The Crisis of March 14

Ibrahim al-Amin

Originally posted on Al-Akhbar English, 29 October 2012

Al-Akhbar’s editor-in-chief dissects the internal crisis threatening to bring down the March 14 alliance. The movement, he concludes, lacks a “voice of reason” to help it adapt to new realities and the loss of much of its foreign support.

In addition to his role as UN Under-Secretary-General for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman is also preoccupied with his role in Lebanese politics.

According to documents from the US state department published by Wikileaks, Feltman is the spiritual and the practical guide for most of the March 14 figures.

Because of assuming this role and following developments in Lebanon closely, he got quite angry last Sunday [the funeral of assassinated Wissam al-Hassan] and busied himself sending e-mails to leading personalities, politicians, consultants and decision-makers in the March 14 Movement.

His analysis of the regional and global situation was brief. He ended by describing what March 14 supporters did in downtown Beirut as rash and irresponsible. His advice for them was to go back home and stay calm.

In Beirut, the US ambassador Maura Connelly faced her first test with the influential figures of March 14. As far as she is concerned, these figures have little to no room for dissent when faced with a decision from a major external power. Nevertheless, she was forced to raise her voice and to use firm language in presenting her country’s point of view on the current crisis.

She told the Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea that the assassinated security chief Wissam al-Hassan was a successful officer but that he was an officer nonetheless and it is unacceptable to turn the country upside down because an officer was killed.

She told former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel, former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and the advisors of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri that the situation is not necessarily what they think, and that their calculations and reading of the situation overestimate their capabilities.

Calls for toppling the Lebanese government are perhaps justified, but how are they to achieve this goal, the US ambassador wondered. Who among them has guarantees that the resignation of the current government will directly lead to the emergence of a new government? Lebanon’s stability should not be shaken at this point.

The British and French ambassadors played a supporting role. The Lebanese Francophone politicians waged a campaign against the French ambassador in Lebanon because he sought to set up direct communication between the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and the Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

The prime minister heard unequivocal statements that the French government does not back any attempt to topple the government, that they do not want to see political vacuum in Lebanon and have no guarantees that a new government would be formed if he were to tender his resignation.

MP Marwan Hamadeh strongly protested the opinions of Western ambassadors regarding the situation in Lebanon, and even flew out to meet the French foreign minister.

Hamadeh’s problem is twofold: First, he left a bad impression among staff at the French embassy in Beirut because he acted as though “they do not know what is happening in Lebanon.” His second problem is with MP Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and head of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), who had verified the French position during a phone call with Fabius himself. In addition, Hamadeh claimed to his colleagues in March 14 that the French position is more resolute than the US position.

The British embassy received assistants of former prime minister Hariri. The ambassador heard criticism of the Western position that has served as a cover for the government’s survival. The ambassador said calmly: “let me hear what kind of an alternative plan you have if this government resigns.”

After all these meetings, foreign ambassadors sensed the difficult situation in which March 14 finds itself. But what is to be done? Connelly said she played a direct role with the US state department in issuing a statement emphasizing the West’s support for Lebanese President Michel Sleiman’s efforts to form a new national unity government. Connelly told her Lebanese interlocutors that until the president’s efforts are fruitful they will not agree to topple the government.

The ambassadors returned to their offices but they received more unpleasant reports. The number of those participating in Hassan’s funeral was very small. Not to mention the number of non-Lebanese participants, particularly Palestinians and Syrians.

Gemayel informed March 14 forces who came to his house to “appease him” that he can no longer take this “exclusionary way of taking decisions without prior consultations.” Gemayel vented his anger to March 14 General Secretariat Coordinator Fares Soaid, asking who was really behind the attack on the Grand Serail – the prime minister’s headquarters.

Gemayel also angrily asked who decided to raise the flag of the Syrian opposition instead of the Lebanese flag during the protests. The former president also broached a central point of contention within March 14 by rejecting the unilateral decision to boycott the national dialogue.

Geagea’s problem is of a different kind. Only a few hundred LF supporters participated in Hassan’s funeral. But a few LF members with a well-known history of working on the ground headed the group that attacked the Grand Serail. Then the situation spiraled out of control and Geagea was forced to withdraw, absolving himself of responsibility for what was going on.

But Geagea’s reading is different too. At this moment of high tension, he gathered his cadres and explained the general picture to them. He spoke of a “real problem between Saudi Arabia and the US” regarding the Lebanese crisis. Geagea did not tell his cadres that the head of Saudi intelligence Bandar Bin Sultan asked him for a stronger movement on the ground while at the same time the US ambassador in Beirut called on them to stay calm and follow Jumblatt’s example.

