by Franklin Lamb, Beirut
This observer tends to get a haircut about every four months whether I need it or not. But this morning I got more than a trim from my Hezbollah friend and barber, Abass, named after Abass ibn Ali, the brother of Hussein, both martyrs and heroes of the epic 680 a.d. internecine Muslim battle at Karbala in present day Iraq. The Battle of Karbala, for Hezbollah members and Shia Muslims generally, symbolizes the triumph of good over evil and the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for justice and the greater good of one’s family, community or “Ummah.” The reason for mentioning this is that my barber was ecstatic and claims his party has just experienced a “Karbala moment!”
When I mentioned that his statement could be taken different ways, since all the resistance fighters were killed at Karbala, Abass continued:
“Well, what I mean is that we in Hezbollah are pretty well known for kicking and keeping the Zionists out of Lebanon but our Party also seems to be catching on how to work in Lebanese and regional politics. And our people will benefit as we create social programs and honest government for the first time in Lebanese history. Do you agree that we are beginning to play the Lebanese political game pretty well?”
I do agree.
With a speed that surprised many here, and with equally surprising cross-sectarian acquiescence this morning, Hezbollah and its allies constitutionally toppled Hariri’s government, constitutionally imposed new consultations to form a new government, and constitutionally transformed a minority into a majority and vice versa.
Hezbollah is known for studying political subjects very carefully and being quite flexible when events warrant. Two weeks ago when the Party of God pulled 11 MPs from the pro-US Saad Hariri government, it was thinking about nominating former PM Omar Karami to replace Hariri. The two times former Prime Minister, Karami, is strongly pro-Syrian, supports the Resistance and Hezbollah keeping its weapons. He also has zero use for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that will likely indict a minimum of four Hezbollah officials. Now in his eighties, Karami is still fairly spry and may have assumed the post, if Hezbollah formally offered. In fact he might have thought the job was his but in the midst of fast moving events, Hezbollah decided to opt for nominating Nigib Mikati an American educated, Sunni billionaire who made lots of money in telecommunications and a lot more when a South African firm bought his company. Moreover, Sayyed Nasrallah said in his last speech that Omar Karami was the favored candidate, but the latter did not offer to take the job due to his old age. So the best thing to do was thought to be to talk to Mikati, as he is known to be a centrist and that his candidacy would have a less negative impact on the Hariri camp. Mikati is not close to Hezbollah and certainly has never been an ally.
In fact, Hezbollah, the Saudis, Europeans, and increasingly the Americans support Mikati as a World Bank type technocrat along the lines of former Lebanese PM Fuad Siniora or Salam Fayyad in Palestine but who can hopefully, not just ignore, but help clean up the governments rampant corruption. Hezbollah’s nominee Mikati is known as a pro western moderate who was elected to Parliament in 2009 on the US backed Hariri ticket. The US would publically endorse him except for the fact that Hezbollah nominated him with Iranian, Syrian and Saudi backing. This hostile reactive US stance may change because Washington will find it difficult to boycott Mikati since the Europeans are endorsing him. Also, the negative international reaction to the Hariri camp violence on 1/27/11 in Tripoli and Beirut is awkward for the Obama administration to justify since the US has accused the Hezbollah led opposition of using “terrorist tactics” when some elements thought to be allied with the party engaged in similar street violence in the past. So the shoe is now on the other foot.
Some of the early winners and losers 48 hours following what the pro-US March 14 team and the US State Department are still calling “the coup”:
Saad Hariri and his US backed Future Movement: Both are big political losers this morning but Saad still has a couple of important options. For the past nearly two years Saad was told by the US Embassy that Washington wanted him to “hang tough” and refuse to compromise on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The US conceived and engineered the STL in the UN Security Council to get Syria out of Lebanon and Bashar Assad out of Damascus following the Valentine Day 2005 murder of PM Rafiq Hariri and 22 others.
Saad obediently did as told and consequently lost his premiership. Hezbollah warned him several times that he would be out if he did not disavow the STL which Hezbollah views as nothing more than a US-Israeli bludgeon to try to destroy it. When the Hezbollah led opposition pulled down his government on January 12, 2011, Saad was ready to fight to keep his job. But his US and Saudi backers “stabbed Saad in the back as did some of his closest political and personal friends,” according to a Future Movement source.
Meanwhile, both Saudi Arabia and the Obama Administration realized that Saad could not secure the 65 votes from Parliament (they were right; he got just 60) so they decided to let Syria name the non-ideologue, Nigab Mikati, a personal friend of President Bashar Assad. Omar Karami may have been the first choice but he too was dropped because he also could not get 65 votes and had a checkered past including being too cozy with Syria. The US and the KSA decided better to let Syria back into the Lebanese Government than risk Iran taking complete control.
