Lebanon’s national dialogue highlights region’s complexities

Sunday 07/08/2016
Time is running short

BEIRUT - A fresh attempt to con­vince Lebanon’s political rivals to shelve their dis­putes and come up with solutions to the coun­try’s multiple crises has failed, to no one’s surprise.

National dialogue sessions, Au­gust 2nd-4th in Beirut and hosted by House Speaker Nabih Berri, became another reminder that the political parties, which are divided over al­most every issue, are not ready to make concessions.

Although they admitted the grow­ing dangers threatening Lebanon’s stability, the dialogue members wrapped up their meetings with no tangible results. The prospect of the election of a new president in the near future is still far-fetched and disagreements over a new electoral law persist while — on perhaps a positive note — the issues of admin­istrative decentralisation and the es­tablishment of a senate were put on the table.

To some, the fact that the rivals, including senior members of pro- Saudi Sunni Future Movement led by former prime minister Saad Hariri and of Iran-backed Shia Hez­bollah, headed by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, met around the national dialogue table was enough to defuse Sunni-Shia tensions and maintain the country’s fragile stability.

Though it is partly true, much more is needed to avoid the collapse of the country.

“Lebanon is a microcosm that re­flects what goes on in the region,” said Hilal Khashan, chairman of the political studies department at the American University of Beirut. “The Lebanese can talk among them­selves, even though they realise it won’t be possible for them to agree on anything as long as the region is in a state of disarray.”

True, the economy is weak and the machinery of the state is hardly functional, Khashan noted, “yet there is an international and re­gional understanding on preventing their collapse.”

Western and regional powers have made it clear to Lebanese leaders that they need to reach an internal understanding themselves.

“Presently, there is no power, whether regional or international, that can or is willing to impose a specific settlement on the Lebanese concerning the presidential elec­tions or the new electoral law,” said Kassem Kassir, a political analyst well informed about Hezbollah and an expert on Islamic movements.

Kassir explained that Berri “felt the heat” of the growing tension and wars in the region and thus called on the Lebanese rivals to meet “to avoid reaching the point of no re­turn”.

With each party betting on devel­opments in the region to boost its position and secure more gains in­ternally, time is running short.

“We still have six to seven months but, if we don’t produce a new elec­toral law or elect a new president, we will be heading to a constitution­al crisis that would lead to renewed demands for holding a new constit­uent conference (to change the cur­rent political system),” Kassir said.

Lebanon has been without a head of state since May 2014 because par­liament has been unable to convene due to a lack of quorum to choose a successor to former president Michel Suleiman. Hezbollah parlia­mentarians and their Christian al­lies of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) have boycotted the votes in an attempt to force the election of their candidate, FPM leader Michel Aoun.

In any case, a settlement would require concessions from both par­ties, which are delaying that mo­ment, awaiting a breakthrough in the Syria war or the Saudi-Iran dia­logue — each for its own advantage.

Nothing indicates that Tehran and Riyadh are any closer reaching agreement. On the contrary, they are increasing the pressures on each other.

“It is the time for each one of them (Iran and Saudi Arabia) to im­prove its bargaining position. More escalation looms on the horizon and it will get worse before it can get better,” Khashan said. “Distrust of Iran runs deep in the Arab psyche. [Iran] needs to convince Arabs that it is abandoning its politics of mis­chief.”

Iran, he said, wants recognition as a “paramount regional power”, not only in the Gulf but also in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Saudis totally distrust the Iranian leadership who turned down repeated efforts in the past to “usher in mutually ben­eficial relations” with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

“Iran is bent on imperial expan­sionism and Saudi Arabia is deter­mined to arrest its surge,” Khashan said.

Kassir said the Saudis could sof­ten their position if Iran facilitates an agreement to end the Yemen war that is satisfactory to them, helps achieve a settlement in Syria, makes concessions in Bahrain and most importantly assures them about its role in the region.

“But Yemen is the key for any Saudi-Iranian dialogue,” he said. “However, the region needs a ma­jor settlement whereby the Saudis would feel they are a strong party and Iran, which is to respect that, will have its own niche.”

Until then, the Lebanese want their leaders to end the political deadlock before possibly being forced to act under the impact of a major security development — as many security and political sources fear.