Geagea, however, told his cadres that he is going to take a public position against Syria and Hezbollah and advocate the toppling of the government. When some of those present asked him who he thinks is responsible for Hassan’s assassination, Geagea named multiple suspects, including Israel, which surprised many of those present.

Before Hassan’s assassination, Geagea was trying to reach a compromise with Hariri. The last meetings in Saudi Arabia were not very fruitful. They did not reach a deal on the election law and they did not come to an understanding regarding their partnership with Jumblatt.

Geagea wants to stay top of the March 14 list of presidential candidates. He knows, however, that it is close to impossible, especially after he got news that one of Jumblatt’s problems with March 14 is the Druze leader’s belief that Geagea’s candidacy would constitute a severe political shock.

Geagea promised his supporters and confirmed to his allies in March 14 that their actions are going to escalate and that the West is going to have a new position after the US presidential elections.

The rest of March 14 are also counting on a Saudi promise to exert special efforts to convince France and Britain and even the US to change their positions and support toppling the government quickly.

There are stories about the French president’s visit to Saudi Arabia and imminent meetings with the US and British leadership. Also the director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency, Bandar Bin Sultan, insists that a decisive change is possible in the last few weeks of this year whereby the weakening of the Syrian regime will create a new opportunity to topple Mikati’s government.

Bandar Bin Sultan adds that in Mikati’s last visit to Saudi Arabia, Bin Sultan gave the Lebanese PM a very clear message that he must leave the Syrian-Iranian axis quickly. March 14 leaders quoted Bandar as saying that the meeting between him and Mikati was cold and went badly.

People who met with Mikati heard a different version. He said the meeting went well and that there was a lot of honesty. But March 14 leaders say that after what happened, the Saudis decided to cut off all relations with Mikati. No one will meet with him, not even secretly.

Saudi Arabia’s problem went beyond Mikati to Jumblatt. The Druze leader rejected all Saudi temptations. Nevertheless, the Saudi ambassador in Beirut advised the March 14 leaders to be more flexible in their relationship with Jumblatt and not to push him completely to the other side. As for Mikati, the ambassador said they will deal with him in a different way.

The Saudi ambassador went to the presidential palace carrying a message for President Michel Suleiman about the need to change the government. Just like Siniora and the rest of the March 14 forces, some of these figures alluded to the fact that Suleiman did not keep a promise to provide grounds for toppling the government, but Suleiman absolutely denies this. Those in contact with the president say that he was honest with the group that wants the government to resign. He asked them if they want to set a new precedent of having a Maronite president ask a Sunni prime minister to resign.

Suleiman apparently looked for a compromise between the two sides. He told the March 14 forces that he would prefer to hold a national dialogue session as soon as possible to discuss the general situation including the electoral law, the government and the defense strategy.

The March 14 forces rejected this suggestion. They prefer to leave the national dialogue till the end of next month. They are thinking about the results of the US elections and the outcome of the new Saudi efforts with Europe. At this point, Siniora was the most honest, saying that they will not engage in national dialogue with Hezbollah and Mikati.

Suleiman asked them what alternative there is. Siniora demanded the government be toppled.

Side talks clarified the situation. The March 14 alliance wants a neutral government and are demanding to have control over the ministries that deal with because they feel threatened. But they know that Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) will never accept this. So what is their view of a national accord government? The answer was a quick ‘no.’ Who are their candidates for the post of prime minister? They said they will cross that bridge when they come to it. The government must fall first.

Suleiman is discussing the issue further, but he knows that Hezbollah and FPM leader Michel Aoun will surely not accept this deal. He also knows that the Maronite patriarch Beshara al-Rai is not with March 14 and that Jumblatt’s problems with Hariri, Geagea and even Siniora are growing.

Jumblatt had informed Suleiman that he rejected an offer by Hariri to leave the government [in exchange] for a larger number of MPs because he did not want to create a political vacuum. Then he got a more enticing offer from Siniora, who told Ghazi al-Aridi – an MP from Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc, the National Struggle Front (NSF) – that they can set up a meeting between Jumblatt and the Saudi king but that the PSP leader needs to leave the government first.

It is obvious that the country is currently facing a complex crisis, and not just because of the sharp divisions surrounding Syria, the Resistance and national unity. The country is facing a crisis because  major parties in Lebanon support the views of March 14 but lack the leadership and voice of reason needed to reformulate their position.

Reprinted with permission from Al-Akhbar.

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