13 Jan 2011

Lebanon's self-induced paralysis

Firstly, the significance of latest ‘crisis’ to hit the Lebanese political system following the resignation of 11 cabinet ministers yesterday, and the de facto resignation of the cabinet that ensued, should be properly understood. The Lebanese confessional system appears to be exhibiting the symptoms of the law of diminishing returns: in the past this system used to function for a couple of decades in between major crises. This cycle how now been shortened to two years. By any objective measure, this system has now completely exhausted itself. Nevertheless, a viable alternative remains conspicuously absent.

Secondly, it is important to observe how both sides across the political divide have contrived to arrive at a standstill, purposefully avoiding taking decisions that would avert a crisis. It seems that both March 8 and March 14 were content to leave the country in a state of political vacuum in anticipation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s awaited indictment in the case of the assassination of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Rather than seeing this complacency for the stark abdication of responsibility that it is, many voices assert that either side ‘must know something we don’t know.’ This twisted political logic must be confronted.

The evidence:
March 14: Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his political allies have effectively paralysed the cabinet for months now, for fear of a confrontation with the ‘cabinet opposition’ over the ‘false witnesses’ issue. Hariri extended his stay outside Lebanon at a time of turmoil, leaving his allies and supporters in a state of confusion and disarray. His presence in the US during this week reinforced the notion that the US was behind scuppering the long-awaited Syrian-Saudi deal that was expected to absorb the impact of the STL indictment. While I remain completely opposed to any outside intervention, be it Syrian, Saudi or American, Hariri’s behaviour seemed to indicate that he is placing his confidence in the US instead of other regional powers. No matter what the reason is, this is not strong leadership.

March 8: the cabinet resignations were the least disruptive option they could have chosen. I don’t mean this in a good way. Hezbollah and its allies are victims of their own high-pitched rhetoric: having agitated for so long and so vocally over the STL they were forced to ‘do something’ when the Syrian-Saudi deal fell apart. As it happens, they deliberately chose a course of action that instead of forcing a resolution would now ensure a protracted process of wrangling and accompanying political paralysis. They have wisely avoided street demonstrations, for now, as these would be likely to lead to violent confrontations in the current tense climate, but they had other options they could have exercised.

But in order to explore those options, we must remember the ‘big unknown’ now: where does Walid Jumblatt stand exactly? The reason of course is that his 11-member parliamentary block could swing the parliamentary majority from one side to the other. As it happened, Jumblatt seems to be still negotiating a space in the middle, for the time being. His ministers did not resign yesterday despite his assertions that he is now firmly back in the Syrian camp. This is not a detail: we now have a parliament that is ambiguous in its constitution. Neither camp can claim legitimacy under these circumstances. Typically, the voice of the citizens is the first thing to be suspended in a time of a crisis.

Had the opposition had more self-purpose and clarity, they should have forced Jumblatt to choose sides and speed up the resolution of this crisis. The first option they had was to force a motion of no-confidence and bring down the government in the parliament. Despite the language used yesterday, this would have been the ‘democratic and constitutional’ option, not their weak mass resignations. Furthermore, they should have then used the parliamentary majority that Jumblatt would supply to govern on their own, nominating their own Prime Minister. Instead, they will now start a protracted process of arriving at a suitable replacement for Hariri while the country remains in limbo.

Typically, most of the analysis I’ve come across has focused on the minutiae of the situation, remaining oblivious to the fact that we’re in a system that cannot guarantee stability for more than a few months at a time. This is a self-induced crisis orchestrated by the political classes for lack of any real vision or sense of purpose, action through inaction. Attempts at rationalising this behaviour through tactical justifications are entertaining but meaningless diversions. The system itself is failing, and neither camp can be trusted to propose an alternative. Can we see this abdication of responsibility for what it is?

Look at the situation again: the Lebanese confessional leaders are failing to resolve their differences through their respective chaperons, but meanwhile they are content to suspend democratic mechanism and more importantly the voice of the citizens (The ambiguous parliament). I suppose dissolving the parliament and having new elections so we know at least where we stand would be out of the question? The self-induced paralysis it is, then.


