Editor’s Note: This is an update to a May 12 interview with Michael Young published before the Doha Agreement.
Michael Young, a political analyst in Beirut, says that he does not see the Doha compromise, which has ended the recent political standoff in Lebanon, as a victory for Hezbollah and Syria. Rather, he says, it is a “classic Levantine compromise – everyone gets something out of this.” He says that the elevation of army commander, General Michel Suleiman to the presidency, will inevitably lead to a new alignment of political parties by next year. “I think that you will have a parliament that is more friendly to Syria than you have today but at the same time that will hopefully be more able to assert a Lebanon independent of Syria,” he says.
If all goes well, after a six-month government crisis in which Lebanon had no president, there will finally be a new president, General Michel Suleiman, sworn in on Sunday. This is the result of an agreement reached by the government and opposition negotiators in Doha. What is the mood like in Beirut now that the crisis seems to be over.
The mood is upbeat over the fact that there will finally be a president. For the moment at least it seems that the political vacuum which has gripped the country for the last six months may finally end. A lot will depend on the details of the Doha agreement and I think we should be careful to not be overly optimistic at this stage but at least one step has been crossed. For the moment at least, the military option [civil war], which many people were afraid might happen, in my mind is not on the table.
As I read the agreement, Hezbollah is closing this tent city it had in west Beirut but it will get enough seats in the new government to give them a veto over any government action. This has been interpreted as a capitulation to Hezbollah, a victory for Syria, and a defeat for the United States, although the United States has supported the agreement, as has France and Germany and other countries. What is your evaluation of this so far?
I disagree that this is a victory for Hezbollah. I think it is a classic Levantine compromise – everyone gets something out of this. To be quite honest, the veto power in the government today is far less important than it would have been six months or a year ago. The fact of the matter is that the government in the coming year until parliamentary elections next June is probably not going to be engaged in any major divisive policies. That means the veto of Hezbollah and its allies will probably be less significant than many people assume. I also feel that given that there now is or will be a president, the political alignments in the country are going to change. I don’t think they are going to change radically but they will change in a way that the calculations that we’ve been basing our assessments on in the last year may actually begin shifting somewhat. Who will be in opposition or who will not is a question that is perhaps unclear today. In other words, some groups aligned with the opposition in the coming year may on a specific issue decide that they are better off siding with groups in the parliamentary majority. Depending on the issue it may be more than a question of Hezbollah and its allies getting veto power in the government.
Talk a bit about General Suleiman. Does he have a political party? We know he’s a Christian but what can you tell us about him?
He is the commander of the army. He was brought in by the Syrians. He is someone who has retained close relations with the Syrians so I don’t think we should assume for one moment that Suleiman is someone who is going to break with Syria in any way. On the contrary, I think that the Syrians have given their approval to his election after having spent six months preventing an election. Now the reasons for that we can interpret in various ways but the fact of the matter is that they are not unhappy with Suleiman. His agenda really looks to be the following: His primary objective in the coming year will try to build the Christian electorate so that when elections come next June he will be able to build a sizeable bloc in parliament.
Without a parliamentary bloc, a president is very weak so that will be his first objective, to sort of build up support within Christian communities because he is a Christian. He will try to transcend that but I think his main focus will be to build up Christian support. Given the fact that he is not a traditional political leader with a traditional political base, I anticipate that he will rely heavily on the army as other army commanders have in the past who have become president. I fear that this will be divisive. I think it is a bad idea when the army is involved in politics but the fact of the matter is that he will be president and his only real base of support now is in the army.
He will bring the army into politics. I anticipate that this will create problems. I think that the third priority of Suleiman will be to essentially move to some kind of discussion of the role of Hezbollah’s weapons and the control of the Lebanese state over Hezbollah’s weapons. This is of course perhaps the most potentially difficult problem in the early months because of course two weeks ago Hezbollah turned its weapons on fellow Lebanese. As president he will have to try to find a formula to put this on the table to satisfy both sides. On the one hand, he wants to satisfy the Sunni community in particular, which was targeted by Hezbollah. On the other hand he doesn’t want to alienate Hezbollah and he doesn’t want to enter into a conflict with Hezbollah over its weapons. So he will be providing a dialogue it seems; a dialogue that will have to address directly or indirectly the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons. I think it will be quite tough. He will have to find a formula or sponsor a formula that satisfies both sides.
