The Republic of Distractions

Senior state officials commemorate GS anniversary in Beirut, August 26

Senior state officials commemorate General Security’s 72nd anniversary in Beirut, Lebanon. Saturday, August 26, 2017. (The Daily Star/ Mohammad Azakir)

On the 16th of June 2017, Lebanese politicians pulled what could arguably be considered as the biggest parliamentary achievement since the Doha agreement of 2008. After 7 years of procrastination, 4 years of planification, and 6 months of deliberations only dedicated to that cause (also overshadowed by calculated procrastination), Lebanon’s ruling parties finally agreed on a new electoral law. The plan was crystal clear: Adjourn the agreement on a new voting law as much as possible (from December 2016 to June 2017), and design a law that suits the interests of the ruling coalition as whole and gives an impression of reform while practically keeping the status-quo (click here for a dedicated analysis about Lebanon’s new electoral law) . Before President Aoun was elected in October 2016, the biggest obstacle that almost made the Aoun-Hariri consensus impossible was the fact that Aoun’s term was going to last till October 2022, while Hariri would only serve till the next theoretical parliamentary election, which – at the time – was May 2017. In an ideal world of Lebanese politics, that would have meant that Hariri’s term would last 6 months while Aoun’s rule would span for 6 years. For the Future Movement, it was out of the question to trade a government they controlled (The Salam one), with a regime that had Aoun at its head and no guarantees about its long-term cabinet future. It was thus crucial for Hariri to create an equilibrium to that consensual formula, by extending his premiership term. The only way to do that was via postponing parliamentary elections, and the only way to postpone elections was by procrastinating for months about a new electoral law, not preparing for new elections under the current law (Notice how both (1) the FM made sure to keep the interior ministry – that handles electoral preparations – under their command in the new Hariri cabinet, and (2) how Aoun refused over and over again to hold elections under the 2008 law), and eventually vote a new electoral law at the last-minute, coupled with a parliamentary term extension that no one would object to.

The plan was a solid one, and just like that, in June 2017, Hariri was given 11 more months in power (in exchange for crowning Aoun in his Baabda Palace), until April 2018, effectively tripling his theoretical stay, and giving enough time for the ruling parties to change alliances accordingly to the new law and reactivate their patronage networks ahead of the 2018 rescheduled spring elections.

Lebanon’s Zuamas had probably planned that entire scenario in October when Hariri “suddenly and surprisingly” agreed to support his Arch-nemesis Michel Aoun as President, and the 8 months-old speculation became reality when Lebanon’s parties finalized their collective maneuver on the 17th of June 2017. Lebanon’s ruling parties had successfully wasted precious time procrastinating on an electoral law in order to push for a parliamentary extension, and now that the parliamentary extension became reality, the time was for distractions.

The sky is the limit for our politicians’ political maneuvers, but the greatest of all machinations remains their ability to distract the people, and sometimes even their rivals, with a particular event, while they vote a law or implement a new rule. The Summer of 2017 will go down in history as a perfect example.

Throwback February

At the very end of February, Lebanese politicians were still bickering on what electoral system is best for the country, with Amal and Hezbollah asking for full proportional representation, the PSP refusing it, and the FPM, LF, FM and other parties trying to look for something in between. However, out of nowhere, they decided that it was not only time to discuss the state budget, but it was also the time to fund the new salary wage scale by imposing new taxes. By the 20th of February, and just when it was clear the Lebanese President was not going to sign the electoral decree that calls for parliamentary elections (in theory, it was in order to pressure the MPs into voting a new electoral law, while in practice all it did was paving the way to a third cancelled parliamentary election in a row by cancelling planned elections), Lebanese politicians started discussing the new controversial taxes they wanted to impose as part of the new budget. The ruling parties made sure that the public’s attention started shifting to the new economic policies instead of the parliamentary elections that were scheduled to happen in three months.

Distraction 1.0

But there was a problem: While the public was successfully distracted with the prospect of new taxes and a modified salary scale, Lebanese politicians couldn’t vote on raising taxes in the middle of a parliamentary crisis and ahead of a planned parliamentary extension with no electoral law in sight. It was too risky as a strategy, and similar faux-pas of angering the public had previously led to protests and more momentum for the opposition parties and groups (From the Kataeb to the multiple Hirak movements). So the politicians eventually aborted their mission of raising taxes after waves of protests probably started reminding them of the Summer of 2015. After all, this time Aoun and Hariri were both in power, which meant that protests would directly threaten their influence, unlike 2015 when both leaders weren’t personally in power and could sympathize/endorse some of the protests’ ideas as a way of “smoothing” their role in power.

By the end of April, the salary scale was not voted in parliament, the taxes funding it were not voted in parliament, protest fatigue quickly happened, but the electoral deadlines had passed. The first part of the mission was accomplished (electoral distraction), but the second part (raising the taxes), was postponed.

The law and the outskirts

The electoral law wa finally agreed upon in June, and the month of July starts with Jumblatt hailing the army’s endeavors to maintain stability, followed by Hariri “hailing the heroes of the Lebanese army” a day later – a stance also reiterated 10 days later, which was then followed by Hezbollah leaders calling for the defeat of Daesh. A couple of days earlier, the Lebanese army had foiled a terrorist attack near Arsal, and Lebanese politicians saw in that developement an opportunity like no other to maneuver. Leaders from both sides of the spectrum started calling for returning the refugees to Syria, and the sentiment culminated, with Hezbollah using the momentum to start a media war on ISIS and the Syrian rebels occupying the Lebanese North-East outskirts since 2014. By the 11th and the 14th of July, Both the FPM and the LF were calling for the Syrian refugees to return, and what started as a maneuver by Hariri (in a bad timing since there was a fallout between Hariri and Jumblatt at the time) to highlight the army’s supremacy – the army that answers to his cabinet – in the North-East and undermine Hezbollah backfired and gave Hezbollah an opportunity to strengthen their propaganda.

For years, Hezbollah had been fighting in Syria with no valid direct alibi for their presence except their alliance with the Syrian regime. Now, with ISIS and Nusra’s military presence in the outskirts of Arsal, Hezbollah had finally found the opportunity to justify their actions towards the Lebanese public ahead of parliamentary elections – notably the Christian swing-voting electorate that isn’t always too happy about alliances with Assad.

Launching an offensive on the militants in the outskirts that are a few Kilometers from Baalbak would also serve as a boost for Hezbollah in a region where the party is already popular but where elections that are supposed to be held on a proportionality basis might threaten Hezbollah’s influence.

Lebanese Politicians 1 – Panicking Lebanese 0

With the anti-refugee sentiment getting stronger by the day and rumors of Hezbollah preparing for an offensive in the North-East, activist groups called for rival demonstrations regarding the Syrian refugee crisis, and for a moment, it just seemed as if the scenario of 1975 was being repeated and the rival protests were heading for a clash. Fear led to exaggeration, exaggeration led to speculation, speculation led to censorship, and we all took the bait. The Lebanese government had allowed two rival protests regarding refugees and the army to take place, and then banned all protests after an impression was given that the protesters were going to clash.
What did I forget to tell you? A tax hike parliamentary session was taking place that Tuesday, and by banning all possible protests and focusing on an imminent civil strife, the ruling class had just directly used the refugees issue to make things easier for them in parliament without anyone noticing.

Distraction 2.0

But you can’t really raise taxes in this country without anyone noticing, and the alibi of backing the wage hike with the new taxes in the middle of a refugee crisis simply wasn’t enough in a corrupt Lebanon. A bigger distraction was thus needed in order to raise the taxes: On the Tuesday the 16th of July, the day Hezbollah launched skirmishes against Arsal militants ahead of its planned offensive, parliament began by voting the new salary scale into law after waiting it out for 5 years.

There are times when political agreements seem secret and mysterious, but the coalition’s agreement on July’s events was too obvious to be true: By the 20th of July, Hezbollah was finally moving in on Arsal militants – something that was deemed unfavorable in FM circles for years – in the exact 48 hours when FM leader and PM Hariri was leaving for Washington – the last time Hariri was in Washington in his official role as Prime Minister, Hezbollah brought his government down in the most humiliating way imaginable.

Hariri’s visit had a very awkward timing: It was arguably Lebanon’s most important economic and military week since at least 2014, and if a Lebanese Prime Minister should have stayed in the country for only 1 week out of the 54 available in a year, that week would have been good candidate. It seemed as if Hariri was running away from his responsibilities, but it was more than that: He was avoiding any clash with Hezbollah about their offensive against Syrian militants on Lebanese territory, a clash that seemed a necessary distraction for the Lebanese who just had their taxes increased. In a way, a “disappearing” Hariri gave Hezbollah a free pass to launch the offensive while Hezbollah gave Hariri and his cabinet a cover to raise the taxes, and the diplomatic trip to Washington was comfortably there to make that awkward trade a smooth one.  Now of course, FM and M14 leaders criticized Hezbollah for acting without the government’s approval, but Hariri wasn’t here to oversee that awkwardness as Prime Minister or to criticize the party of God as FM leader – at least in the early stages of the offensive (he eventually criticized it in a mild way on the 26th of July) . And even within March 14, there was some ambivalence about Hezbollah’s role, with Geagea positive about that Offensive (was this the Michel Aoun within the Samir Geagea speaking?), whereas other Future Movement officials were blasting the party. It is interesting to note that Geagea changed his opinion 4 days later, blasting Hezbollah’s arms and calling the Arsal battle collateral advantage (was this the Saad Hariri within the Samir Geagea speaking?) : It’s really amazing how 4 days can Jumblattify any Lebanese politician. Speaking of Jumblattifcation, Jumblatt, who traditionally sides with the winning side, was traditionally siding with the winning side. Classic.

Introducing the Don’t Know Don’t Care policy

Hariri’s trip to the United States was no less awkward than its weird timing:  Lebanon is ‘on the front lines fighting’ Hezbollah, Trump said at a news conference following his Oval Office meeting with Hariri. I’m not sure what Hariri and Trump discussed in their meeting, but Hezbollah’s relationship with the cabinet in which it is member, as well as its offensive on militants in the North-East was obviously not part of the conversation. And the best thing about all that? The leadership of Hezbollah – a party that brought down Hariri’s cabinet while he was meeting Obama in 2011 – didn’t even bother to comment on that entire issue. In the name of mutual benefits, there was an obvious truce between the FM and Hezbollah that month, and events that could have led to military clashes in 2008 or even 2011 or 2013, went unnoticed by both parties’ leaderships.

By the 29th of July, Hezbollah had accomplished its military mission in Arsal, but also its political one in parliament, helping the Aoun-Hariri alliance raise taxes in a context of military distraction.

Elections are coming

In the world of Christian politicians, however, it seemed that the LF-FPM alliance was starting to crumble:  Hours after Gebran Bassil hinted that his party was seeking all three seats in the Jezzine governorate – excluding any LF share from the equation, Geagea was stating that he was confident of his party’s win in parliamentary election, while saying that electoral alliances have not been finalized yet. I’m not sure if that’s how the LF and the FPM flirt with each other now, but it seemed as if both parties were trying to take the upper hand in negotiating the number of seats for each party. There is definitely no previous agreement on how they’re going to share a united parliamentary list of candidates, and this would open the door for the FM and Hezbollah to manipulate each of their historic allies in a hope to break up a Christian alliance that has been more awkward for the Muslim parties than anyone else. The FPM, anxious to light up the country with electricity after 9 years in power – ahead of the parliamentary elections (for obvious reasons), were dealing with corruption scandals, while Aoun and his son-in-law were touring in his home district of Batroun and launching infrastructure plans. Election season is coming, and Lebanese politicians remember.

The threat of losing in the next elections was ever-present as always for the FPM and its allies in the coalition, and in the spirit of building on their current political upper hand ahead of unpredictable elections and unpredictable alliances that would precede it, they consolidated their influence both in the judiciary and in public administrations by removing judges (who were influencial in thwarting some of the corruption scandals) and replacing them with others – so much for separation of powers – while appointing their own men as public servants in a strategy to weaken the only party in the parliamentary opposition. The FPM was removing pro-Kataeb public servants and rewarding its own men with new key positions.

