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Bazzi: Can the Latest Violence in Lebanon Accelerate a Political Deal?

Interviewee: Mohamad Bazzi, Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 13, 2007

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Mohamad Bazzi, former Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, says the resolution of Lebanon’s political crisis is not being held up by choosing a new president. That has already been accomplished, with the choice of army commander, General Michel Suleiman. The real issue is the desire of the opposition to reach a deal ahead of time on the makeup of the next Lebanese government. He hopes the shock caused by the assassination of General François Hajj, who was to replace Suleiman as army commander, might accelerate a compromise.

Today, there was shock to hear that a car bomb had killed General François Hajj, who was due to take over command of the army from General Michel Suleiman if he, in fact, had become president. Does this assassination make it harder to reach a compromise on a president or has it accelerated resolve?

It should accelerate the chances of reaching a compromise on the presidency, though this being Lebanon, it may not happen as quickly as people might like. The issue is not so much between the March 14th movement [so-called because on that date in 2005, thousands of people demonstrated in Beirut for Syrian troops to leave because the Syrians were seen as responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri], which has the parliamentary majority, and the Hezbollah-led opposition over whether General Suleiman should be the next president. Right now the problem seems to be that the two sides are stalled over mechanics. They are arguing over the exact way they are going to amend the constitution so that General Suleiman can become president.

Please discuss this constitutional problem. It would seem logical that if the two sides agree on a person, it should just get done.

The Lebanese constitution says that a high-level civil servant who is currently in office can’t become president. They have to leave office and to wait for at least two years in order to be eligible to become president. For Suleiman to become president there would have to be a constitutional amendment, which would need a two-thirds vote in parliament to be passed. It can be done. There is a mechanism for it. But, part of the problem that has emerged is in the way that parliament works. There is a sitting cabinet or government that needs to send a draft amendment to the parliament and then the parliament would vote on it. But, the opposition, Hezbollah, and former General Michel Aoun [a Christian Maronite who opposes the current government], are insisting that the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is not legitimate and that if parliament was to vote on an amendment that had been brought to parliament by the sitting government, then parliament would be recognizing the legitimacy of this government and that’s the problem.

Surely, there must be a compromise here.

Nabih Berri, who is the speaker of parliament and an ally to Hezbollah, has proposed an end run around the cabinet, to basically approve the amendment within parliament itself so you don’t have to deal with the government. There is another major issue. The opposition is trying to use its leverage on voting for General Suleiman as president to try to get a deal ahead of time on the makeup of the next cabinet. The new president is going to form a new cabinet and appoint a new prime minister subject to approval by parliament, and the opposition is trying to get a deal ahead of time before he becomes president. They are trying to get a deal about the distribution of the portfolios and seats in the new cabinet.

So Siniora would have to step down when the new president steps in?

There is a period of time before the new president would form the new government. Siniora would stay in office as head of a caretaker government for a transition period.

So the opposition’s hope is that Suleiman would pick somebody from the opposition? The prime minister has to be a Sunni?

Yes.

So that would rule out a Hezbollah leader, since Hezbollah is largely Shiite, right?

Yes, but there are some Sunni Muslims that are sympathetic and have worked with Hezbollah. I don’t think they expect to actually get the prime minister’s slot. But they are angling for a deal where the prime minister’s position goes to someone who is not strongly March 14. They want to rule out Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son, as well as some people around him. They want to get a Sunni that might be a little more to their liking. Of course March 14 sees it as their prerogative now, especially because they have agreed on Suleiman as the compromise candidate for the presidency.

Would they like Saad Hariri to be the prime minister?

Some people in March 14 do want Hariri to be prime minister. He seems to want the job. That’s going to be another difficulty. So the two sides are trying to reach a deal before the presidency question is finalized and that’s another thing that is complicating it. So they have two problems. In fact, the constitutional amendment and the mechanics surrounding it is probably easier to solve than trying to reach a deal on the new government.

Now, what about the latest assassination itself? March 14th felt that it was another Syrian action, or carried out by people that are under the tutelage or pay of Syria. On the other hand, General Hajj wasn’t anti-Syrian, was he?

His political views are not really well-known. He was a career military officer. He’s a Maronite. He was seen to be the leading contender to replace General Suleiman as head of the army. The head of the army is generally a job that goes to a Maronite Christian as well as the presidency. So, he was about to rise in importance, but he didn’t particularly have any anti-Syrian views.

