Making sense of Lebanon’s “day of rage”

This is NOT a coup...

What a day. Consultations began yesterday at Lebanon’s presidential palace with MPs meeting President Michel Sleiman to nominate their preferred candidate for Prime Minister. (The national unity government created by the Doha Agreement had collapsed because Hezbollah and its allies resigned.) Yesterday evening it was clear that the opposition March 8 alliance’s preferred candidate Najib Mikati was ahead.

As Mr Mikati’s nomination as Prime Minister became more and more certain the unpleasant smell of politicking was mixed with the stench of burning tyres. Politicians from the pro-Western, anti-Syrian March 14 alliance (the narrow winners of 2009’s election) called for a “day of rage” to protest against what they called a “coup” by Hezbollah.

Fond memories of the awesome demonstration of (peaceful) people power in the Cedar Revolution were soon dispelled. A demonstration was called in Tripoli, the hometown and constituency of Mr Mikati (a Sunni now regarded by supporters of Saad Hariri, the main Sunni political leader, as a turncoat). It began peacefully enough, but quickly turned ugly as a mob attacked the office of a local MP who had supported Mr Mikati for the premiership. Shots were fired and an Al-Jazeera satellite truck was burned (fortunately the journalists escaped injury).

As menacing protesters blocked roads, burned tyres and threw stones Mr Hariri realised that the rhetoric had gone too far and called for calm in a televised speech. While a number of people have been injured there have not, thankfully, been any reports of deaths.

As an excellent post on the Qifa Nabki blog argues, no one has come out of this looking good:

Lebanon’s Sunnis are calling for a “day of rage”, but it’s more apt to call it a day of deep hypocrisy and cynicism.

While it is fair to say that the Sunnis “doth protest too much” – especially in calling the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance’s move a “coup” – the imposition of a Prime Minister who does not have wide support from the Sunnis is something of a constitutional innovation and a recipe for trouble. (In Lebanon the key political posts are divided between the main sects: the President has to be Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni and the Speaker of Parliament Shia.) As Sean writes:

This is important, because as I commented over at my friend Exum’s site, the whole point of March 8′s toppling of the government in 2006-2008 was to claim that when Amal and Hezbollah ministers resigned, the Sinoura government would no longer represent Shi’a, since Amal and Hezbollah represent that sect. March 8 absolutely refused to accept a government in which their ministers were replaced with Shi’a from March 14. Likewise, when March 8 lost the elections in 2009, there was never any way that March 8 would have accepted a March 14 candidate to replace Nabih Berri as speaker of the parliament.

In other words, March 8 are doing to March 14 precisely what they stopped March 14 from doing after they resigned the last time, when they argued it would be, erm, unconstitutional.

With a Hezbollah-nominated Prime Minister Lebanon’s already uncomfortable foreign policy and security situation will become even more dicey, since the United States is less likely to continue its generous supply of military and other aid. Israel has argued before that building up the Lebanese Armed Forces and security services does nothing to control Hezbollah and in practice plays into their hands. Expect to hear that argument a lot more often now.

Given the challenges ahead, Mr Hariri and his supporters should take off their “What would Hezbollah do?” armbands and have a good think about their strategy. Their main objective should be to defend Lebanese democracy and independence, and make sure the Special Tribunal for Lebanon can finish its job of bringing to justice the criminals who murdered his father and went on to assasinate many other leading politicians and journalists. Given that Hezbollah is determined to end Lebanese participation in the Tribunal (because it expects some of its members to be charged with Rafic Hariri’s murder) this might be difficult, but Saad Hariri has at his disposal all of the constitutional quirks that Hezbollah and co used to make it so difficult for him to govern.

Rather than setting more tyres alight, it’s time to light up a nargileh. This is, after all, what Sherlock Holmes would call a three pipe problem.

From the amount of ashes in the bowl, this is probably the third pipe...

I found some of the links in this post through Now Lebanon’s invaluable blogger Angie Nassar (@angienassar). Now Lebanon is itself an excellent English-language site for Lebanese news.

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Photo credits. Top: Hibr on Flickr republished under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence. Bottom: Clare Hodson on Flickr republished under the CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

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