No end in sight for Lebanon polarisation

Will additional schisms among political groups topple the frozen balance of power?

Additional fissures within March 8 and March 14 have further complicated matters in Lebanon [EPA]

The news was daunting and threatened to further enlarge the gulf that separated various communities in this small but increasingly fragile country. On Saturday January 25, “Al-Nusrah Front in Lebanon” issued a warning to Sunnis to avoid Hezbollah-dominated areas, ostensibly to protect them from future calamities. Even worse, it called on Sunnis to join the organisation’s campaign against Hezbollah identifying it as a legitimate target.

Some argue that – naturally – this was an outcome of Hezbollah’s open participation in the Syrian civil war, which further polarised the country. Already divided along political lines, conveniently categorised within the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, additional fissures within both groups emerged. It was thus fair to inquire whether Lebanon’s political establishment could overcome its current divergences and, equally important, if more recent schisms amongst both groups would topple the frozen balance of power.

The power of popular vote

If the 1989 Taif Accords ended the civil war, the legacy of a three-decades long Syrian military presence of Lebanon was only tackled after Damascus pulled its troops out in April 2005, in the aftermath of the March 14 Cedar Revolution. That unprecedented event, which saw nearly a third of the Lebanese assembled in the capital city, was the outcome of  the February 14, 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. March 8 staged a similar show of force. In the years that followed, both camps banked on the popular vote though that carried little or no weight in a consocional system.

Indeed, ever since the adoption of the 1943 Charter and the 1989 Taif settlements, both of which strengthened existing mechanisms to ensure social cohesion and democratic stability in this largely divided society – the very definition of consocionalism – Lebanon strove on its weaknesses even if its political elites secured public support. That was certainly the case with both March 14 as well as March 8 after 2005, although the Hezbollah-led group enjoyed an undeniable additional boost, after the 2006 War with Israel. 

In the event, both sides faced the conundrum of the ongoing and still largely undefined Spring 2011 Arab Uprisings, assuming that regional and international developments would improve local conditions. Remarkably, neither faction prepared for internal schisms that surfaced with a vengeance as events elsewhere throughout the Arab World, but especially in Syria, left their marks on Lebanon.


Neither faction prepared for internal schisms that surfaced with a vengeance as events elsewhere throughout the Muslim World, but especially in Syria, left their marks on Lebanon

Nascent differences

Few politicians paid attention to nascent differences, although one of the most astute observers read the trend correctly.

Indeed, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, announced the collapse of the March 8 coalition in mid-2013 after he severed ties with Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)[Ar]. Berri explained that March 8’s key demand to secure a veto power within any Cabinet “was no longer valid”, a declaration that was akin to a bombshell, but that also explained the Speaker’s frustrations with Aoun.

“We agree with Aoun on strategic issues such as the resistance and [the stance toward] Israel,” opined Berri, “but not on domestic issues.”

Given Berri’s close ties with Hezbollah, observers wondered whether the alliance between the two Shia groups and the former Army commander (Aoun) could survive Aoun’s obstructionism, best illustrated by the FPM leader’s refusal to delay extension of Parliament’s term. Aoun opposed that initiative as he also rejected the extension of the mandate of Lebanese Army chief General Jean Kahwagi.

Of course, Hezbollah’s strength, his detractors would argue, was largely based on its weapons, not Aoun’s presence within its coalition, though the party needed the FPM to sustain its non-sectarian agenda, especially if it wished to elevate him to the presidency. It was within such a context that Hezbollah was careful not to appear sectarian, and repeatedly advanced the proposition that its March 8 coalition represented all major religious communities.

This was certainly correct, though the vast majority of Lebanon’s Sunnis were squarely behind the Mustaqbal Party and March 14. Ironically, Hariri’s coalition faced a similar challenge, as Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces warlord persisted in his opposition to any compromises. Geagea believed that March 14 should enter the crucial stages of the presidential and parliamentary elections without offering any compromises because, he argued, the opposition was weak and getting weaker and this was no time to be wobbly.

Inasmuch as these differences of opinion were far larger than mere tactical disagreements, Hariri confronted a potentially crippling outcome, something that could well propel Hezbollah’s candidates to the forefront. From Geagea’s perspective, nevertheless, Saad Hariri’s oft-repeated pledge to return to Lebanon for the upcoming elections and to reclaim the premiership, were not sufficient. In his partner’s absence, it was Geagea who stood as the critical opposition leader against Aoun, Hezbollah and March 8.

Lebanon was a polarised nation and was likely to remain so for a very long time. Although various individuals and non-governmental organisations periodically attempted to form a third party, political leaders fought tooth and nail for turf even if the process further weakened the state’s existing institution.

Simply stated, it was nearly impossible to create alternatives to the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, given the country’s intrinsic make-up. Whatever centrist forces mustered to offer fell far short of what a vast majority of the Lebanese demanded. Under the circumstances, one wondered what kind of a future such a nation could possibly offer, when the very notion of nationhood was purposefully kept in its juvenile stages. 


Dr Joseph A Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).