Dialogue detour

President Michel Sleiman, right, heads a session of the National Dialogue at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Monday, June 11, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

With the next National Dialogue session looking very much in jeopardy, it is perhaps time for the president to create a new method in addressing urgent issues.

Over the weekend, President Michel Sleiman urged rival parties to prioritize Lebanon’s interests above their own, but with March 14 vowing to pull out of Tuesday’s session, after Hezbollah has said it will refuse to discuss certain issues, this looks like an impossible task.

After a long hiatus, Sleiman successfully convened the first dialogue session in June. The main item on the agenda was always to be the national defense strategy, alongside the pressing issues of Syria, the general security – or insecurity – situation, and the economy.

The opposition, believing this might bring with it a long-awaited opportunity to discuss non-state arms, were cautiously optimistic. Many were skeptical it would bring any meaningful breakthrough, while others saw it as a chance to bring together those most powerful political players – rhetoric between which has become increasingly fiery over recent months.

However, the first session showed that the issue of non-state arms was to be quietly swept under the carpet, amid a backdrop of an ever deteriorating security situation across the country – from its borders to city streets, where, despite “security month,” burglaries and road blockages have carried on unabated – which has just sought to underscore what little respect people have for the authorities and their capabilities.

Asides from this, there have been ongoing disagreements within government itself, over internal appointments and other issues, revealing this is more a leadership divided than united.

With Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad explicitly stating last week that it is premature to debate the country’s defense strategy before complete liberation from Israel, he has effectively removed the one issue which was drawing March 14 to the table.

This stance is also a snub to the president, who had stipulated the issue was the primary purpose of re-convening National Dialogue in the first place.

March 14 has also realized that participating in dialogue sessions affords the government, which is failing on so many levels, a chance to redeem itself, and to deflect attention from its myriad mistakes thus far.

Sleiman has vowed not to cancel or postpone the session, but with the opposition absent, it won’t really fulfill either “national” or “dialogue” qualifications. What is more necessary is a firm commitment to a schedule of items to be discussed, including non-state arms.

If National Dialogue sessions are unable to defuse the increasingly fractious political atmosphere and security climate, it is essential for the president to find some other mechanism to address these most urgent of issues. Ministers, nevertheless, continue to spar and bicker over how big everyone’s slice of the pie will be, even if the process appears to be entirely unconstitutional.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2012, on page 7.




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