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Uncertain Times After Lebanon's Vote

Interviewee: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 8, 2009

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The Western-backed coalition retained a majority (BBC) in the Lebanese parliament after a much-anticipated election. CFR's Mohamad Bazzi, a former chief Middle Eastern correspondent for Newsday, says that a tipping point in the elections may have been the call by the Maronite Christian patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, for Christian voters to support the existing pro-Western government and not throw their backing to the Christian faction led by Michel Aoun, part of the Hezbollah-led opposition. That seems to have allowed the government to keep its majority and to take the lead in forming the next government. A crucial question now is whether the government decides to keep the so-called Doha formula which gave Hezbollah and its allies "blocking" power in the cabinet to prevent laws from being passed they did not want, or whether the government tries to operate without that concession.

Bazzi says "we might see another crisis unfold because at that point, Hezbollah may decide that it can't have the kind of guarantees that it wants on its weapons and its other priorities unless it has that veto power in the cabinet." If a crisis develops, he thinks regional actors such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia might step in as they did last year and push for a "Doha Two" compromise. "It is in everyone's interest to avoid another flare-up in Lebanon," Bazzi says.

The Lebanese parliamentary elections ended with about the same balance of power as exists today - that is with the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora winning the majority of the seats. The Hezbollah-led faction did not do as well as I think some commentators had predicted. What do you make of all this?

"By tradition Lebanon is ruled by consensus and the majority has to bring in all the different sects of Lebanon and especially the major sects have to be represented in the cabinet. So Hezbollah and its allies are going to have a crucial role in the next cabinet."

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that Hezbollah itself did not lose any of the seats that it had coming into this election. The entire premise of this election was that Hezbollah's main Christian ally, General Michel Aoun, would be the one to pick up more seats - that he would pick up more of the Christian-dominated seats and therefore, this would give that alliance a shot at winning the majority.  Aoun did not do as well as expected; he did not pick up more seats. So therefore this Hezbollah-led alliance did not win the majority. We have a scenario now with a distribution of seats similar to the current one we have. The March 14th coalition, the pro-Western movement, has sixty-eight seats, Hezbollah and Aoun and their other allies have fifty-seven seats, and it appears that there are three independents who've won seats. Most likely these independents will ally themselves with March 14th, so we might have a breakdown of seventy-one to fifty-seven, which for Lebanon is a significant majority.

Now the next crucial question is going to be the makeup of the government, and all of this electioneering has been targeted at that. The winning majority in parliament will have the chance to create the next Lebanese government and the next cabinet. By tradition Lebanon is ruled by consensus and the majority has to bring in all the different sects of Lebanon and especially the major sects have to be represented in the cabinet. So Hezbollah and its allies are going to have a crucial role in the next cabinet.

Last spring, after a considerable amount of violence spawned by Hezbollah in and around Beirut, an agreement was reached at Doha, which gave the Hezbollah grouping a blocking group power in the cabinet, which made it impossible for any law to be passed without their approval. I gather in electioneering the Siniora government had said that it didn't want to go back to this system, but what do you think will happen?

That's going to be the most important issue on the table as the new government is created. It's going to take several weeks, it might even take two or three months in a worst case scenario, for the new government to be formed. This is the most important element here - Hezbollah and its allies have said they won't participate in the next government unless they have the blocking third as they call it, or the other side calls it the veto third. So far Saad Hariri, the leader of March 14th, has said he is open to a national unity government that brings in the other side, but he won't give them that veto third in the cabinet. If March 14th decides to stick to this idea that they're not going to give the minority a blocking third in the cabinet, then we might see another crisis unfold because at that point, Hezbollah may decide that it can't have the kind of guarantees that it wants on its weapons and its other priorities unless it has that veto power in the cabinet.

The flip side of all this, is when one side has that veto power, it makes it very difficult for things to get done. Then also there is this tradition of ruling by consensus in Lebanon and that often makes it difficult for major changes to get put through because often one community is able to stop major decisions or major laws or major changes because it refuses to go along with them. That's been the tradition in Lebanon for many years.

Now, we had this odd situation where the following happened before the election: U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden made a visit, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a visit before the election. Clearly this was meant to show U.S. support for the existing government. Do you think these were key elements in the election result?

"It's one of those ironies of Lebanese politics where holding high office might actually damage your reputation more than staying out of that high office."

I think U.S. support played some role in the election results, but I would be careful not to over dramatize the U.S. role. I think in general there is a better feeling in Lebanon about the Obama administration than there was about the Bush administration. There's perhaps less of a stigma attached to being allied with the United States as the March 14th coalition is allied with the United States. But the more important factor in the Christian community seems to be the remarks by the Maronite Christian patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, who on the eve of the election, warned voters about what he called this attempt to change Lebanon's character and its Arab identity, which is a thinly-veiled reference to Hezbollah and its main backer, Iran. So that might have pushed some voters, some Christian voters, away from General Aoun and his ally Hezbollah and might have convinced them to vote for the March 14th faction. That intervention by Cardinal Sfeir was probably much more important than anything that the United States had said.

