Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Uneasy balance

The Lebanese government maintains the status quo through the backing of Walid Jumblatt, while the US and its allies make plans, writes Andrew Bossone in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

In tense times, Lebanese stay at home. But soon life returns to normal. Unfortunately for Lebanon, normal has come to mean sectarian politics and external influences.
The man who decides the fate of the government from the inside, Druze leader and Progressive Socialist Party MP Walid Jumblatt, is most concerned about protecting his sect both in terms of retaining its political power and avoiding sectarian clashes. So for now, Jumblatt is sticking with the ruling 8 March coalition of Hizbullah, Harakat Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement.
According to Jumblatt, the decision not only has the backing of the current administration, but also that of foreign countries, including — surprisingly — the US and Saudi Arabia. The Lebanese press reported that the two countries were concerned about violence spreading from Syria in the absence of a steady government, but it is also no secret they hope to eliminate Hizbullah’s control over the government.
The US is most likely pursuing the path of “transition” it similarly promotes in the region and elsewhere. To directly break up the current government could lead to uncontrollable consequences. As events following the recent bombing in Ashrafieh show, a few dozen teenagers have the ability to paralyse the country with burning tires and trash dumpsters, while disparate militias can fire in the streets with impunity.
The probable scenario is that the US is aiming to influence the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2013 so that the balance of power would shift away from Hizbullah’s 8 March camp. In addition to US ties to the anti-Syrian 14 March opposition, Nadine Moawad, an organiser of the Take Back the Parliament group that is attempting to field independent candidates in the upcoming elections, indicated that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been actively contacting her. “Just received the fifth USAID-related phone call this week,” she wrote. “I need your help to keep reminding me and everyone to resist imperial soft power.”
Exerting external influence on the elections is a difficult task. The Lebanese electoral system is fraught with problems that encourage corruption and sectarian rule. The lack of uniform ballots, for example, allows politicians to buy votes and then track the ballots they printed and distributed. The voting process of standing in line with one’s religious sect pressures voters to stick with their own groups. It is also unclear how the elections will occur. Several new voting laws have been proposed, including redrawing and reducing all the electoral districts and allowing voters living abroad to cast ballots.
According to Lebanese press reports, the US was originally hoping that President Michel Suleiman would form a non-politicised cabinet of technocrats, but seems to have abandoned that plan because it could lead to destabilisation of the country at large. The US is therefore backing Suleiman to keep the current government intact in the short-term. This has the support of French President François Hollande, who recently visited Suleiman in Lebanon, before flying to Saudi Arabia. It is notable that the Saudi king hosted a lunch for Hollande that included MP Saad Al-Hariri. Al-Hariri has been the strongest voice to denounce Hizbullah and its government, albeit a voice that comes from Saudi Arabia and France, where he resides.
Al-Hariri also made an aborted attempt at convincing Jumblatt to defect from 8 March, which ended in the two trading spars on Twitter and included a claim that Al-Hariri said the death of Wissam Al-Hassan in the Ashrafieh bombing made him a martyr for Sunnis. Although Al-Hariri rejected the accusation, calling Al-Hassan a martyr for all of Lebanon, he continued to use sectarian rhetoric.
“Walid Bey, may God forgive you,” Al-Hariri tweeted. “To you, stability is to remain part of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, so congratulations.”
Jumblatt for his part has been openly critical of the Syrian regime, despite his alliance with the pro-Syrian 8 March coalition. The alliance seems to be motivated by concerns to keep the Druze’s seats in parliament, which could reduce if electoral laws change. His ability to maintain or end the current government gives him enough leverage to negotiate with other politicians to secure votes for his candidates in the upcoming elections. And despite his denouncements of the Syrian regime, comments he made that were reported by Al-Akhbar indicate he remains sceptical that Bashar Al-Assad will cede power anytime in the near future.
“The Syrian people are left to face their own fate,” he said. “Bashar will continue committing massacres without anyone stopping him. No one can deter him. In Lebanon we cannot take any risks.”

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