Lebanese Politics Gridlocked by Syrian Turmoil

By Seraina Benz

As the populist pro-democracy wave sweeps across the Arab world, provoking revolutionary change in some of the most entrenched authoritarian Arab regimes, the Republic of Lebanon lies in ruins. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet was brought down on 12 January by the resignation of Hezbollah and its allied ministers after Hariri had refused to comply with the Shia organisation’s demands to cease all cooperation with the UN-backed international tribunal investigating Rafik Hariri’s assassination. The tribunal is expected to issue indictments against Hezbollah members and their Syrian patrons. Recovery has been anything but rapid and is likely to be stalled further as Syria, Lebanon’s traditional power-broker, is in the throes of a popular uprising which impacts heavily on Lebanon’s chances of political recovery due to the inextricable political entanglement linking the two neighbouring countries.

Facing an unprecedented challenge to the Ba’ath party’s monopoly on power, Syria’s concessions have so far failed to assuage the protesters who took to the streets again with renewed vigour on 22 April even after the draconian emergency law had been lifted for the first time in 48 years. The Syrian security forces’ recurrent use of repressive violence against the demonstrators is unlikely to provide any solution to the conflict and will rather reinforce the Syrian people’s determination to continue their uprising, whose ultimate goal has yet to emerge from the populist anti-government rage. Any political change in Syria will inevitably have a strong impact on Lebanon, a country deeply divided and profoundly destabilised following the fall of the Hariri government and the appointment of the Hezbollah-backed candidate Najib Mikati as Prime Minister on 25 January. In view of the controversial prospect of a Sunni billionaire leading the country whose personal ties with Bashar al-Assad render him conspicuously close to the formerly ousted Syrian regime, Lebanon has returned to the political haggling that has plagued the government since the murder of Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005, which precipitated an irreconcilable polarisation of Lebanese politics through the formation of two opposing political coalitions: the US/Saudi backed, Sunni-led March 14 camp, and the pro-Iranian/Syrian Shia-dominated March 8 movement. After Hariri’s Future Movement’s refusal to take part in a Hezbollah-dominated administration, Mikati has taken on the task of forming a new cabinet on the debris of Hariri’s fallen government while facing charges of compromised political neutrality and legitimacy on account of his alleged indebtedness to the Hezbollah-backed March 8 coalition. Mikati has proven unable to find a way forward as his personal ally and his coalition’s patron, Syria, has turned its attention inward and remains unable to steer Lebanese politics through the incapacitating processes of multi-party bickering and power-jockeying towards a viable (read: Syrian-approved) solution.

Accusations made by leading news organisations of a “pro-Iranian coup” and an “Islamist take-over” in response to the toppling of Hariri’s pro-Western government have obscured the fact that Syria has swiftly re-entered the Lebanese political stage through Mikati’s nomination as Prime Minister. After Syria’s alleged involvement in Rafik Hariri’s murder, Bashar al-Assad was forced to end his regime’s 30-year old military occupation as well as its established practice of streamlining Lebanese politics with Syrian interests. However, Saad Hariri’s policy of step-by-step diplomatic rapprochement with Lebanon’s neighbour allowed Syria to gradually regain its political weight in Lebanon until talks collapsed over the two parties’ inability to reach a compromise on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and its expected indictments. The election of Najib Mikati, has made this process complete and Syria has resurged as the main power-broker in Lebanese politics. Despite Mikati’s efforts to present himself as an independent consensus-candidate who does not allow for any foreign hand in his nascent cabinet, he and his coalition members have turned to Syria for help in their cabinet formation by repeatedly exchanging visits with Syrian officials and holding talks behind closed doors in late March. On 19 April, March 8 member Suleiman Tony Franjieh has openly hinted at this renewed Syrian-Lebanese political nexus by saying: “I am counting on Syria under Assad’s leadership”.

However, as Syria is preoccupied with its own domestic crisis, March 8’s key ally has had to abandon its traditional role of political arbiter paving the way out of the Lebanese quagmire which has only deepened as a result of the Syrian unrest. Reviving fears of civil war, the Syrian protests have been paralleled by an exacerbation of the sectarian divide in Lebanon which unfolds in a polarised political landscape pitching pro-Syria March 8 supporters against anti-Syria March 14 members. Culminating in a political impasse making governmental compromise an unattainable goal, sectarian tensions have increased as pro-Syria demonstrators in Beirut and Tripoli have galvanised the anti-Syrian camp that had already flooded the streets in protest after Mikati’s nomination as PM. Due to continued rival protests a ban on pro- and anti-Syria demonstrations has been imposed to defuse the immediate danger of an eruption of sectarian clashes. This has put a temporary lid on the combustible mix of regional dynamics antagonising local Lebanese forces. Nevertheless, Lebanon sits on a powder keg without a government capable of taking decisive action as rival political leaders, including Saad Hariri, further incite their constituencies’ frayed tempers through inflammatory speeches. While the urgently awaited cabinet formation has allegedly been delayed by Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun’s quarrel with President Michel Suleiman over the former’s excessive demands for the Interior Ministry portfolio, Mikati’s dependence on the Syrian arbiter has been exposed by his inability (or unwillingness) to manage the shrewdness of political horse-trading inherent to Lebanon’s governmental system in his ally’s absence. Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri’s promise of a newly formed cabinet as a “belated Easter gift” to the Lebanese people has been met with disbelief as it contradicts other claims that not even a draft cabinet has been agreed on.

As Syria’s security situation deteriorates, Lebanon’s fate hangs in the balance and as the region races towards change, Lebanon has stumbled over its own peculiar consociational model of democracy whose cross-sectarian consensus-building process cannot be dislodged from regional power politics. Amid Middle Eastern revolutionary transformation Lebanon’s unity government has been shattered and it is unclear who will pick up the pieces. 


Seraina Benz holds an MA in International Relations from King's College London. Her main research interests revolve around Lebanese politics and the Lebanese-Israeli conflict. She is currently based in Geneva. 


29 April 2011  


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