Presidential politics are becoming very repetitive these last two months, which is why I’m going back till 2011 today, in order to try to decipher one of the most complicated and underrated large-scale maneuvers any Lebanese party did since the Syrian withdrawal. Today’s post is on how Hezbollah managed to go through with a one-sided government without starting a mini-sectarian civil war, something M14 failed to do when they tried to achieve the same goal of ruling all by themselves in 2007/2008.
How It All Began
So let’s make a small, very simplified summary of what happened in January 2011: M14 wanted (to fund) the STL, M8 didn’t want (to fund) the STL, things started to escalate quickly, and as Hariri (who was still Prime Minister back then) was preparing to meet Obama on the 12th of January 2011, M8’s ministers in the cabinet resigned, forcing the government to collapse (The irony here is that Mikati would eventually indirectly fund the STL without asking the M8-run cabinet for the funds via a very weird loophole that he managed to find by using the money of the Prime Minister’s budget). But the thing is, Hezbollah and its allies did not have what politicians in Lebanon love to call the “blocking third”. Unlike the previous cabinet of Fouad Siniora (2008) where Hezbollah had 11 ministers out of 30 and M14 – the majority back then – still held more than half of the seats, the new Hariri cabinet of November 2009 was supposed to be a “refreshing experience”: The majority (M14) did not hold the majority of seats (only the half, 15/30), and the minority (M8) were not awarded the blocking third – 11 seats – but only 10 seats out of 30, a number that is high, yet not high enough to bring the government down in case M8 decided one day to withdraw support. The five other seats were given to the President, who was considered to be the only centrist player in the game back then. That’s how the government of November 2009 saw the light after 5 months of negotiations. Today the number “five” is nothing to the eleven months that Salam took to form his government, but back then such a number was shocking. So when the 10 ministers of M8 resigned in 2010, the cabinet was not supposed to collapse, at least not directly. Like 2006, M8 was expected to maneuver and play the sectarian card, by saying that the cabinet had no credible Shia representation, and hence – according to a very vague article in the constitution’s preamble “( J) There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of mutual existence” the president should consider the cabinet resigned and seek the formation of a more legitimate and representative one. That’s what everyone thought M8’s maneuver was, at least for the next couple hours. The speculation ended when President Michel Sleiman’s Shia representative in the cabinet (The last of the 6 resigning Shia ministers), who was always rumored to be more of a sympathizer of M8 than a centrist, submitted his letter of resignation.
It was no longer a 10 minister-resignation political maneuver in order to force some terms on the ruling alliance. It was an 11 minister-resignation and the beginning of a political coup.
Patience Is a Virtue (Part I)
From that moment on, things accelerated quickly: There were signs of Sunni discontent in Beirut and the M14 controlled regions and in the end, the President, who was probably under intense pressure from both sides, postponed the parliamentary consultations for a couple more days. As things were calming down on the political front, the front-runner was still Hariri (even Nasrallah said the Hariri would probably be nominated again at the time), as Jumblatt was still more or less part of M14 and his share in the parliament and the cabinet was still considered to be part of M14’s one. Then the unexpected happened: Rumors spread that Hezbollah had dispatched armed members of the party in Beirut, referred to by M14 as “the Black-shirts” (M14 was probably trying to compare them to Mussolini’s Camicia Nere). M8, who still had no clear candidate in mind (there were talks that Karami or Hoss might be nominated by M8, but the rumors were quickly dismissed) dropped a political bomb: They announced that they had formed an alliance with Tripoli’s key politician, Najib Mikati. Mikati had also brought with him 2 other MPs from Tripoli to the M8 side. Jumblatt – who was known to switch allegiances quite often – switched allegiance and supported Mikati’s nomination to the premiership. His 11 MP-strong bloc collapsed, and four of his MPs, who turned out to be closer to the FM than to him, stood with Hariri. Strong with Jumblatt’s 7 extra votes and Mikati’s extra 3 votes, the March 8 alliance was now, and for the first time since 2005, the ruling coalition in parliament. On the 25th of January, it was Najib Mikati, and not Saad Hariri who was designated Prime Minister. Riots started in Beirut and Tripoli. (Remember the “Day of Anger”?) Hezbollah couldn’t go forward with M8’s plan to rule without calming down the Sunni streets before making any additional step. And thus began a 5 months period of vacancy and negotiations that was probably intended for that sole purpose.
