Lebanon, Inc. II: Hostile Takeover

ISF Officer removes barricades in front the Governmental Palace in Beirut. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Jamal Ghosn

Published Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The division of power formula that was in place for a decade and a half was dealt a severe blow with the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Part two of this series looks at the post-Rafik Hariri years which were marked by a direct confrontation between the economic and security monopolies in Lebanon. S-S had bigger worries as the battle for power during the Bush doctrine years featured direct involvement by global powers.

Cold War

The first repercussion of the Hariri assassination was the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, ending a 30 year presence with varying levels of influence. The final word in disputes between the Lebanese camps no longer lied in Damascus.

The economic camp went on the offensive first. The security chiefs in Lebanon were singled out as the prime suspects in the crime of the century. They later would be detained and released with no charges. The term “political accusation” was coined as a synonym for “false accusation,” without the legal liability.

Political muscle was needed ahead of the parliamentary elections and all cards were played. Prisoners were pardoned, exiled generals were welcomed back, and unorthodox alliances were struck.

A string of bombs and assassinations showed that security was not under control and alternative measures needed to be taken to ensure stability. A new official branch of the security forces was established. Private security flourished. Military aircraft carriers roamed the eastern Mediterranean at strategic times for moral support. There were also international investigators with free access to any piece of information that might help them crack the Hariri murder case. The security monopoly was seemingly lost.

The initial momentum that brought the economic camp, under Fouad Siniora, many gains would ebb. A realignment was in order. The 1989 Taif formula was back in play, with a few adjustments. The exiled general, Michel Aoun’s movement was again not part of the government. The resistance group, Hezbollah, found itself in unfamiliar territory as a member of the Cabinet, albeit as opposition “from within.” A mysteriously solid alliance was born between the Taif outsiders.

The position of some power brokers from the Taif establishment stood out. Despite their alignment in opposing camps, their interests lied in maintaining the status quo: two opposing camps with relatively equal powers. Their ability to maneuver in middle grounds and tilt the balance of power one way or another was all they had. Nabih Berri, eternal Speaker of Parliament, and Walid Jumblat, the feudal head of the Progressive Socialist Party, had mastered the art of brinksmanship.

Summer Wars

In 2006, Israel launched a well-documented war to “finish off” Hezbollah. The trinity of heirs to a comatose Ariel Sharon: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, failed miserably and had short lived careers as top brass in Israel. The failed war started the downturn of once rising neo-Middle East project.

Having emerged unscathed, or rather emboldened, from the Israeli assault, the security camp set out to reclaim a share of governance it had temporarily given up. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets. The economy was waved as a possible cause for the protest movement as as tens of raggedy tents adorned the posh rebuilt downtown Beirut. A standstill ensued as once again the balance of power was comfortable for both sides, even as they stood in quicksand. After all, the Taif establishment had tentacles in both camps.

In 2007, the summer witnessed a war in North Lebanon that left a town of 40,000 inhabitants completely flattened. The presence of Fatah al-Islam, a militia purportedly linked to al-Qaeda, in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp was used as pretext for the assault by the Lebanese army. Talk of building a naval military base to replace the camp was short lived.

The ultimate confrontation between the Lebanese political camps came in May 2008. Following a government decision to dig out cables which were part of a military phone network operated by the resistance branch of Hezbollah, pro-resistance militias launch a swift blitz on newly formed and poorly trained militias of the other camp, rendering them useless.

The decisive military action was followed by a quick reconciliation in Doha, Qatar. Michel Suleiman was elected president and Fouad Siniora would once again lead a national unity government.

Having successfully tackled every attempt by the economy team to eat away at its influence, the security team was optimistic heading into the 2009 parliamentary elections. Instead, the elections results mirrored those of 2005. Four very eventful years ended in a draw.

Saad Era

Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, catapulted into power after an election victory against an overconfident adversary. The division of power was the same way it had been for nearly a decade. The S-S formula was again the headline governing the Lebanese balance of power.

However, with the entrenched distrust and often conflicting directions of the two camps, the battle for full control was still very active, albeit behind the facade of unity and without an apparent strategy from either side.

It was the security team this time on the attack. They had the leadership of the economy team on the ropes and decided to pounce. However, again they were doing it with the absence of an alternative economic strategy. In other words the Taif establishment would not be touched. Their coup would wear a judiciary garb.

The failing Special Tribunal for Lebanon which was formed to prosecute the Hariri assassins was the premise, with the falsely accused taking center stage. In reality, the amateur politician status had caught up to the overstretched and overwhelmed Hariri.

The 14 month reign of Saad Hariri was a roller coaster ride that saw him go to Damascus and back. Visiting foreign capitals was a bragging point for Hariri up until his last trip to Washington as prime minister. It was while he was meeting with Barack Obama that his Cabinet crumbled.

Two days later, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, starting a chain of events that diverted regional attention from the petty internal politics of Lebanon. With regional patrons of the S-S formula dealing with more pressing internal developments, the Lebanese scene was due for settlement.

The new victors in Lebanon would push billionaire Najib Mikati to form the first post-Hariri cabinet. The roster of ministers would largely resemble most of the post-Taif Cabinets.

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