As the first day of parliamentary talks kicks off in Lebanon ahead of a vote of confidence in the new cabinet, the March 14 coalition began its first real stint in opposition. There were no surprises as its MPs took to the platform, the coalition had already announced that the government’s commitment to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) was going to be at the heart of its opposition to the ministerial policy statement. Despite the significant local, regional, and international shifts, March 14 seems to be intent on pursuing the tribunal as a central political goal. To complicate matters further, the new opposition is resurrecting the debate about disarming Hezbollah in conjunction with the discussion about the STL stance. This is an unwise move, March 14 is missing a chance to reenergise itself and find a renewed sense of purpose.
While the new PM Najib Mikati appeared to be making the ‘right’ noises about the STL, his statements were quickly contradicted by his political ally Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in his speech on Saturday night, as he insisted that the party would never surrender the four suspects that were named in the STL indictment. Furthermore, while Mikati insisted that the policy statement shows the government’s commitment to the STL, in fact it’s a semantic contraption designed to avoid clarity. Article 14 of the statement includes the ambiguous promise that the government ‘will follow the path of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’. ‘Follow’ in Arabic leans more toward ‘observe’ than ‘pursue,’ hence the ambiguity.
While March 14 is right in its insistence on discovering the truth about Rafik Hariri’s assassination, it has placed too much faith in the STL and ‘international justice’ in pursuing this goal. The STL indictment confirmed what most people already knew, it pointed out the alleged operatives but refrained from naming the political decision makers and the leaders who gave the orders. This is a strong indication that the STL and the international community behind it, read the US, have imposed a clear ceiling for the tribunal’s investigation. March 14 seems to be still too dependent on international justice to understand the significance of this limitation.
Furthermore, March 14 itself had placed another ceiling on the tribunal's work when Saad Hariri publicly absolved Syria of any role in the assassination. With Syria out of the picture, the most that the tribunal can deliver is a confrontation with Hezbollah that it can't possibly win, especially with the West, thankfully, unwilling to intervene. Those who claim that the US needs a pretext to pounce and punish Hezbollah ignore the events of 7 May 2008 when March 14 was left to face the music on its own and was quickly defeated. It still seems that Walid Jumblatt was the only one to understand the consequences of Hezbollah breaking its promise to use its weapons internally on that occasion. His subsequent u-turn was a direct result of this, turning the most enthusiastic supporter of the mythical 'new Middle East' into a middle-of-the-road pragmatist.
The remnants of March 14 however seem intent on gambling on the STL. But this weakens their legitimate demand for Hezbollah to disarm as it seems to envision the STL as mechanism for achieving that. Even if the West was willing to actively pursue this, the likely outcome would be another protracted civil war. While the threat of Hezbollah’s weapons shouldn’t be a reason not to pursue justice, March 14 could have convincingly defended this process had it been conducted by a reformed Lebanese justice system but cannot do so while the specter of international interventions is what it’s hoping for.
With its current stance, March 14 is missing a chance to pin its hopes on the Lebanese people rather than on external intervention. For starters, it’s facing a weak cabinet that appears to be lacking in purpose and is already showing signs of wear and tear. It could have, and indeed could still, play a successful role in opposition relentlessly attacking the cabinet and subjecting its policies to scrutiny. In the process, it could formulate a political vision that eventually brings it back to power, away from its reliance on fickle external agents. This would help resurrect Lebanese politics as well, and banish the demon of lowest common denominator governments.
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