He did lead a military campaign over the summer against the Palestinian refugee camp which had a large group of terrorists run by Fatah al-Islam. Do you think they were responsible for the assassination?

It’s a very depressing situation because you see that the entire political leadership has decided it’s all right to be without a president, and it’s all right to be in this state of political paralysis for months.

At this early stage that seems to be the explanation that makes the most sense. Hajj led the campaign to get them out of the camp, Nahr al-Bared, in northern Lebanon. This was a very bloody battle that lasted for over three months. Nearly two hundred Lebanese soldiers were killed; there was artillery shelling helicopters. It was an intense battle. The Lebanese army basically had to fight building by building to get them out, and it’s a possibility the leadership of this group escaped. They also have relationships with other Sunni extremist groups that are based in other Palestinian camps, especially one camp in South Lebanon called Ain el-Helwi. It’s the largest Palestinian camp and it has a lot of Sunni extremist groups. One scenario is that General Hajj for his role in the Nahr al-Bared campaign was targeted either by Fatah al-Islam, or by some other Sunni extremist group that’s sympathetic to them.

What do you think?

At this point I think that’s the most likely scenario.

Not Syria? It’s at odds with this group right?

There are people in the March 14th movement that blame Syria for nurturing Fatah al-Islam and other Sunni extremist groups. But they have never really been able to present concrete evidence proving that, and a lot of these al-Qaeda sort of inspired groups in Lebanon play all sorts of sides. They play the Syrian side and they get funding from many places.

On the surface, it seems Lebanon as a nation is virtually falling apart. The two sides have agreed on a compromise but can’t get it over the goal line, so to speak. What do you think about the future of Lebanon?

It’s a very depressing situation because you see that the entire political leadership has decided it’s all right to be without a president, and it’s all right to be in this state of political paralysis for months. When President Lahoud’s term as president ended last month, there was concern about the void it would create, but there was no violence so everyone breathed a sigh of relief. But then it created a new status quo where it seemed okay to not have a president, and people were living with that and the political leadership sort of just went along.

It drives politicians from other countries crazy. The French in particular are very frustrated with the whole thing. The United States would love to see a resolution to this. People had thought because Syria showed up at the Annapolis meeting at the end of November and the compromise over General Suleiman was reached at the same time, that this problem of leadership would have been resolved two weeks ago.

There is now talk in Lebanon that the presidency question might get pushed back to January. There is a parliamentary session scheduled now for December 17. If it doesn’t happen on that day, then it has to be pushed back again and that’s running up against the major Muslim holiday on the 20/21 of December, Eid-ul-Adha, and then Christmas after that and then the New Year. So they all want to take vacations and not be in the country, and it’s going to depend on how mad they are at each other after this bombing. There were some very harsh words today between the different sides. Members of March 14 were accusing Syria, and one minister blamed the Syrian-Iran alliance, and Hezbollah responded denying any role or responsibility.

Hezbollah has issued a statement saying it was very upset about it.

They are because they have a good relationship with many of the top army commanders.

The army doesn’t really bother Hezbollah.

Exactly. Hezbollah would see this as a threat to stability, and this is where the scenario that blames Syria for responsibility for this particular bombing misses the weakness of the scenario, which is that the Syrians seem quite happy with what happened at Annapolis, being invited. They behaved themselves, they didn’t make a fuss, and they seem very happy that they received so much attention and credit out of it. They seem, at least, to have some small opening from the Bush administration after Annapolis. This is what they’ve been seeking for months and years, and why jeopardize all of that in this kind of bombing against someone who was not, as you said, a particular enemy of Syria? If this was one of the main members of the regime who has spoken out against Syria and criticized the Syrian regime, an argument can be made that they were trying to silence someone or send a message, but what’s the message in this bombing?

What’s happening in Beirut? Has there been any outpour onto the streets or anything like that?

Not really. I talked to some people in Lebanon today. It’s fairly calm. There is a larger than usual military presence, which is understandable. Not as many people are out at night as usual, but that also happens on any night of a bombing. But, it’s fairly normal. People have actually adjusted to not having a president with the whole political paralysis. Maybe the Lebanese have adjusted too well and they might need to demand, from their political leadership, some quicker action. That may move things along.

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