The FPM and LF’s maneuvering ahead of parliamentary elections was also clear in the cabinet’s minor and major decision. On the 16th of August, lawmakers approved the establishment of a new administrative division (governorate) of Keserwan-Jbeil, splitting the historical Mouhafaza of Mount-Lebanon into two for the first time in the history of the republic. That move was a selective administrative decentralization towards a district expected to be the heart of the Christian political battle in 2018: Whoever wins Keserwan is usually given the title of legitimate Christian representative by the media. The new Mouhafaza was smart propaganda, giving the impression that the FPM and the LF were working in favor of Christian interests, while using the Kataeb demands of administrative decentralization against them, also drawing a virtual line between the Kataeb Metn stronghold and the potential territory up North the phalangists could ‘conquer’ in June 2018. That move also creates a “Southern Mount-Lebanon” that is now more religiously mixed than ever, potentially giving Jumblatt more influence over 4 Cazas while feeding a policy of sectarian isolation that would only benefit the FPM, the LF, and the PSP.

Who fights for the North-East?

In its battle against militants in July, Hezbollah established control over Nusra’s territories in the outskirts of Arsal, but had not yet attacked the outskirts of Kaa and Ras Baalbak controlled by ISIS. This was probably due to the fact that Hezbollah wanted to keep some action for other times of need, and for the fact that a clash between ISIS and the Lebanese army, that answers to the Hariri cabinet, would be more appropriate for Hariri than a clash between the LAF and more mainstream Syrian rebels such as Nusra.

From the end of July, it was well established that Hezbollah would have a lesser role in an offensive on the North-East’s ISIS controlled territories – especially that they lie on the outskirts of two Christian towns, Kaa and Ras Baalbak.

When Berri said that the army would play a bigger role in Ras Baalbak as soon as the battles in Arsal’s outskirts ended, and reiterated this stance 5 days later from Tehran, it looked as if Berri was trying to lessen of Hezbollah’s increasing influence in the Bekaa as part as a genius political maneuver from the speaker. What was actually happening however, was something entirely different. By refusing to attack the remaining outskirts, Hezbollah – in the spirit of its detente with the FM – was giving Hariri what he asked for: His cabinet’s control of the military operations in the North-East.

Nasrallah nevertheless wanted to include Hezbollah in this operation to claim Hezbollah’s victory, but in a way that made it less awkward for Hariri, his cabinet, and the army: He stated that Hezbollah and the Syrian army would attack Daesh from the Syrian side of the border. That statement would cause chaos in Lebanese politics: In that context, agitating March 8 ministers wanted to use the momentum to their advantage. Three ministers publicly said that they would visit Syria in order to improve/normalize relations with the Syrian regime as official representatives of the Lebanese cabinet. That move would embarrass Hariri, whose cabinet quickly un-endorsed the official character of the ministers’ visits, But the visits happened nonetheless, and the ministers still insisted they were participating as representatives of the government anyway.

While you can obviously feel the chemistry between the coalition members (this is sarcasm, in case you were wondering), a political clash like this one would have blown up governments in the past. In other words, the truce that had been active since June 2017 was still in place in August. No one cared about escalating a diplomatic confusion in Syria. The 2017 taxes and 2018 elections were everything that mattered.

Distraction 3.0

It’s not nice to go down in history as the President who sole economic achievement in his first year in power is raising taxes. It’s also not nice to be that person when elections come knocking on your son-in-law’s door in 9 months. Which is why Aoun was reluctant about immediately signing the tax law, especially that Hariri’s absence from the country would have given the impression that the taxes were mainly Aoun’s idea and responsibility. So Aoun, who clearly knows his Lebanese politics, refused to sign the voted tax law at first, waiting an entire month before signing the new numbers and percentages into law. Still, a distraction was obviously preferable at the moment of signing.

