I met the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri for the first time this week, when I went to a talk he gave at the London School of Economics. The talk itself was very general. Hariri discussed the Arab Peace Initiative which was first proposed at the Beirut Summit for Arab leaders in 2002, and explained the need for peace in the Middle East which he asserted that Lebanon’s internal stability depends on. He touched on the economic achievements of his and the preceding government and outlined how building on those achievements is vital to fulfilling the aspirations of the Lebanese people.
Hariri did not address the subject of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in his talk, but there were several questions about it from the audience. Hariri admitted to understanding and even sharing the anxiety of the anti-tribunal camp but said that, ultimately, this issue has to be resolved through dialogue, not confrontation. Hariri was diplomatic in his choice of words, but he did question the reasons for the strong opposition to the tribunal. I thought he might be alluding to the possible involvement of some of the opponents of the tribunal in the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri.
I’ve been perplexed for a while now by the defensive position that the tribunal has placed Hariri and his political allies into. The tribunal was meant to represent international protection for the 14th of March alliance, but now the situation has reversed and they are spending most of their energy defending the tribunal. So I put that question to Hariri without specifically mentioning the STL: Why has 14th March allowed itself to retreat into a defensive position instead of reviving Hariri Sr.’s economic and political project and consequently winning popular support through politics and development?
I must admit Hariri’s reply was interesting, although not surprising. Hariri talked about the need to pause and take stock instead of charging forward. The real reason of course being the consensual nature of politics in Lebanon: Had 14th of March pushed its political project at the same pace, it would have alienated a large segment of the Lebanese. He used the metaphor of the 14th of March demonstration itself to explain this point: Many Lebanese were at Martyrs’ Square that day, but many others were watching with anxiety. Hariri’s response seemed to stress the need to include those left behind.
But this is precisely my argument with all of the Lebanese faction leaders: Consensus-building for them is understood as a process that is conducted outside the democratic process. We’ve had a national dialogue council for a number of years now; it was intended to provide the mechanism for this consensus-building. Like everything else in Lebanon, it had to have the right balance of representation between confessional groups, geographic areas and political parties. But isn’t that why we have a parliament? This gathering is little more than a tribal council of elders, an un-constitutional body that operates outside the normal rules of politics.
Hariri’s reply to my question, much like the absurdity of having a council of elders in a parliamentary democracy, indicates the limits of politics in Lebanon. The confessional leaders inherently accept the limitations imposed on them by the nature of the Lebanese system. Political success must always be kept in check and balanced with confessional arrangements.
I found it very ironic then that Hariri, when replying to my question, made the distinction between 'national leaders' and 'confessional leaders'. He talked of his intention to emulate his father in that respect and become a leader for all the Lebanese. This does not square up with his ready acceptance of the limits of politics in Lebanon and his willingness to accept consensus-building as a process to be conducted between confessional leaders. This is neither democratic nor politically savvy.