Employees of Lebanon’s public sector may soon stop receiving their paychecks, media reports warned in early August. Precisely when most Lebanese are scrambling to cover back-to-school expenses, nearly a fifth of the population (counting dependents) could be left without income. Delays and shortfalls are notorious in the public sector, and with the economy and state revenues crippled by the war in Syria, public finances may soon fall into disarray. This particular episode, however, is more indicative of self-destructive political brinkmanship and the disregard with which Lebanon’s political leadership exploits the fears of citizens. Both the Lebanese government and Parliament would have to convene to release the funds. Yet the March 8 coalition is blocking the formation of a new government and sabotaging the current one; while the March 14 alliance is retaliating by boycotting Parliament. Ordinary Lebanese may become hostages to this.
Most likely, the problem will be resolved at the last minute through an administrative shortcut that circumvents blocked political institutions. Once again, all sides will keep face by acquiescing to yet another breach of due process while continuing their strategies of confrontation, which paralyze the institutions of the state at the moment they are needed most. While the involvement of Lebanese non-state actors on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war increasingly threatens internal stability, Lebanese leaders would rather sacrifice their institutions than compromise.
Both political camps in Lebanon have high stakes in the Syrian conflict, which entangles them ever deeper. For Hezbollah, what is at stake is much more than supply routes and rear bases. If Syria were to fall, the whole ideological project of the party and its patron Iran – building a regional alliance against Israel, the U.S., and their Arab clients – would collapse. Contrary to the assertions of its detractors, Hezbollah’s military assets were never tools to achieve a better deal for Shiites in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system. And contrary to the party line, defending Lebanon is not Hezbollah’s primary purpose – unless it requires defending Homs and Damascus.
The stakes are equally high, if slightly more convoluted, on the other side. Since its ignominious defeat at the hands of Hezbollah and its allies in May 2008, the Future Movement and the Hariri family have lost growing numbers of followers to extremist groups and firebrand clerics. As the Syrian conflict rages, radicals are becoming increasingly prominent in Lebanon’s Sunni neighborhoods. This means that the movement risks either irrelevance or a confrontation with Hezbollah that it cannot win. For the Future Movement, only a rebel triumph in Syria – an outcome it is supporting by mediating transfers of arms and fighters into the country – could tilt the balance back to a more equal relationship with a humbled Hezbollah.
In March, Lebanon’s government was the first casualty of these pressures, and parliament soon followed. All attempts to find a consensual electoral law for the upcoming elections failed. Parliamentarians simply opted to postpone the polls and extend their own mandate by 17 months, but haven’t convened since.
Whether a divided parliament of questionable legitimacy will be able to elect a successor to Lebanese President Michel Sleiman after his term expires in May 2014 remains unclear. Already, mouthpieces for Hezbollah are calling for the president’s resignation after he argued that the “resistance,” because it was dragging Lebanon into the Syrian conflict, was losing its raison d’être. In addition, the paralysis of the political institutions has affected the security forces: Because the government is unable to compromise on appointees for leadership positions, the retirement of the Amy commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and the military chief of staff Walid Salman had to be postponed.
Even political actors ostensibly upholding the rule of law and due process are doing so for self-serving reasons, further contributing to the stalemate. The Free Patriotic Movement, led by Michel Aoun, has rejected all extensions and postponements, including those in the military sector. A retiring Army chief would have opened the position for Gen. Shamel Roukouz – Aoun’s son in law.
Also, active Army chiefs are auspicious candidates for president, and retiring Kahwagi nine months before elections would have weakened him as a potential contender for an office Aoun wants for himself. Since Aoun is turning 80 this year, it might well be his last shot at the presidency – another reason he is refusing extensions on principle, lest anybody think of postponing presidential elections as well.
To uphold this principle, the FPM has also boycotted parliament, facilitating the March 14 boycott, which would otherwise lack the numbers to paralyze the body. The ambitions of yet another Aoun son-in-law, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, have also contributed to the standstill, making it even easier for March 14 to blame March 8 for lack of progress, and for Hezbollah to deflect the blame for the governmental crisis.
Meanwhile, a permanent Army presence is required to prevent fighting between Alawites and Sunnis in Tripoli. The eastern Bekaa valley is caught in an endless cycle of tit-for-tat shootings and kidnappings between Sunni and Shiite Lebanese communities, which support their counterparts in Syria and the related political camps in Lebanon. Army units have repeatedly gotten into the line of fire.
In late June the Army fought followers of a Salafist preacher that left more than 20 soldiers dead near the mixed southern city of Sidon. On Aug. 15, a car bomb left over 20 dead and 300 injured in Beirut’s southern suburbs, after prior attacks had incurred lesser damage. Only hours after Sleiman’s proposal that Hezbollah’s militia should become part of the Lebanese Army (an idea media close to the party called “outrageous”), missiles of unknown provenance hit the vicinity of the Presidential Palace and Army headquarters. It wasn’t clear if this was a response to the speech, or perhaps a maneuver designed to implicate Hezbollah and validate the president’s point.
There is a growing risk that soon the Army – overstretched, underfunded, with increasing losses among elite units and a leadership of shaky legitimacy – will be reduced to an ineffective buffer between would-be combatants who insist on taking care of their own “security” by means of checkpoints, vigilantes and militia control. From there, major clashes would only be a matter of time.
Geography and history dictate Lebanon’s inevitable entanglement in Syria’s civil war. Yet its leaders are pushing the country over the brink; they are gambling with the livelihood and safety of their people. If they were to set aside their differences and refrain from putting more oil on the fire, they could rally around the Army – the last institution with a semblance of national integrity – possibly suspending Lebanon in midair for some time. As things stand, in Lebanon and Syria alike, the fear is it might simply be too late.
Heiko Wimmen is a research associate in the Middle East and Africa division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).