x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Lebanon hoped that the worst was over - then Nasrallah spoke

The swearing in of a new President in Lebanon will not be a panacea for the divisions that the country has struggled with for the past three years.

It was a swearing-in ceremony like no other in the history of Lebanon. Friends and foes gathered in parilament on Sunday to usher in a new era for a country that only a few days ago was facing civil war. Political statements as well as fireworks and even new songs sought to wrap the election of Michel Suleiman as the 12th president of post-independence Lebanon with a sense of optimism that the worst is past.

But is it? The election of Suleiman, following the deterioration of the political crisis into violent confrontations in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, will bring a new, positive dynamic to the tense political scene. It will not, however, produce a quick resolution to the divisions that have paralysed the country for the past three years.

The former army chief is expected to enjoy a honeymoon as he positions himself above political differences and tries to maximise gains from the detente that took more than 65 deaths and an Arab foreign ministers' emergency meeting to reach. The regional and international support that surrounded his election will also work to his advantage, as none of the conflicting local parties would risk being blamed for thwarting the reconciliation process.

The new president will have to maintain a delicate balance, however. His inauguration speech showed just how narrow is the path he will have to walk as he negotiates his way through the minefields of Lebanon's politics. Suleiman articulated positions that met the minimum requirements of all sides to the conflict. He also addressed the concerns of regional players, whose representatives attended the swearing-in ceremony in a gesture of support for the Doha agreement that facilitated his election.

Sooner rather than later, however, Suleiman will have to face the explosive issues that have divided Lebanon. He is not expected to encounter major difficulties crossing the threshold of forming a new national unity government. The Doha accord drew the broad framework for it. As all sides are committed to the guidelines embodied in this framework, the announcement of the new government will take place shortly after today's mandatory parliamentary consultations.

And even the usually thorny task of agreeing on the government's programme is not expected to be a major hurdle because the opposition and the majority parties will settle for using elastic language to delay tackling the most divisive contention point: Hizbollah's weapons.

Yesterday's enemies will not turn best friends overnight. But they will coexist in a transitional government that will defer discussions of deal-breaking issues. Suleiman is thus initially expected to have a relatively easy passage.

Unless, of course, the regional environment that allowed that truce changes. The Lebanese would not have been able to iron out the Doha agreement without the endorsement of regional and international powers with influence in Lebanon.

These countries appeared to have realised that civil war was imminent after Hizbollah attacked Beirut. And for different reasons, neither Iran and Syria, which back Hizbollah, nor Saudi Arabia, and Egypt and other countries supporting the majority government, wanted a new military conflict that had the potential of turning into a major Shia-Sunni rift with implications beyond Lebanon's borders. Hence the swift move to contain the crisis through an agreement based on compromises that fell far short of treating the roots of the problem.

The election of Suleiman and the new phase that his assumption of the presidency represents were born out of a consensus dictated by fear rather than conviction. Any changes in the environment that created this fear will have an impact on Lebanon and could set back progress.

Iranian-American relations, Syrian-Israeli negotiations, internal differences among Arabs and between them and Iran are all factors that have direct consequences for Lebanon. Now, these factors are conducive to detente. It is uncertain that they will remain so.

But despite the consensus on the need for decreasing the tension, Lebanon is far from overcoming its troubles. The speech that the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, gave on the eighth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon on Monday offered an insight into the complexity of challenges Suleiman will face. Nasrallah's defiant position portrayed a scene more reflective of the reality of Lebanon than the cheerful picture drawn at parliament one day before.

The scene in the parliament building reflected a specific juncture when everyone concerned needed to take a break from confrontational politics. The one drawn by Nasrallah in the southern district of Beirut revealed the depth of divisions between totally contradictory standpoints and the difficulty of bridging them.

Nasrallah's words served to dismiss any false hopes that the worst is over. It left no room for speculation about how hard reconciliation will be. The clear message was that Hizbollah will work with the Lebanese state only on its own terms.

Suleiman, one day earlier spoke of a "national defence strategy" that could discuss incorporating Hizbollah's weaponry into the army. Nasrallah offered a "national liberation strategy" that basically means the war with Israel continues and no discussion of the party's arms will be acceptable. He thus closed the door to any serious talk about one of the root causes of tension in Lebanon: Hizbollah's status as a state within the state.

Bad, though not surprising, news for Suleiman. It is a quick reminder that his job will not be as pleasant as the joyful swearing-in ceremony might have deceptively indicated.


Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and is a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs