Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No consensus

Serene Assir reports as the Lebanese National Dialogue once again faces a deadlock


The Lebanese National Dialogue conference of sectarian leaders, spearheaded by parliamentary House Speaker Nabih Berri last month to try and end the country's political paralysis, was again stalled this week. With talks set to resume Monday, President Emile Lahoud, who has been facing intense pressure to resign ever since the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, meanwhile made his way to Khartoum to represent Lebanon at an Arab League summit that had little going for it but disillusionment for the peoples of the countries represented -- or, in the case of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, not represented. And in an excellent show of non- conciliation, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora gave way to pressure and decided to revoke his decision not to attend the Khartoum summit on the basis that Lahoud would be there. He did, however, make sure he arrived separately.

Given the timeliness of Lahoud's exit, and in light of the fact that the thorniest issue on the National Dialogue's agenda was that of the presidency, one most unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved by a body as politically moribund as the Arab League, the Lebanese must be commended for patiently accepting their leaders' line on the postponement of the talks. The Arab League has yet to issue its recommendations on the issue, they have been reported as saying, and one would do well to wait and see before proceeding to discuss the issue further.

It has, however, been historically proven time and again that the Arab League, of all conglomerates, has failed miserably at trying to deal with issues pertaining to the Middle East. Pardon the cynicism, but why should it appear that it may be able to resolve the Lebanese crisis when Darfur, Palestine and Iraq -- files much more central and urgent to the Arab nation as a whole -- have proven to be out of its reach? And even when the League has issued positive recommendations, its minimal power to implement them has become a long-standing feature.

Reports suggest that it is the sideline discussions with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that leaders are most intent on focussing on, with promises from the Saudi monarchy to Al-Siniora that there would be cooperation from the Syrians' part.

Indeed, Lebanon is no place for naïvety. It is, however, an excellent portal for the observation of diplomacy of the worse, sleazier variety, where the truth and a nation's best interests, albeit often divided, become mired in shows of power, physical or political, depending on the moment.

As the National Dialogue, which Berri says he intends to see through to the very end, faces one obstacle after another, it seems that Lahoud will not budge unless either the Syrians tell him to, or his term expires in November 2007. He insists that his removal would be unconstitutional, and that he would only be willing to step down if new parliamentary elections are held.

As things stand, parliament is dominated by the anti-Syrian bloc headed by Saad Al-Hariri, son of the slain prime minister, and counts on the support of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and head of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea. Opposing this bloc is a recently forged, and some say unlikely coalition between head of the Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun, who is said to have his eye on the presidency, and Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

The National Dialogue talks, which outwardly sought to resolve issues as complex as the disarmament of Palestinian groups beyond the borders of the camps, the question of the Shebaa Farms and pressure to disarm Hizbullah, it appears at this stage that this week's postponement is indicative of the sheer weight of the question of Lahoud's presidency. In other words, whatever consensus Lebanese factions reach on this issue will, by default, determine the shape of politics in Lebanon for a while to come, and the two increasingly polar blocs will have to check their score sheets for an accurate balance of their status in history.

But leaders must also beware the shifting nature of politics in their ever-changing country. It would not be far-fetched to say that, in fact, the resolution of the presidency crisis will likely yield little more than a new shift, rather than a ground-breaking transfer of power from one hand into another. Sooner or later, the relationship between the Lebanese presidency and Syria will change, as it has already begun to do. But the winning party in the National Dialogue will not necessarily be a winning party in the determination of Lebanese politics of the future.

For, while alliances change, the nature of the country's political decision-making does not, and neither has power become any more accessible to non-sectarian leaders. But the sectarian formula, which requires hypocrisy and stagnation for its survival, must also be re-thought if further power misrepresentations are to be avoided. Otherwise, the country's future president, like so many before him, will only have gained access to the top post by virtue of machination, regardless of when the shift takes place. And a rare opportunity for consensus and political reshaping would have gone to waste.

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