So on the 19th of August, and after 2 weeks of momentum building for the Ras Baalbak and Arsal offensives, the army finally launched the Fajr Al-Jouroud operation against ISIS in the North-East, eventually winning in its battles against the terrorists and quickly liberating most of the Daesh occupied territories on the outskirts of Ras Baalbak and Al-Qaa within days, preparing for the 4th stage of the Assault on the 23rd of August.

Guess what happened in the meantime? In the middle of the military battle, Aoun, who had visited the outskirts in the weekend in a show of support for the army,  signed the salary scale and tax laws three days later, on the 22nd of August…and almost no one noticed. Smooth.

Quadripartite formulas and imaginary victories

“This great achievement (…) is one of the results of the golden Army-people-Resistance formula, added to it the Syrian Army”

Hezbollah chief Nasrallah threw a political bomb on the 24th of August, expanding March 8’s tripartite formula by adding to it the Syrian army, embarrassing in the process Hariri and his anti-Syrian regime allies, and picturing an offensive that was led by the army against terrorists in the Lebanese outskirts as part of a battle in the Syrian regime’s greater war. That quote obviously caused an uproar within March 14 and its media: Hezbollah had obviously tried to hijack a Hariri victory after offering it to him on a silver plate, showing a Lebanese government cooperating with the Syrian regime.

But that was nothing compared to the military fiasco that would follow in the next few days: As ISIS surrendered, negotiations happened with the militants, and it was agreed that ISIS terrorists – that could have been captured, annihilated or even starved to death by the Lebanese army surrounding them in the outskirts – would be free to leave to ISIS-held territories in buses,  in exchange for ensuring the safe return of nine Lebanese soldiers kidnapped when Isis overran the area in 2014. The deal favored Hezbollah since it allowed the release of Hezbollah and some Syrian regime allies hostages, but was a total humiliation for the Lebanese state as hundreds of terrorists – who executed its soldiers and published execution footage – were allowed to leave, unpunished for their crimes. Nasrallah had to contain the damage quickly, and in his second speech within days, claimed victory in an attempt to change the conversation from terrorists escaping punishment to liberation and territorial conquests. But there was no pride in what happened: In the aftermath of the deal, the Lebanese authorities had allowed murderers and enemies of the state to escape punishment, and indirectly transferred and exported terrorists by allowing them to leave, in exchange of ISIS giving up the outcome of the Lebanese abducted soldiers, who turned out to be all dead – an information apparently known by the authorities since February 2015, and cruelly hidden from the martyr’s families and the public.

ISIS no longer had any leverage on the Lebanese authorities, and the Lebanese authorities had let them leave unscathed, for the simple reason that ISIS had leverage on the Syrian regime in other parts of Syria and that the Syrian regime obviously had a leverage on the Lebanese authorities. No matter how our politicians try to picture it, what started as a campaign to establish Lebanese sovereignty in the North-East ironically turned out to be the exact opposite. Does it really matter who rules the arid oustskirts if we end up with no accountability for the terrorists who bombed our cities and slaughtered our soldiers?

Sweetening the deal

In 2013, just after the parliament voted its first parliamentary extension, it gave up a gift in order to legitimize that extension, by pushing for a law advocating for protecting women from domestic violence. That same strategy lives on in 2017, with the parliament legitimizing its third parliamentary extension, its electoral law, and its tax raise by scrapping the controversial rape-marriage law and voting for an animal welfare law. The cabinet was also helping out in that legitimization process by appointing women in diplomatic vacancies.

With the objectives of the ruling parties completed in parliament via calculated distractions that ultimately served their purpose, expect an environment of political escalation between Hezbollah and the FM as they progressively start to brace themselves for elections. Summer is almost over, and with it, the time for moderation. With everything requiring consensus – such as government formations, taxes and electoral laws – decided, the next chapter is about forming the electoral alliances, and with those alliances comes political escalation.

Brace yourselves for political debates about every single thing happening in the country. It’s going to be fun. After all, we’re finally heading towards our first parliamentary election in a decade.

This was the 30th post in a series of bimonthly / monthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics since June 2014. This post is about the months of June, July and August 2017.

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