The political crisis didn't start with the dispute over the presidency. This has really been going on for more than a year -- the things that they're arguing about now are exactly the same as the stuff they were fighting about last year.
But before we get into that, we need about 500 paragraphs of background info so that you can understand who's who and why they're doing and saying what. Forgive me if you know this stuff already, but I figure it'll be useful for those who aren't up to speed on the players.
OK, basic primer stuff, for the uninitiated. You have two basic sides in Lebanon, both named after the dates of their first major protests in relation to the Syrian presence in Lebanon in 2005.
March 14 is usually described as the pro-Western, anti-Syrian coalition. It holds a slim majority of the seats in Parliament, and the current prime minister is from its ranks. March 14 consists of a number of political parties, including the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, the Saudi-raised son of the slain former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who was killed on Valentine's Day in 2005, sparking the protest movement that drove the Syrians from the country. Also members of March 14 are political chameleon Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialst Party (PSP), which is the largest Druze party, and two Christian factions, the Lebanese Forces led by pardoned war criminal Samir Geagea and the Fascist-inspired Kataeb party, also known as the Phalange, of former President Amin Gemayel.
March 8 is usually referred to as the anti-Western, Syrian-backed opposition. This is not entirely accurate, but the reasons for that are complicated. The main actors are the Shiite armed group and religious-based party Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah, and the Free Patriotic Movement led by former army chief and megalomaniac Michel Aoun, along with the Shiite Amal Movement and several smaller parties, including the Communists and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (all five of them). Aoun is the reason why calling March 8 "Syrian-backed" is sort of complicated -- he is no fan of Syria, and actually went to war against Syria (on his own!) at the end of the Lebanese Civil War. He lived in exile afterward, when the Syrians controlled Lebanon, until he returned after their departure in 2005. His FPM has about 70 percent of the Christian seats in parliament, making him the largest Christian political faction.
There's another issue here, one I won't really go into, but the balance of power in parliament does not necessarily reflect the current situation on the ground, since the alliances were different during the last election -- Hezbollah vaguely supported March 14 at the time, and Aoun got his 70 percent before his alliance with Hezbollah, which has not been universally popular among his Syria-hating supporters -- but it's hard to be sure how things would shake out if new elections were held today. The opposition believes they would come out stronger, and they may well be right. They would not mind having new elections at all.
Last autumn, the opposition walked out of cabinet; six ministers quit their posts. The real reason for this was to try to derail the appointment of an international tribunal to try suspects in the killing of Rafik Hariri and 22 other people in a massive car bombing in February of 2005. (The former UN prosecutor investigating the case implicated several senior Syrian officials, including the chief of military intelligence, who is also the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad.)
Syria is not popular in Lebanon, even among supporters of the opposition, including the grassroots of Hezbollah. Hezbollah's association with Syria is primarily tactical, and Hezbollah's leaders don't want to be seen domestically as stooges for Syria any more than the government wants to be seen as stooges for America. (More on the foreign ties later.)
|One of many, many, many Rafik Hariri billboards; this one says "They will not terrorize us.. They will not frighten us... The court is a way to salvation."|
So anyway, the opposition didn't want to admit they were leaving the government to stop the tribunal. They said they were protesting what they saw as the government's pro-Western tendencies, the unfair representation of certain opposition voices, etc. Namely, they wanted their new ally, Gen. Aoun, to have some of the Christian posts in Cabinet, when currently most of them are held by March 14. They essentially wanted the opposition to have a veto-wielding third of the Cabinet posts; this percentage would also give them the defacto power to call new elections by walking out of government, because the Constitution requires new elections if one-third of the Cabinet seats are vacant.
The opposition walkout meant that all of the Shiite ministers had left, plus one minister allied to then-President Emile Lahoud. Without any Shiites, the opposition argued, the government is unconstitutional and must be dissolved. (Lebanon's political system is designed to balance the different religious groups in the country.) The opposition has considered the Siniora government invalid and illegitimate since then.
The Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berry, is an opposition member and the leader of the Shiite party Amal. He refused to convene parliament for nearly a year, until September, when they began holding occasional (abortive) meetings to try to agree on a new president.
|Beirut is blanketed with pictures of political and religious leaders, both living and dead. It's an entire political system based on cults of personality. This is an Amal Movement billboard featuring party leader and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berry.|
In November of 2006, hundreds of thousands (or millions, it's hard to get an accurate count) of opposition members converged in downtown for a mass protest, demanding that Siniora and his government resign. Their main demand was a government of national unity in which the opposition would hold enough Cabinet posts to wield a veto over any government decisions (notably the tribunal). Their official demands did not include the prime ministership, and they weren't actually asking for Siniora to be ousted -- but nobody seemed to have mentioned that to the protesters on the street, who chanted slogans calling for his downfall and carried signs comparing him with Saddam Hussein and Hitler.
