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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 July 2018

Lebanon's multi-dimensional political crisis

In a country as delicate as Lebanon, an explosion is always around the corner, writes Raghida Dergham

Gebran Bassil has been at the centre of a political row. Cynthia Karam / Reuters
Gebran Bassil has been at the centre of a political row. Cynthia Karam / Reuters

When the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Russian officials close to Vladimir Putin, there were no riots or threats. Mr Putin simply called it an “unfriendly act”. He said: "We were waiting for this list, and were ready to take retaliatory steps, serious ones, which would have reduced our relations to zero," he said, before adding: "For now, we will refrain from these steps. But we will watch how the situation develops.”

By comparison, when Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, labelled the country’s parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, of the Shia Amal movement, a “thug”, Mr Berri's supporters were sent to the streets. The rallies quickly turned violent, putting Lebanon on the edge.

Only remarks by Israel’s defence minister Avigdor Lieberman were able to bring a halt to what was a snowballing crisis, when he characterised Lebanon’s oil and gas exploration efforts in Bloc 9, located in a disputed zone between the two countries’ territorial waters, as “very provocative”. Lebanese politicians immediately closed ranks, insisting on Beirut’s right to contract an international consortium to carry out prospecting in the area as part of its sovereignty over its territorial waters and reserving the right to self-defence in the event of aggression.

“Lebanon has demarcated its maritime borders according to international laws and will use all means to defend its oil-related activities,” Lebanon’s energy minister said in response to Mr Lieberman. Hezbollah for its part stressed it was prepared to confront any “assault on our oil and gas rights and defend Lebanon’s infrastructure”.

This comes amid growing talk of an Israeli war, but it is not yet clear whether the prospects are serious.

What is clear is that the escalation in Lebanon has more profound backgrounds that one would divine from just looking at the surface. One is related to a long-standing issue regarding the distribution of power between the ‘three presidencies’ of Lebanon – the president, speaker, and prime minister – and the privileges of their parties and associates. Another has to do with the electoral alliances in the upcoming legislative vote, and the relations between Lebanese entities with regional and world powers. And, perhaps, all these revolve around the theme of the future of the Christian alliance with the two dominant Shia groups, Hezbollah and Amal.

The foreign minister is one of the key architects of the alliance with Hezbollah, and of the recent détente with the Sunni Future Movement, via close relations with Nader Hariri, who is the prime minister's chief of staff.

Officially, the row between Michel Aoun, the president, and Mr Berri, the speaker, began over the delayed promotion of senior Lebanese army officers, but in reality, the powers of their two offices is the crux of the matter. Indeed, Mr Aoun’s faction insist on having the powers of a "strong" president, while Mr Berri’s faction believes this reflects his authoritarian tendencies, insisting on the terms of the Taif Accord that ended the civil war, and on the powers it had assigned to the president, speaker, and prime minister – always a Maronite Christian, a Shia Muslim, and a Sunni Muslim respectively.

And prior to that row, the foreign minister had made demands to amend the electoral law for the May 6 vote, but failed to get his way.

If that was the first challenge, the leaked video of Mr Bassil’s remarks could be seen as the third challenge to Mr Berri. The remarks were probably a deliberate message to the speaker. So what did he have in mind?

One possible explanation is that Mr Bassil wanted to bait Hezbollah to rush to its close Shia ally’s defence, in order to justify a break from Hezbollah in the elections as a prelude to strategically disengaging from the alliance with the powerful group.

The alliance may have started to become too costly, because the Trump administration is determined to impose tough sanctions against Hezbollah’s allies.

Moreover, other countries in the region have made it clear to the Christian factions in Lebanon that the continuation of the alliance with Hezbollah is tantamount to a full partnership in the group’s projects.

The Gulf countries are determined not to endorse any cover provided to Hezbollah by other Lebanese groups, be they Christian or Sunni factions. And today, there is a fresh attempt by those interested parties to build better relations with Lebanon’s Christians, but the condition is that they should not be part of Hezbollah’s political cover, such as is the case with the Lebanese president and the foreign minister.

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Could Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil be in the process of reconsidering the alliance with Hezbollah? Or have calculations changed radically ahead of the elections, with the Shia bloc seeking a vetoing bloc in parliament and the continuation of Mr Berri in his post as the speaker and the final authority in the parliament?

Regionally and internationally, there is no indication a decision has been made to destabilise Lebanon. Outside powers are keen to see through the general election, and are interested in the electoral alliances. There are also serious moves afoot not just concerning Hezbollah directly, but also the banking sector and other parties as part of the drive to contain Hezbollah and its network.

Israel too has entered the fray too with Mr Lieberman’s remarks. The issue of maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel has been the focus of UN secretary generals for some time. In 2010, Lebanon submitted its evidence establishing its maritime boundaries, but Israel objected. Those efforts began with Ban Ki-moon at the helm in the UN, but now his successor Antonio Guterres must double his efforts to prevent any incidents.

Indeed, in a country as delicate as Lebanon, an explosion is always around the corner. Therefore, its leaders must show exceptional wisdom. What is unacceptable is Lebanon’s top diplomat giving himself the right to flout all norms for his political gains, be they personal or for more powers for his president.