over the objections of Egypt, lets us know that he wants peace in the region. Very good. Any ideas how to achieve this? The spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry says a solution must balance stability and justice. Good luck with that, whatever that statement means.

If, as expected, Hezbollah is implicated in Hariri’s assassination it risks losing a great deal of the credibility within Lebanon that it gained as a result of its strong resistance to the disastrous Israeli invasion in 2006. Many Lebanese may not like Hezbollah, but they like the Israelis even less. Over the last few years the organization has tried to portray itself as dedicated to the welfare of Lebanon and not just a tool of its fellow Shiites in Iran. Once the indictment is made public this facade will be torn to shreds and the Sunni Moslems and Christians in Lebanon would now have a powerful weapon to use against Hezbollah.

One gets the impression that release of the indictment was delayed less for a judicial review than to give the parties involved a chance to find a solution that would avoid chaos. No one so far seems to have bothered to ask the Lebanese people just what they would like to happen once the indictment is released. Or perhaps it is felt that their wishes are far less important than the interests of the various patron states.

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