Saad Hariri reportedly feels betrayed by his fellow Sunni billionaire alliance member Mikati, who he got elected MP in 2009 on his personal ticket. But in reality Mikati’s 87% election results showed that his candidacy helped Hariri's candidates because Mikati’s name was on the ballot as part of the Hariri list. Nevertheless, their meeting yesterday morning lasted about 6 minutes and was stone cold. The Hariri TV channels including Future TV chose to publish just 30 seconds of the encounter. When Hariri left the meeting and was asked by a journalist if he would join the Mikati government he said "Lashou." (Meaning: "For what? or what's the use?" ).
Just hours later, the March 14 alliance informed Makati that it would not participate in his government. But both may still. The Saudi’s are already encouraging Saad to swallow his pride and cooperate with the next government. Eventually the Americans will likely also after they get over their shock and sour grapes and Jeffrey Feltman talks with the French and some Europeans leaders this weekend.
This morning, Saad is said to be still inconsolable by yesterday afternoon’s private session with the US Ambassador, the motherly Maury Connelly, and repeated this morning that he will not join a government “appointed by Hezbollah.” But his March 14 movement leadership is qualifying his rejection and strongly pressing PM designate Makati to put in writing for all to see a commitment that his government will not under any circumstances accept the three Hezbollah no’s. They are: no STL funding, no STL Lebanese judges working at the STL, and no Lebanese government cooperation with the STL including scrapping the Lebanese-UN Memorandum of Understanding pledging cooperation on such matter as arresting and extraditing those soon to be named by the STL.
March 14, including their leader Hariri, is still insisting on their price for participation, which is that the new government support the STL and that the Lebanese government control Hezbollah’s arms. They will lose on both demands as Hezbollah will not budge on either. Yet, discussions are being held on how to resolve these issues and, unlikely as it may appear at the moment, solutions may be found to dissolve these ‘red lines’.
If Saad stays out of the Mikati government, he will champion the STL but he will lose more March 14th support because some of his closest team members are said to be planning to jump ship and to put politics about their claimed principles in order to grab some well-paid Cabinet chairs. March 14, via Fuad Sinoria, their Parliamentary leader is making lots of noise about Hezbollah weapons but it’s largely as a bargaining chip ploy to get good cabinet posts when the time is right.
This current March14, playing hard to get stance, suits US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman, one of the architects of the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” and who is currently on his 62nd trip to the region to assure anyone listening that he and the US government “respects the sovereignty, freedom, and independence” of Lebanon, whatever any of those words mean anymore, given US actions in the region. In Paris yesterday, Feltman repeated that there persists mutual French-U.S. concern on how the Hariri cabinet was "toppled under threat and intimidation" and he emphasized the need for the US and its allies to press for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1701 (disarm Hezbollah) and 1757 (indict and convict Hezbollah).
Jeff could be forgiven for feeling a little bit like Saeb Erekat when on 10/21/09 the soon to be ex-PA “peace negotiator” complained to George Mitchell that, “The region is slipping away like sand through our hands." Feltman, not for the first time, is under great pressure from Washington and Tel Aviv to “do something!”
Rampant rumors circulating here include one that the US Embassy could be closed if, as expected, the US and Israel launch the expected massive international defamation and vilification campaign in the coming weeks timed to drive home the expected STL indictments that Washington believes will include key Hezbollah officials.
Hezbollah has the most direct control over the government of Lebanon including the Parliament, the next 30 seat Cabinet, and the government bureaucracy. Contrary to US-Israel claims the party is not thrilled with having the chance to run the government. Hezbollah sees itself as a resistance movement first, last, and always and many in the party do not relish its “pure mandate” being sullied or getting sidetracked by running Lebanon’s really complicated government.
Hezbollah will now push its clean government and anti-corruption agenda and get it enacted into law but the party is quite content to leave it to others to work constantly with all those self-absorbed sects and their leaders. To a large extent, it will operate through MPs who are not Hezbollah party members. It intends to immediately begin work on improving the big Four issues that all Lebanese urgently want addressed: water, electricity, pollution, traffic among others including the environment and jobs creation. Hezbollah wants to be seen as serving the people while it builds its resistance movement. It is preparing to unveil its domestic legislative agenda which will include most of the ten ‘good government’ initiatives that its ally Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri delivered to Mikati yesterday.
Hezbollah’s 12-member bloc told the new Prime Minster that it favored a government of “national partnership,” according to its head MP Mohammad Raad who advised the media: “Hezbollah did not set pre-conditions [on Mikati] and we won’t accept such a thing. We did not ask for specific portfolios and we await the formation process.”
Iran benefited with important political gains as it continues to rise and move in the region in the direction of Palestine.
The United States’ hegemony continues to recede in the region and is increasingly viewed; post Palestine Papers, as the enemy of Arabs and Muslim. Its pariah status grows because Washington continues to prop up, fund and arm the Zionist occupation of Palestine.
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