Patience Is a Virtue (Part II)
The first step of calming down the M14 regions was by giving the impression that M8 did not want to rule all by itself. For several months after Mikati was designated, M8 and M14 carried on endless negotiations that were intended to make the new cabinet a consensual “unity government”, similar to the Hariri one, except that it wouldn’t be led by Hariri. Hezbollah knew that the FM was going to put conditions, and we all knew that Hezbollah would refuse them and that M14 couldn’t possibly accept to be a minor player in the executive power especially after the way M8 removed Hariri from it. So giving the impression/illusion that a consensual cabinet was on the way was a smart maneuver.
But that first step wasn’t enough: The Arab spring had just begun, so Hezbollah had to make sure that the cabinet would not collapse right after it was formed. Hezbollah knew that the FM couldn’t escalate things/riot against the Christian FPM in the way they would do so against Hezbollah (since any demonstration against the FPM could turn into one against the Christians and would eventually weaken M14 in the Christian regions). This is why Hezbollah’s second step was to make the cabinet confrontation a Christian-Sunni one and a Christian-Christian one instead of a Shia-Sunni one. It was only a matter of time before Aoun asked for half of the cabinet’s seats (we all saw that coming), and Hezbollah’s silence on the matter made Sleiman and Mikati, who both expected to have 1 or 2 Christian ministers, panic. It also made M14’s parties shift their criticism towards Aoun and his Christian base instead of Hezbollah and its Shia base. Thus began 2 or 3 months of internal struggle over those seats between Aoun, Mikati, and Sleiman. The statements in Lebanese politics were no longer about how Hezbollah threw the FM outside, but how Aoun and the others were fighting over the leftovers of the M14 seats. As a matter of fact, the main maneuvering tactics that the cabinet adopted during its rule were based on the idea that if Aoun argued with Mikati and Mikati argued with Aoun, both would look like “heroes” within their sects and it would eventually lead to a whooping M8 victory at the 2013 general elections.
In the last months preceding the formation of the government, the media focused on something they called “العقدة السنية” (The Sunni complication). That was Hezbollah’s last maneuver of the 2011 vacancy. After the Aoun-Mikati-Sleiman mini-battle ended, Hezbollah’s two key allies in Tripoli (The Karami family and Mikati’s men) wanted to be represented in the cabinet. But the cabinet doesn’t have an endless number of Sunni seats, and most if not all of the post-Taef cabinets have had a fixed amount of seats for every sect (Maronites, Sunnis and Shias have each an equal share of 6 seats in a 30 ministers cabinet). This gave the impression that it was no longer a Sunni-Shia struggle for power, but rather a Sunni-Sunni bickering. M8’s major parties, after letting this feud go on for a while, ended the vacancy with a gesture that everyone still remembers. Berri gave up one of his Shia ministers so that M8 seemed like it did a sacrifice in order to satisfy its Sunni allies, while Hezbollah was now ruling with a cabinet that had a Sunni relative majority (7 Sunnis, 6 Maronites, 5 Shias) for the first time since years. Tripoli, the epicenter of the “Day of Anger” riots, was awarded more ministers than any other region. That maneuver made every M14 statement that would include the sentence “Hezbollah is undermining the Sunnis / Tripoli” irrelevant. The only way of describing that maneuver is by quoting Berri: “Eventually I lost a minister but won Lebanon“. They had in fact won Lebanon for two more years with that tactic.
Moreover, M8, with its endless 5-months inner fights looked like a very weak coalition that wouldn’t last long. That illusion of not lasting long led the M14 public to be more forgiving about the presence of a one-sided cabinet. It was way better for the new opposition to bring down a failing cabinet right before the 2013 elections (weirdly enough, that’s what eventually happened, although we never had those elections…) than to violently oppose it before it even got to action. And that’s how the 2011 cabinet saw the light and managed to overcome the different crises that shook the country in 2012 and 2013.
In a way, today’s political impasse is a lot similar to the one we had in 2011. Everything is not what it seems it is. In the future we’ll look at this presidential vacancy in a different perspective than we do now, just like M8’s mini-tactics were in fact a huge political maneuver (whether it was intended or not) that could have been summed up with the word “patience”.
Reminder: We still don’t have a president.
350 days (30,240,000 seconds) since the 25th of May. 186 days (16,070,400 seconds) since the 5th of November.