I honestly think that the opposition thought they'd get what they wanted within a couple of days, but the government refused to step down and went right on governing. The protest has dragged on for over a year now, and the downtown is still a mess of razor wire and Army barricades and opposition tents, most of which are empty. When I walked through there the other day, I saw exactly two protesters, lounging around smoking nargila and looking kind of cold and bored.
|Downtown Beirut is a bit of a ghost town now. This is just south of Martyr's Square, looking toward Riad al-Solh Place and the Grand Serail; the oppositiong protesters are ahead on the left, while Hariri's gravesite and Martyr's Square are on the right, behind the razor wire.|
At the same time, you have these assassinations; there have now been eight of them, and another two attempts. Before the killing of Army Gen. Francois al-Hajj on Wednesday, the targets had all been anti-Syrian politicians and journalists; Al-Hajj had no known political affiliation but was not loved by March 14, and he was the first military officer to be targeted, so it's a much murkier situation.
The three most recent killings before Al-Hajj fueled theories among the March 14 ranks that the opposition (or more precisely Syria, everything gets blamed on Syria) was trying to do by violence what it could not do through the political process -- namely, bring about the collapse of the government. Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel was killed a week after the Shiites walked out of parliament; his death brought the number of "unavailable" cabinet ministers closer to that magic one-thirds number, which (as I mentioned) would trigger the automatic dissolution of the government. President Lahoud refused to approve his replacement, and the post is still vacant.
And two anti-Syrian members of Parliament were killed in June and September of this year, eroding March 14th's already slim majority in Parliament, especially since the president initially refused to call by-elections to fill the empty seats (including the one previously held by Gemayel). So most of the March 14 lawmakers are (understandably, I think) a little afraid for their safety; some left the country, others barricaded themselves into hotels or mountain compounds and they basically went into hiding. The remaining cabinet ministers have been basically living in the Grand Serail, the main government complex that includes the prime minister's offices.
So this has been the past year in Lebanon -- no functioning parliament, a crippled and paralyzed cabinet that about half the population considers illegitimate, and a president who seemed to think his only jobs in life involve sunbathing and pissing people off. Oh, and Beirut's downtown is sealed off, and there have been occasional outbreaks of violence, including a mini-war between the Army and Islamist extremists sequestered inside a Palestinian refugee camp.
|A deserted Martyr's Square. The tents directly behind the statue are Hariri's gravesite; the tents off in the distance on the left are part of the opposition protest.|
The Presidential Crisis
Now, the (almost universally reviled) former President Emile Lahoud stepped down on Nov. 23, at the end of his term. He made a weak attempt to hand over authority to the Army before he left, but it was disregarded by everyone, including the Army.
For months, nobody had been able to agree on who should be president. Each side proposed people who were, for a variety of reasons, unacceptable to the other side, mostly because the two sides hate and mistrust each other with a passion bordering on the pathological, and because in Lebanon's polarized and sectarian-based political system, it is basically impossible for anyone to become influential and respected and prominent without also becoming allied with one camp or the other, or at least being perceived as so. So nobody can rise to the level where they'd be taken seriously as a presidential candidate without also becoming unacceptable to at least half the country.
Except for the Army.
The Army is really the only institution in Lebanon that's been functioning even remotely well. (And some, like As'ad AbuKhalil, would argue that the Army didn't function particularly impressively in the war with Israel last year, but that's another story.) The Army leadership has managed to walk the political tightrope reasonably well and not get sucked into the political divide.
But the perception is that the Army is sympathetic to "the resistance," AKA Hezbollah, and is not inclined to disarm them.
It is sort of tacitly acknowledged that Army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman was probably Hezbollah's preferred candidate for president all along. Offically, Hezbollah had to endorse its ally, Michel Aoun (who has wanted to be the president of Lebanon for more than 20 years and started an entire war in an effort to obtain that goal...) but given Aoun's traditional anti-Syrian stance and a few other issues, Hezbollah's leadership was likely far more comfortable with the idea of a Presient Suleiman than a President Aoun, alliance or no.
