March 14 urgently needs a new impetus


No one likes to take a prediction back, but last week I wrote that Michel Aoun would be unable to win as large a parliamentary bloc in next year’s elections as he controls today. Three developments in the past week indicate why this reading may have been over-optimistic; and why those of us who focus on Aoun’s undoubted loss of power in the past three years might also be guilty of overstating his failings to our own peril.

The first development is the precariously insular mood of the Christian community, which the beatification of Yaaqoub Haddad last Sunday illustrated well. Christians assembled massively for the event, which was understandable, but by way of contrast (since nothing political could have similarly galvanized them) this affirmed how detached the community is toward the larger issues afflicting Lebanon – Syria’s persistent efforts to reimpose its writ and Hizbullah’s challenges to the sovereignty of the state.

Many things explain this Christian lassitude. Like most Lebanese, Christians have had enough of the political deadlock. Where Haddad’s story was inspirational, Lebanon’s today is anything but. More disturbingly, the community feels itself in permanent decline, therefore politically irrelevant. All this favors Aoun, who feeds off Christian frustration. While the general has lost ground, while many Christians now look at him with as much cynicism as they do other politicians, he still has a loyal core of followers who will mobilize amid the ambient indifference, even as his Christian adversaries gain little from his setbacks.

A second reason is that Michel Murr, the powerbroker in the Metn, may be more vulnerable than we thought – which means that Aoun will be less vulnerable in the Metn next year. In past elections, Murr’s strength has come from two phenomena: his alliance with the Armenians and his ability to act as a bridge between the disparate Metn constituencies – his own voters, Amin Gemayel’s electorate, the Armenians, the Aounists in 2005, and other smaller groups, such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s sympathizers. The situation appears to be changing today.

Murr’s priority appears to be to ensure that his son, Elias, will be appointed defense minister. Because the portfolio is important to determine who will be named to top military posts, including that of commander of the army and head of military intelligence, the Murrs are under pressure from the opposition to offer guarantees on these appointments before a government can be formed. It also appears that the Tashnak Party’s alliance with Aoun is stronger than many suspected and does not necessarily pass through Michel Murr. If so, this may compel the Murrs to recalculate in 2009. Reports in recent days, for example, have suggested that Michel Murr may be trying to reopen a channel to Aoun. He needs Armenian votes to win in the district; the Armenians are not about to abandon Aoun, but are hostile to Amin Gemayel after the way he condemned the community after his loss in the 2007 by-election; and the Murrs are not in the best of postures because of their Cabinet demands. What you may have in the making is a winning Aoun campaign, which Aoun’s substantial funds from various patrons will help lubricate.

A third reason why writing Aoun off could be premature is that the March 14 coalition, particularly in the past week, has only confirmed how devoid it is of stirring ideas. If many Christians are far less enthusiastic than they were about Aoun, they have not transferred their enthusiasm to the majority. And yet there are things the March 14 leadership can and must do to behave like a majority and regain the initiative nationally.

For starters, the government and March 14 need to show more imagination when dealing with the social and economic crisis – the main concern today of all Lebanese. What has the government done to make this a priority? What has the majority done? There is no lack of money among states supporting March 14, no lack of interest from the Lebanese diaspora, to fund projects that might increase employment and reinforce the impression that the parliamentary majority, like Rafik Hariri once, stands for economic prosperity. The government may have limited constitutional powers today, but nothing prevents it from proposing practical measures alleviating the socioeconomic burden on the Lebanese that a new government could take up. In its rhetoric, March 14 almost never constructively tackles the population’s declining purchasing power.

Much more also needs to be done by the majority to outline a vision of a Lebanese state that can eventually overcome Hizbullah’s vision of a non-state. Christians won’t embrace that vision if they believe the majority is no better than Hizbullah. But the reality is that Saad Hariri cannot define such a vision when he appears to be losing control over his justifiably angry Sunni community – in Saadnayel, Taalbaya, and Tripoli. Nominally, most Sunnis are staunchly behind the Future Movement, but on the ground the dynamics say the Hariri camp is being overtaken by events.

It is troubling, for example, that Hariri has not traveled once to Tripoli and the Akkar since the fighting last May. Yet it is essential for him to place his stamp on developments in that area, show his face with a Sunni base that has become, for better or worse, his street muscle, and most importantly prevent the Sunnis of the North from taking their resentment of Hizbullah too far, because the result will be open war. Hariri has no choice. A moderate, he will nonetheless be blamed for any upsurge in Sunni extremism. There are reports he is reorganizing the Future Movement. That’s long overdue, but his priority must be to see to it that Tripoli and the Sunni areas around it, like the Sunni areas in the Bekaa Valley, are not lost to the state as are the areas under Hizbullah control.

March 14 still has a great deal in its favor, but it needs to develop a strategy that draws maximal benefit from these advantages. It needs, first of all, to talk to the Christians on their own terms. Muslim leaders in March 14 rarely ever address the concerns of Christians, never even make an appearance in their districts, abandoning too many of them to Michel Aoun. A single visit by Saad Hariri to St. Joseph University to exchange ideas with students, to lay out his plan for a future Lebanon, to discuss the anxieties of the young, perhaps also to defend, or conversely apologize for, the quadripartite electoral agreement of 2005, would have a tremendous impact. If March 14 represents a majority, then it should show it.

March 14 also needs to develop a coordinated election strategy to make certain that Christian rivalries inside March 14 won’t facilitate a new Aoun victory in Mount Lebanon next year. This means forming consensual candidate lists as soon as is feasible, preferably in coordination with Michel Sleiman, who enjoys Christian support. It also means initiating required reconciliations where possible. Amin Gemayel, for example, needs to quickly resolve his differences with the Armenians in Metn, while Saad Hariri should explore a new relationship with Tashnak in Beirut, even if he loses a parliamentary seat in the process. The long-term gains from that could well counterbalance the disadvantages.

And most importantly, in defending a state project March 14, particularly the Future Movement, needs to show that it has a tight rein on what is today a humiliated and confused Sunni community. Hariri cannot defend the project of a stronger state while allowing the Sunnis outside Beirut to slip further into a war mentality. That Hizbullah’s recklessness is to blame for this goes without saying. But national suicide, to borrow from Michel Sleiman, will spare no one. And if Lebanon goes down that path, Syria will very likely again be tasked with imposing order on the country, ending the fragile freedom we won three short years ago.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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