I saw some speculation from Damascus today that perhaps some compromise could be reached where the president's office would have a few seats in the cabinet, so as to give some flexibility to the cabinet setup, and offer a possible compromise to the "blocking" agreement.

Yes, that's one possible scenario that could avoid another bout of open warfare or long political paralysis that we saw in the past three years in Lebanon. In this compromise, the president becomes the referee between the two sides. I think Hezbollah will resist that initially because it wants to make sure that it has the blocking or the veto third of the cabinet. Hezbollah and its allies have that now, and they don't want to rely on the president to be the arbitrator. The underlying problem here is that some factions of the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance don't entirely trust President Suleiman and they may not look at him as impartial. Some factions within that coalition have already accused him of being too partial to March 14th, and [believe] that he won't be able to stay on the sidelines. So that might ultimately make it difficult for this kind of compromise.

How many people are in the cabinet?

It can change, it can range from twenty to thirty seats and more. In the current cabinet, there are thirty seats and this is the cabinet that was agreed upon after the Doha agreement in May 2008. Of those thirty seats, eleven seats - so that was one third plus one - went to Hezbollah and Aoun and their allies. The rest of the seats [sixteen] went to March 14th coalition, and three seats went to the president. So basically March 14th had a majority of the cabinet, the president had several seats, and the Hezbollah-Aoun coalition had one third plus one which is what allowed them to veto any decisions that they didn't like. And the veto power comes in because under the Lebanese constitution, if more than one third of the cabinet resigns, then the government falls and the parliament has to create a whole new government. That's where the veto third comes from.

Of course you have this odd situation where Hezbollah has a very large, well-financed - particularly from Iran - army militia. Really no government in the area has anything quite similar. Is there any possibility of Hezbollah ever disarming?

Not in the short term, and it's unlikely that Hezbollah would disarm under any sort of domestic agreement within Lebanon. The question of Hezbollah's arms and the status of its militia really have become regional questions and a lot of that is going to depend on what happens between the United States and Iran, what happens between the U.S. and Syria. Iran and Syria are Hezbollah's two main backers, and especially Iran which provides the bulk of military and financial support to Hezbollah. So, that question of Hezbollah's arms is really a regional question now and is beyond the control of the Lebanese, and that's something that frustrates many people in Lebanon, but it's not unusual for internal factors to become part of a larger regional game. Lebanon has had that history for decades.

"If March 14 and March 8 [coalitions] reach a stalemate and they are unable to agree on the makeup of a national unity government, Lebanon might once again descend toward instability and even violence."

Who, in your guess, will be the next prime minister? Will it still be the current one, Siniora? Or will [Saad] Hariri want to take it? What do you think?

It's more likely that Siniora will have to leave office because over the past four years he's clashed repeatedly with Hezbollah and Aoun and their allies and they pushed hard after the Doha agreement in May 2008 for Siniora to be removed as prime minister and for someone else to take over. I think that's going to be one of their main demands of joining a unity government, in addition to the demand for veto power in the cabinet. They don't want Siniora to be prime minister. I'd say the leading contender right now especially with this parliamentary victory has to be Saad Hariri. It's not entirely certain he really wants it. It's a very difficult job and it's a thankless job most of the time, and even with a parliamentary majority it poses the risk of burning him politically - of making his political future more problematic. It's one of those ironies of Lebanese politics where holding high office might actually damage your reputation more than staying out of that high office. But the demand for him to do it might still outweigh those political ramifications, so I'd say he's the leading contender. But there's always room for compromise in Lebanese politics, there's always room for change, so we might end up with someone entirely unexpected.

What is the likelihood of the Saudis, Egyptians, Iranians, and other regional powers becoming involved in Lebanon after this election?

There is a very strong likelihood that all of these regional actors, and others, will become strongly involved in Lebanese politics, especially if there is a deadlock. If March 14 [Western-backed coalition] and March 8 [Hezbollah-led coalition] reach a stalemate and they are unable to agree on the makeup of a national unity government, Lebanon might once again descend toward instability and even violence. Many regional players have an incentive to prevent another bout of violence in Lebanon. They will try to diffuse the situation before instability gets out of control. For example, the Qataris, who negotiated the Doha agreement last year, have a large stake in ensuring that the agreement persists and in ensuring the possibility of a Doha Two agreement that would involve another formula for a national unity government. So if we see political paralysis developing in the weeks after June 7, then we are likely to see the Qataris and other regional actors moving quickly to refashion Doha. The Saudis will be playing a role by exerting influence on their allies in March 14, and certainly the Iranians and Syrians will stand behind Hezbollah and its allies in March 8. The Turks may try to bridge both factions and help break a stalemate. It is in everyone's interest to avoid another flare-up in Lebanon.

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