Sunday, December 23, 2012

Déjà vu

As soon as he assumed office as prime minister almost exactly twenty years ago, Rafic Hariri was made to understand the rules of the game in Lebanon. The Hafez Assad rules, that is. And the first and foremost rule was that no one can question Syrian authority in Lebanon. Also that the Lebanese government (and people) had no business interfering in such issues as: Lebanon’s national security, matters relating to Lebanon’s own army (including its geographical deployment and officer promotions), Lebanon’s policy on the Arab Israeli conflict,  the Palestinian militias in Lebanon, as well as all other security and foreign policy matters that really mattered. 

Any ambiguity in these rules was made clear when Hariri’s decision to deploy the Lebanese army in South Lebanon soon after becoming Prime Minister was quickly and unceremoniously reversed by Damascus. The terms of the deal were clear. In fact, it wasn’t a deal at all; it was simply an offer that could not be refused.

Over time, hopes about Lebanon being free again became a distant dream. Hariri recognized that Assad’s hegemony over his country had become almost impossible to shake off; hegemony that was – alas - blessed or at least tolerated by almost all regional and international powers.  Over time, most Lebanese officials, politicians and ordinary people acquiesced and adapted, however reluctantly, to the Pax Syriana as many had termed it.

Hariri tried to play by rules set by the Syrians and focused on reconstruction, public investment and economic revival, which after all had been his primary agenda to begin with. For several years he navigated the narrow bounds permitted by the Syrians very carefully. He pushed his economic vision for Lebanon in every way possible. And there were some achievements, but far far short of what would have been possible. Deep down Hariri became increasingly convinced that his dream of a vibrant, prosperous and secure Lebanon,  can never be reached under the heavy-handed control and abuse by Syrian intelligence and its local affiliates, and as long as Lebanon continued to be used by the Syrian regime as a convenient theater to leverage its regional ambitions and agendas.

After Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in the spring of 2000, and Bashar Assad’s insistence on keeping the liberated south as a perpetual battlefield, Hariri became totally convinced that Lebanon had no future unless the heavy handed grip of the Assad regime was loosened.  He rebelled against the rules set by Damascus and began to join forces with other Lebanese groups who were also unhappy with the status quo, until his assassination in February 0f 2005.

Why recall this history now? Listening to Mr. Nasrallah’s speech last week we heard echoes of the Assad rules being offered again. He called on the March 14 coalition to stop whining about “Hizbollah’s weapons”. People are tired of hearing the same broken record over and over again, he said. In effect he was calling on  the March 14 crowd to focus on social and economic problems instead of its futile attempt of challenging Hizbollah’s hegemony over Lebanon’s security, its self-assumed right to use armed pressure to intimidate other Lebanese who disagreed, to forge strategic alliances abroad, and to keep Lebanon as a convenient theater for their regional allies. It sounded like the Assad rules all over again.

Rafic Hariri was right then and Saad Hariri is right today.  What Mr. Nasrallah fails to recognize is that Hizbollah’s independent military status and its hegemony over the country are major reasons for Lebanon’s vulnerability, the erosion of state authority, the lack of productive investments and quality jobs, and the faltering economy.  I am afraid Mr. Nasrallah will continue to hear March 14’s broken record for as long as it takes to set things straight.

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