Now what about the former leader of the Christian community – former General Michel Aoun, who has been an ally of Hezbollah during all this? Is he now going to be relegated to a secondary role politically?
Yes, but I would disagree that Aoun was the leader of Christian community. Aoun’s base of support in the Christian community in the last year and a half to two years has gradually declined. He is politically weak enough that in a way Hezbollah indicated on several occasions that it had no problem with Suleiman as president. To a certain extent Aoun has been a dupe. He’s been used by Hezbollah to block the election of a president that Hezbollah was opposed to; in other words, a president supported by the parliamentary majority. Of course Aoun because of his sizeable bloc in parliament was able to block the elections because there wasn’t a quorum to elect a president. So Hezbollah used him as did the Syrians to block the election of the president. Today Aoun finds himself with nothing and in a way I suppose that was always predictable. Many people told Aoun over the months and even in the past year or more, including foreign ambassadors and many others, that you cannot be a king but can be a king-maker. The general only wanted to be a king and now he is not a king. He is basically one of the big losers.
Over time, with new elections next year for a new parliament, how will the new alignment look?
Now without getting lost in the details, what will happen, I foresee, is that Hezbollah will retain its base of support in predominantly Shiite areas. Now on the other side however, the Sunni community in predominantly Sunni areas will support the camp of Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Now where you will have a big question mark is what happens in those areas where there are Christians or mixed areas? The anticipation is that at the end of election what you are going to have is a parliament that will mostly be made up of what is currently the March 14 coalition [the anti-Syrian grouping that came together after Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005], but after the next election will not be the March 14 coalition. It will be mostly the March 14 coalition plus the parliamentary bloc that Michel Suleiman brings into office, which will most probably come from the Christian areas predominantly and you will have a Hezbollah bloc.
So what you’re going to have is a parliament that includes, I say, three broad forces: the Hariri camp, the Sunnis behind the Hariri camp, the Hezbollah and their allies in another camp; and in the middle you’re going to have a more amorphous group of people, the Suleiman Christian groups. In terms of the alignments as they play out today, in terms of the relationship vis a vis Syria for example, I think that you will have a parliament that is more friendly to Syria than you have today but at the same time that will hopefully be more able to assert a Lebanon independent of Syria.
In other words, you have to understand we’re still in the post-2005 period when the Syrians left Lebanon. From that time the Syrians have tried to reassert their control over Lebanon. I anticipate and I hope that it’s not wishful thinking that the next parliament will be a step in the direction of asserting a certain measure of autonomy from Syria. We will have had a year with a president in office, there will be a new legitimacy in the new parliament. Syria at the same time will continue to have influence in parliament, through Hezbollah and smaller allies, and perhaps through a friendly Michel Suleiman. But by and large hopefully the next parliament will be one that will be more balanced in its ability to assert independence from Syria. As I said I hope this is not wishful thinking.
I’ve been intrigued by the fact that simultaneous with the agreement in Doha, it was announced in Ankara that the Israelis and Syrians had begun peace negotiations. Now clearly Israel, if it is going to give back the Golan Heights, is going to insist on Syria doing something to disassociate itself from both Hamas and Hezbollah. How do you see this playing out in Lebanon?
I see a lot of coincidence in the last few weeks between several events that suggest a broader image of a general calming down of the situation regionally. The Iraqi army has moved into Sadr City this week and my belief is that Iran played a role in that. There has been a calming down in Mosul in Iraq. There has been a calming down in Gaza. There has been the solution in Lebanon or the temporary solution in Lebanon. There have even been reports that the formation of the tribunal that would try suspects for the assassination of Rafik Hariri has been delayed six months. Without wanting to fall into conspiracy theories, I don’t think that it is coincidence that all the events are occurring at the same time. The Syrian-Israeli track is very interesting. I am still very skeptical that either Syria or Israel at this stage is deeply committed to reaching a final solution. I think that Syria sees this as a means of opening a dialogue with the United States. They see negotiations with Israel as a way of getting out of the Hariri tribunal. I think the Israelis have their own interests in pursuing this dialogue, perhaps to put pressure on the Palestinians. Certainly both parties have a vested interest in appearing to advance on this track. Sometimes these kinds of exchanges create a dynamic of their own which will eventually lead to something more positive. There is no doubt that I think what happened in Lebanon, the agreement in Doha, is in one way or another tied into a series of regional developments. But precisely how these are tied into each other I am not clear yet on.