  1. One thing that you missed is the root of this capacity bestowed on an opposition to effectively disrupt the executive process, not to mention the legislative (as Nabih Berri is also a bestowed privilege, because in theory, the parliamentary majority could have elected another shiite to be speaker). The power of a parliamentary minority to impose a strong cabinet presence (10+1 ministers) is far from democratic or constitutional. I am not saying this to refute your initial idea, about the failure of the ruling class, on both sides, to put forward a viable and reasonable alternative for governance, which i agree with completely, but i thought you acknowledged an otherwise undeserved and rather unconstitutional position that the opposition has in Lebanon. On the other hand, to think with you about escaping the 2-year crisis pattern, and to escape the obsolete political system, I suggest that we reconsider our position about the sectarian divide, and accept it for once. Too reactionary? Maybe much less reactionary than denying it, and counting on miraculous resolve from god. PS: I think the opposition did not take the no-confidence measure because they constitute one third + of the cabinet.

  2. Samer, very good to hear from you.

    I fully agree with you about the 10+1, the so-called blocking third which is an aberration that should not have been introduced at all. In fact, I've written about that before and criticized the logic behind it, but I omitted to mention that here.

    On the sectarian divide, I've also written a lot about that in the past, and I've argued that it's no longer the old form of sectarianism but more like the multi-cultural model in the West. Perhaps we should accept it, not that you and I have much control over it anyway. But even by the logic of that system, it's not functioning any more. It's the problem of the political classes more than our problem.

    Perhaps I am naive in trying to look for an alternative, as there are very few people that would accept a secular alternative. I guess I am not really giving any answers in as much as I am raising questions, but at least through discussions like this I get to learn more about what our society thinks.

    I take your point about no-confidence measure, it would have been hypocritical but I don't think there are any legal restrictions against it.

  3. Nice read Karl but I would like to make two points:

    I don't think that getting Jumblatt on board and picking their own PM is really an option. It's like finally saying that the Sunnis no longer have a governing role in Lebanon. No one will accept this, at least not for long. And I think they already know that.

    "I suppose dissolving the parliament and having new elections so we know at least where we stand would be out of the question?" Didn't we do that last May and found out that the results were inconsequential?

  4. Thanks Lama.

    On the first point, March 8 is threatening to do that now, but I agree with you which is why my next post will be 'The March 8 bluff'. I think they've backed themselves into a corner with this move, and now they will have to play it out.

    On the second point, true, but my rhetorical insistence on adhering to democratic rules is the only option I see to avoid being sucked in by the confessional game. Little chance of success, but worth fighting for the idea.

  5. Hi Lama,

    “I don't think that getting Jumblatt on board and picking their own PM is really an option”, and if I were to identify myself as a Sunni (something I do extremely occasionally for the sole purpose of analogy) I would add that not doing so is also not an option. The problem that I am hoping people will realise is that it is particularly the Muslims of Lebanon who have gotten to a stage where their democratic choices are used to fuel further undemocratic forms of governance, and our democratic parliamentary elections only take place to re-instate static figures. That is yet one of the biggest contradictions appearing in our politics. Of course, you see Shiites in the 14th of March group like 3oqab Saqr, and Sunnis in the 8th of March Group like Arakji, but that’s only each group trying to hopelessly defy its image as a sectarian cluster where members of other sects are always appearing inferior and less adequate.
    The problem for the supporters of 14th of March is that they have not truly gained a democratic stand by opting for Hariri as their sole leader. They only think so. On the other hand, supporters of 8th of March are trying (in what appears to be a contradictory manner) to oppose that same dictatorial trend which they themselves have instated in their own inner medium. In the interim, both groups have been making sure to promote equally useless alternative figures “from the other sect”.
    Whether Hariri is chosen again or not, neither will in reality be bringing any restoration of the voices of the citizens, in the sense that Karl has been describing.

  6. Fatima I would agree with you, if only the other option was in fact a secular group. But unfortunately, Lebanon has still not managed to provide this alternative. Until then, people of different sects behave as they do now.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.