Suleiman was named Army chief when the Syrians were still in power, and so is considered to be on fairly good terms with the Syrian leadership as well. Not a mark in his favor, as far as March 14 were concerned.
But even they have had to acknowledge that his conduct since the Syrians left has been pretty neutral. (Too neutral for some, in fact, leading to some allegations -- mainly by some in March 14 -- that the Army was taking sides by refusing to take sides, if that idea doesn't make your head spin.)
So anyway, after months of wrangling, you had Annapolis, and the very next day, March 14 dropped their objections to Suleiman's candidacy for the presidency. Hmmmm.
The rather dramatic timing of this "breakthrough" has been interpreted in various ways, but it seems likely that the U.S. government (and France, which has actually been a lot more involved in this) sent a signal of some sort to Syria and to the March 14 leadership. Whatever that signal was, March 14 finally seemed to realize that they could do a lot worse than Gen. Suleiman, and that their allies were getting tired of the standoff.
Suffice it to say that March 14 is not terribly pleased with its Western allies at this point.
So anyway, we get to call Suleiman the "compromise candidate," since he's not a political figure and is not overtly allied with any faction.
So then it was up to Gen. Aoun. He needed to withdraw his own candidacy in order to allow Hezbollah to officially back Suleiman for president.
He did this. But. (With Aoun, there's always a "but.")
But, he issued a set of conditions for his support of Suleiman's candidacy. These include, but are not limited to: (a) a national unity government with a veto-wielding minority for the opposition (that sounds familiar), (b) specific ministries for the opposition, including (so I hear) the Finance Ministry, (c) a neutral prime minister (March 14 wants Saad Hariri to be prime minister, and actually Hezbollah might not mind that either, for a variety of reasons, none of them terribly friendly).
Several different political analysts of various political stripes put it to me in these terms: Aoun seems to have finally realized that he is not going to be king, so now he wants to be kingmaker.
I should add that these are Aoun's demands, and they are not necessarily backed or shared by his allies in Amal and Hezbollah, but they haven't been disavowed by them, either. And Aoun is in a position to issue such demands because of his alliance with the Shiite parties.
The opposition as a whole wants a comprehensive solution to the political crisis that's been going on for the last year. They are reluctant to agree to a vote on the presidency alone because they fear that the other issues will be stalled for another two years, while Siniora and his cabinet continue to govern.
There's an additional wrinkle for the opposition; the Lebanese Constitution needs to be amended in order to allow any public official to become president within two years of leaving office. But since the opposition have for the last year-plus considered the government illegitimate, they have to find a way of making it legitimate long enough to amend the constitution without also recognizing the two-thousand-plus Cabinet decisions that have been issued since the opposition ministers walked out. This is likely to involve the Shiite ministers taking their jobs back (they haven't been replaced) just long enough to amend the constitution, but there are some other possibilities.
March 14 wants a vote on the presidency, to fill the vacuum at the top immediately, and then continued work to resolve the other political issues afterward.
And so unless Sarkozy's ultimatum shifts the balance enough that something gives, Lebanon probably won't have a president till next year. If then.
And can I just say that if Sarkozy's ultimatum does bring about a presidential vote on Monday, there will be complaints (from March 14 and possibly from the USA) that France's push for a settlement has undermined March 14th's position in the negotiations. March 14 is ostensibly France's ally, remember... so France's "demands" have little weight with the opposition, who don't give a damn what France wants, but it is perceived as sending a message to March 14 that the "West" will not back them in this standoff indefinitely. While the opposition's allies in Damascus and Tehran have sent no such signals.
I have heard these complains myself, and some indignation (from not always predictable quarters) that the "international community" seems to think it has the right to tell Lebanon how to solve its political crisis. (The rejoinder to that being, I guess, that Lebanon hasn't so far managed to do so itself?)
As one friend of mine pointed out, we have the French foreign minister practically taking up residence in Beirut of late, we have the UN Secretary General and various officials from the European Union and the presidents of France and the United States (among others) all saying that Lebanon "must" solve this crisis, in statements that verge on the kind of language one uses with a delinquent child. My friend asked, where else on earth do foreign governments and multilateral institutions demand solutions to domestic crises? Is the European Union and the United Nations demanding an immediate resolution to the Belgian political crisis, and prepared to foist a "solution" upon Belgium regardless of what the domestic parties want or are willing to accept? Why, then, do they feel they can do this in Lebanon?