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Lebanese Christians and Negotiations Over the Government

July 2, 2009

When I last wrote about the designation of Saad Hariri as Lebanon’s Prime Minister, reports of a putative Syrian-Saudi understanding led me to believe that the two regional rivals might take a more laissez-faire approach towards Lebanon.  In fact, as both an-Nahar and al-Akhbar report, Syria and Saudi Arabia appear to have relegated their respective Lebanese allies to the sidelines.  Presently the formation of the government is held up not only by issues such as apportioning of ministerial portfolios and Hezbollah’s weapons, but regional matters such as the status of Lebanese-Syrian relations and the future of the Syrian-Saudi-Lebanese triangular relationship.  Also, plans are supposedly being hashed out for a joint summit to include the Syrian President, Saudi King, and all three Lebanese heads of government that will usher in a new, less fractious order.   

Meanwhile, Christians in both the Majority and the Opposition appear marginalized by the negotiation process.  Michel Aoun complained about the “traffic” of foreign ambassadors interfering in the formation of the government.  It suffices to say that foreign statesmen are probably not crowding his residence in Rabieh.  On the other hand, Nasib Lahoud urged that Arab rapprochement must not supplant either the Constitution nor the results of last month’s democratic elections.  Lahoud and others such as Sami Gemayyel appear reluctant to come to terms with the Opposition’s “red lines”, such as guarantees on Hezbollah’s weapons.  However, Hariri and the Shia leaders appear more amenable to compromise than their Christian allies.  The fact that Amal and Hezbollah enjoy such strong relations with Syria, and likewise Hariri with Saudi Arabia, places Christian leaders who have staked out relatively hard line positions in a weak position.

That said, President Suleiman may be poised to re-assume his role as a balance between March 8 and March 14.  Of all the myriad possibilities, the 15+10+5 formula in which the President names 5 ministers seems to be the most oft discussed compromise.  Crucially, one of Suleiman’s ministers would be “friendly” to the Opposition, thereby giving March 14 a pseudo-blocking third.  In this case Hezbollah/Amal would keep the Foreign Ministry, March 14 the Ministry of Finance, and President Suleiman the “security” portfolios (Interior and Defense).  However, for his part, Suleiman is said to be reluctant to “give away” his portfolios simply to placate one side or the other.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Worried Lebanese 07.20.09 at 06:11

Interesting post. I agree with you, “Christians in both ‘the Majority’ and ‘the Opposition’ appear marginalized by the negotiation process” for the formation of a new government.

The question is why? Your answer it by saying that it’s probably because “Amal and Hezbollah enjoy such strong relations with Syria, and likewise Hariri with Saudi Arabia”. So your answer is grounded in geopolitics.
I don’t believe it really holds. These strong relations have been a given for the past 20 years and haven’t swayed. This didn’t prevent the Christian leadership (Politicians backed by a Christian political party or network) from being strongly marginalised for 16 years (2 or 3 ministers), then given a residual share in government for 3 years (about 3 ministers), and finally integrated as junior partner after the Doha Agreement (about 7 Ministers).
Actually, if you come to think of it, the Christian leadership got its largest share in government when geopolitical relations were extremely polarised and Lebanese blood was being spilt on the streets.

Now, in your geopolitical answer, you add a very interesting argument that you unfortunately don’t expand on. You say that this geopolitical context “places Christian leaders who have staked out relatively hard line positions in a weak position”. I think you nailed it there. The problem with the Christian leadership is that it continues to “stakes out [...] hard positions” at a time when the polarisation between Future-Ishtiraki and Amal-Hezbollah has decreased, and direct negotiations are being carried out between them. Amal has been playing the role of “go-between” for the past 4 years, although it firmly sides with Hezbollah. And now Ishtiraki is playing the same game. So relations between the quadripartite oligarchy have become extremely complex and the Christians have no say or influence on them.

Why is that the case?
The answer probably lies in the quotation marks I added to the two qualifications you used “the Majority”, and “the Opposition”. They are misnomers, but unfortunately, the Christian leadership truly believes in them. March XIV is not “the Majority”, but it’s Lebanon’s larger coalition (and this coalition brings together Parties and constituencies that hate each other’s guts). As for March VIII and the FPM, they’re not “the Opposition”, but Lebanon’s smaller coalition (and this coalition brings together three of the biggest parliamentary blocs that disagree on very important issues). Hezbollah and Amal were never part of any opposition, but have been directly (for Amal) or indirectly (for Hezbollah) associated in governmental affairs since 1992. As for the FPM, it is part of the government today, so that hardly qualifies it as an opposition.
So while the members of the quadripartite oligarchy feel free to discuss matters across the divide and cooperate on several issues, their christian allies corner themselves in their alliances and indulge in useless overbidding. They remain the junior partners with no say in national and communal affairs.

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