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Lebanon poised for prolonged political stalemate

Rival political leaders gather at the National Dialogue table at Baabda Palace, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

With its rival political leaders not talking to each other to defuse sectarian tensions linked to the 20-month-old bloody conflict in Syria, Lebanon appears to be poised for a prolonged political crisis.

With the current stalemate anything could happen, from the opposition March 14 bloc’s escalating its street protests to bring down the government to incidents that can jolt the country’s security.

The Nov. 11 clash between supporters of Hezbollah and Sunni preacher Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in Sidon that left three people dead, last month’s assassination of the country’s top intelligence official and frequent clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the northern city of Tripoli have raised fears about the country’s security and stability amid local and international concerns over a spillover of the turmoil in neighboring Syria into Lebanon.

Worse still, the two regional heavyweights – Saudi Arabia and Syria – that used to intervene in the past to prevent the country’s slide into sectarian violence and even to help in the government formation efforts, are currently locking horns over the uprising in Syria. This situation, which further complicates things in Lebanon, has left the feuding parties on their own to iron out their political differences and try to reach a deal to prevent the country from drifting toward the abyss.

Furthermore, Israel’s current military blitz against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which has left more than 60 Palestinians dead and over 460 wounded since the start of the assault Wednesday, has for now overshadowed attempts to bring the feuding parties to the dialogue table as popular and government attention has been shifted to the Gaza conflict and its possible implications on Lebanon.

“Unless the March 14 [parties] drop their conditions for National Dialogue, the current political stalemate is expected to drag on for long,” a ministerial source told The Daily Star.

Similarly, the March 14 coalition has reiterated its demand for the resignation of the government and the formation of “a neutral salvation Cabinet” as a prerequisite for attending a new round of National Dialogue, which President Michel Sleiman has been trying to convene in a bid to solve the political crisis touched off by the Oct. 19 assassination of police intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan.

Seeking to meet the March 14 demand for a Cabinet change, Sleiman, who has been consulting with National Dialogue members, has signaled his readiness to discuss the possibility of a forming a new government at the dialogue table.

However, Sleiman’s stance has so far failed to budge the March 14 parties on their insistence on the formation of a new Cabinet as a condition for attending a National Dialogue session.

“No dialogue before the government’s resignation. As long as the government remains in office, there can be no dialogue with the other [March 8] side,” Beirut MP Ammar Houri told The Daily Star.

“The formation of a neutral salvation Cabinet is the key to resuming National Dialogue,” he said.

Asked if the March 14 coalition was planning to escalate its protests to force the government’s resignation, Houri, who belongs to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc, said: “The March 14 parties will use all democratic and legal means to bring down the government.”

Some March 14 politicians have suggested that civil disobedience could be used as part of the coalition’s escalatory moves to force the government to step down.

The killing of Hasan, along with his driver and a woman in a car bomb in the Beirut district of Ashrafieh has provided the opposition with new ammunition to press with its long-sought demand for the government’s resignation.

“The martyrdom of Hasan will not pass easily. Our demand is to bring down the government, not for the sake of power but for the sake of security ... The toppling of the government peacefully is the only way to reach a real dialogue in the country,” Hariri said in an interview with Future TV last month.

However, given the parties’ conflicting attitudes on how to break the current deadlock, the ministerial source ruled out an early breakthrough in the crisis which raised Arab and international concerns over stability in Lebanon following political and sectarian tensions stoked by Hasan’s killing.

“The chances of National Dialogue are dim because the other [March 14] side has linked dialogue to the government’s resignation,” the source said.

The source added that if the March 14 parties stood firm on their rejection of dialogue before the government’s resignation, “there would be no solution and the political crisis with all its repercussions would drag on.”

Another ministerial source from the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance ruled out the formation of a new Cabinet as demanded by the March 14 parties before attending a dialogue session: “There will be no dialogue or a new Cabinet. The government’s resignation will throw the country into further political malaise and a power vacuum.”

Arab and Western countries have voiced concerns for stability and a power vacuum in Lebanon following the opposition’s calls for the government’s resignation. The March 14 coalition has called on Prime Minister Najib Mikati to step aside after accusing his government of complicity with the Syrian regime in Hasan’s assassination. The coalition has also announced a total boycott of the government and all Cabinet-related meetings in Parliament as part of its moves to pressure the government to resign.

In an implicit criticism of the March 14 stance on National Dialogue, Sleiman again underlined the need for rival Lebanese parties to engage in dialogue, saying that the talks must not be conditional.

“Dialogue should be unconditional and not just temporary,” Sleiman said in a statement Saturday.

In what was seen as a toughening of the March 8 stance on all-party talks, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has rejected as “meaningless” March 14 calls for the formation of a neutral or technocrat government, but said the possibility of a Cabinet change could be discussed only at a National Dialogue session.

However, Nasrallah’s statement drew a quick response from Hariri’s Future bloc which accused the Hezbollah chief of closing the door to National Dialogue.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 19, 2012, on page 3.

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