In a dramatic announcement, Lebanese leaders meeting in Doha, Qatar declared that they had negotiated an end to the Beirut crisis with an agreement that will have regional ramifications, particularly regarding Syria’s relationship to Lebanon. In the agreement, Hezbollah and Syrian allied opposition parties made significant gains, but did not achieve a complete victory. Lebanese leaders agreed to:
- 1) Elect Army Commander Michel Sleiman as the next president of Lebanon. The office of the president has been vacant since November 2007.
- 2) Give the Hezbollah-led opposition more seats and veto-wielding authority in the Lebanese cabinet of ministers. With the opposition’s increased representation in the cabinet, the opposition agreet to remove their tents and equipment from Beirut’s downtown, which has strangled the Lebanese economy for 18 months.
- 3) Create an electoral law to redistrict seats in preparation for the 2009 parliamentary elections.
- 4) Agree not to settle disputes with violence.
The agreement came about after the ruling March 14 Coalition essentially deliberately prodded and provoked Hezbollah into mounting its bloody Beirut backlash that occurred from May 7-11.
Why would they do such a thing?
It all stemmed from the desire of pro-Western members of the ruling March 14 Coalition to elect General Michel Sleiman president on May 13.
They had threatened to use their parliamentary majority to elect him with a simple majority vote, which the opposition had long resisted.
Progressive Socialist Party Druze leader Walid Jumblatt wanted to prove to Future Movement Sunni leader Saad Hariri that there was no way the Lebanese opposition would allow the election of a Lebanese president by a simple majority of the parliament.
Jumblatt then used political savvy to prove exactly why the elected majority could not force its will on Hezbollah. He orchestrated a vote in the cabinet of ministers on two seemingly minor actions against Hezbollah: removing the Hezbollah allied airport security chief, and ordering the Army to dismantle Hezbollah’s illegal, government subverting telecommunications network.
Hezbollah responded by invading Beirut.
By provoking Hezbollah to respond, Jumblatt may just have saved Lebanese democracy and the Lebanese constitution. Had the March 14 Coalition elected a president without Hezbollah’s consent, the government might have triggered a full-scale Hezbollah invasion. There would have been a constitutional crisis, and Hezbollah might have been able to commit a coup d’etat.
This was something they were clearly unable to manage to achieve during the recent clashes.
After taking over Beirut and attacking the Druze community in the Chouf Mountains, Hezbollah realized that it gained nothing. Hezbollah could not occupy, control and administer Beirut and the other areas it attacked. It could not force the democratically elected government to resign over two minor decisions, especially given that the public was aware that Hezbollah was in the wrong on both accounts.
The March 14 Coalition knew it could rely on the Arab League to provide a face-saving solution. Months before, the Arab League had endorsed Gen. Sleiman’s presidency, and Arab League Secretary General actively met with government and opposition leaders throughout the period of presidential vacancy. With the world watching, the government could concede the two decisions to the Arab League, not Hezbollah, and Hezbollah could make it appear like their invasion did something positive, i.e. bringing all parties to the negotiating table. Everyone looked good.
The Syrian Angle
At face value, the Lebanese opposition won. Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and airport security director will remain in place, and Hezbollah prevented any discussion of the illegality of its weapons – the biggest weakness of the agreement is its failure to address the weapons issue. After two years of freezing the Lebanese government, the opposition will have more seats in the Lebanese cabinet than it originally demanded.
But while Hezbollah won the battle, it can be argued that the March 14 Coalition won the meta-fight. Here’s why:
- 1) Lebanese democracy and the Lebanese constitution survived.
- 2) The March 14 Coalition exposed that Hezbollah is willing to use its weapons on other Lebanese, a claim the party denied up to this point, and used to legitimate the use of its arsenal against Israel.
- 3) The Lebanese opposition threatened that it would dismantle all of the initiatives of the March 14 government over the last three years if and when it took power. The opposition claimed that the government was illegitimate, and thus all decisions would be made illegitimate. It seems that this will not happen. March 14 decisions and reforms will most likely remain intact.
- 4) The Arab Sunni regimes in the Arab League are now willing to take action on behalf of Lebanon against Iranian and Syrian meddling. This might not mean much, but it could mean increased regional and international pressure on the Syrian and Iranian regimes on all fronts, not just including Lebanon.
- 5) Beirut’s downtown is no longer occupied by the Lebanese opposition, and the Lebanese economy and tourism industry can thrive through the summer season.
- 6) Most important of all, the Lebanese elected their president without Syrian interference. Gen. Michel Sleiman was not the March 14 Coalition’s choice as president. He was an opposition candidate the coalition could tolerate. The opposition refused to elect their own candidate as president of Lebanon because, according to Foundation for the Defense of Democracies researcher Tony Badran, Syria refused to allow a true election, which would legitimate Lebanese sovereignty and manifest that Lebanon is independent of Syrian rule. An independently elected president, even if the president is a Syrian ally, denotes that Syria is no longer the power broker in Lebanon and that Lebanon is a partner, not a vassal, of Syria.
Walid Jumblatt and the March 14 Coalition may have ceded some ground to the opposition, but they managed to take Lebanon another step in the direction of full independence.
Syria’s allies are known and being cornered. Hezbollah revealed its undemocratic, violent ways and is now further isolated from the rest of Lebanon. The fighting is over. Tension remains, Hezbollah’s weapons are still in place, but Lebanon has survived another crisis.