Before and After: Boycotting National Dialogue

Lebanese flags placed by anti-government protesters are seen on barbed wire securing the area in front of the government palace in downtown Beirut 25 October 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Jamal Saidi)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Thursday, November 1, 2012

The recent March 14 declaration to boycott Mikati’s government was clipped and revised prior to its public reception. Here’s a look at some of the edits, as well as the logic behind them.

Differences among the March 14 forces did not blunt the acerbic language used against their opponents on Tuesday night when the alliance declared a boycott of the Mikati government.

The statement was initially written by the Lebanese Forces and sent to the opposition leadership shortly before before their meeting in Saad Hariri’s home in Beirut. Reservations voiced by the Lebanese Phalange Party were addressed and quickly incorporated into the text. Future Party leader Fouad Siniora accepted these changes, which in turn led to the revision or removal of four clauses.

– The declaration initially included a clause stating that March 14 will boycott the national dialogue roundtable that is currently being organized by President Michel Suleiman. This paragraph was removed to avoid any suggestion that the president will also be boycotted.

– The point about the complete boycott of the government, parliament, and the joint legislative committees was changed to state that the boycott is directed at the government, leaving the parliament and committees out.

– While the initial text called for firing the heads of the security services for having failed to prevent the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, the revised version simply demanded that the security forces be reinforced in order to perform more effectively.

– The Lebanese Forces’ draft had also called for a government of technocrats without the participation of either March 8 or 14. This was changed to state that the opposition want a neutral national salvation government, which would adopt the “Baabda Declaration” as its ministerial statement.

These four changes opened the way for the adoption of the final declaration by consensus while maintaining the core demand calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government.

From the day Hassan was killed on October 19, March 14 leaders began proposing several alternatives to the Mikati government. At first they wanted a cabinet to themselves, but soon changed course and suggested that they would be satisfied with a neutral government that would exclude both March 8 and 14.

Phalange leader Amin Gemayel, one of the key leaders in the March 14 coalition, put forward the idea of a national salvation government that would include both sides, along the lines of past governments in Lebanon.

The key weakness in the opposition’s campaign is the expectation that the prime minister will resign due to pressure they will bring to bear on him. This is at a time when Mikati appears more resolved to stay in power and is less amenable than he was a few days ago to reconcile with his opponents.

The opposition did not even bother to appeal to head of the Progressive Socialist Party and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who can make or break the current government. There are many reasons for this:

1- The opposition’s overblown expectation that Jumblatt would pull out his three ministers from the government after the assassination of Hassan. Although such a move would not have brought down the government, it would have dealt a blow to the ruling coalition, particularly in parliament where Jumblatt MPs can tip the scales in either direction.

2- March 14 leaders are aware of the close ties between Jumblatt and Hassan. Not only was the head of the information branch of the Internal Security Forces a fixture in the relationship between Hariri and Jumblatt, he was also roundly trusted to obtain sensitive information and provide level-headed analysis.

More crucially, the opposition and Jumblatt entrusted Hassan with their security. For example, Hassan would quickly inform Jumblatt of any threats against him or his family, as was the case when Hassan received information that the Druze leader’s son, Timour, was being targeted by the Syrian regime.

This protection was enough in the eyes of March 14 to prompt Jumblatt to move quickly after the death of Hassan and turn the tables on the Mikati government without hesitation.

3- March 14 had always expected that Jumblatt would pull out of the government sooner or later, believing that he needed Sunni votes in next year’s parliamentary elections. Therefore, the opposition made no offers to entice him, assuming that his departure from the cabinet was inevitable.

When they met in Paris on September 4, Hariri informed Jumblatt about his efforts to reconcile the Saudi king with the Druze leader. Hariri assured him that King Abdullah would receive him as soon as he returned from Morocco. When no such meeting took place, Hariri explained that the king was in Saudi Arabia for three days and was returning to Morocco to continue his vacation. But the king never left, nor was Jumblatt invited to visit.

Hariri had wanted Jumblatt to pull out of the Mikati government and ally himself with March 14 in parliament before going to Saudi Arabia, seeing the Druze leader’s audience with the king as a final seal of approval.

4- Before the Hassan assassination and under pressure from the opposition to resign from the government, Jumblatt always expressed concern about the vacuum such a move would leave behind. If the government fell and no alternative was formed to take its place quickly, he predicted destabilization.

So Jumblatt’s response in such situations was always to back Mikati and the government. After Hassan’s death, the Druze leader’s concerns were reinforced by the international community, which was not too eager to topple the government for fear that the various Lebanese parties would not agree on a replacement, thus endangering the country’s stability.

Jumblatt supports President Suleiman’s efforts to form a national unity government, along the lines of what Gemayel is proposing, with the prior consent of all the main parties. Only Hezbollah opposes the dissolution of the Mikati government, while Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri has expressed support for the idea of a national unity government.

On the other side stand the March 14 forces, demanding that the government resign first, and only then are they willing to discuss alternatives. The opposition is still acting as if it is victorious when in fact they had the upper hand for only a few hours after the Hassan assassination. They threw it all away when they decided to storm the government headquarters.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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