Lebanon’s New March 8: A Majority within the Majority?

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Hezbollah is attempting to strengthen not only the relationship between its two closest allies, General Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri (picture). (Photo: Archive)

By: Nader Fawz, Hassan Illeik

Published Tuesday, December 27, 2011

After a series of public rows, the three main factions of Lebanon’s March 8 coalition, now in power, seem to have pulled their act together. Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) are now seen as a front possibly pitted against their government partners, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and their mercurial ally Walid Jumblatt.

After the passing of a controversial wage adjustment law during a cabinet session held on Wednesday December 21, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil declared the emergence of a "new power equation that everyone must learn to deal with." He was referring to a new basis for the alliance between his bloc, the FPM, and their allies Hezbollah and Amal.

Bassil’s statement came in the wake of a row between the FPM and Amal over management of the development of electricity infrastructure, and disappointment at Hezbollah’s failure to back an earlier wage law, drafted by the FPM’s labor minister, Charbel Nahas.

Officials in the FPM, Hezbollah and Amal said that this unified position will be maintained in the future in cabinet and parliament whenever any major issues are up for discussion.

Sources close to Hezbollah, however, reveal the party's reluctance to pit this alliance in a confrontation with the other members of cabinet. The party is attempting to strengthen not only the relationship between its two closest allies, General Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri, but also the relationship between Aoun and both President Suleiman and PM Mikati, to enable this government to operate smoothly.

The yes vote on December 21 was made possible by support from Amal and Hezbollah ministers who had turned down the proposal at an earlier cabinet session.

It seems that the setback in the earlier cabinet vote to increase wages has created a positive shock for parties within the majority compelling them to “reboot” so to speak in order to improve communication and increase the dose of governmental and parliamentary coordination.

The revised Amal party ministers' position "shocked" the President, the Prime Minister and MP Walid Jumblatt, the latter three having assumed that these ministers would side with them against Nahas’ wage hike proposal.

Mikati's visitors claim that the PM was visibly annoyed by what happened in the last session, especially as he was very surprised by the results of the voting, since "Minister of Public Health Ali Hassan Khalil [from Amal], for instance, participated with him in the negotiations that led to a new agreement between employers and workers."

An effective majority

According to March 8 sources, the results of the vote on Nahas’ wage increase proposal passed last Wednesday reflects how effective the coordination between the biggest members of the majority – FPM, Amal and Hezbollah – is. This coordination came on the heels of a series of side meetings between the different parties.

The ministers of these parties agreed in two meetings prior to the landmark cabinet session to support Nahas’ proposal, except the item related to a government subsidy of wages that was not voted on in parliament.

Another meeting had taken place between Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, and the head of the Change and Reform bloc, General Michel Aoun. This meeting rejuvenated the alliance between Hezbollah and the bloc and was attended by Change and Reform bloc minister Gebran Bassil, Nasrallah’s political assistant Hussein Khalil and Hezbollah’s Coordination and Liaison Unit chief Wafiq Safa.

According to Hezbollah’s media relations department, participants discussed local and regional developments and evaluated the government’s performance over the past few months.They also emphasized the importance of coordination and developing an effective mechanism for that purpose for the future, as well as “the strength of the understanding and alliance between Hezbollah and FPM which helps fortify Lebanon against existing and future challenges.”

Hezbollah and its allies will also support the FPM position on the issue of administrative appointments.

Aoun and Nasrallah discussed the parameters of governmental work “especially in light of the delicate political balance that exists. But at the same time, they emphasized the need to enable the majority to secure achievements on vital issues that positively impact the lives of all citizens,” the media relations department said.

Wage hike vote prompts closer coordination

Prior to the Aoun-Nasrallah summit, coordination meetings between the three pillar majority parties in the government culminated in a five and a half hour dinner at the home of Hezbollah minister Hussein al-Haj Hassan with Hussein Khalil, Bassil, Nahas, Hezbollah minister Muhammad Fneish, as well as Amal minister Ali Hassan Khalil.

A source who was at the meeting said they agreed “on a mechanism to improve governmental coordination among the parties. The most important thing that came out of this meeting is that the complaints that were previously flung at each other were now put up for discussion face to face.”

The source said that participants discussed the cabinet’s agenda set for the December 21 session in detail, but the wage issue received the most attention. The government’s prior decision on a wage increase was closely examined and developments in light of the conditions placed by the Shura Council, a state advisory body for approving the cabinet proposal on wages, were discussed.

One of the participants said that the parties had not agreed on one of the items proposed by Nahas, namely “subsidizing wages by requiring the state to pay disease and maternity leave fees to the national social security fund instead of employers who would then use this money to raise wages.”

But this will be discussed further ahead of the cabinet meeting.

The parliamentary majority represented in the government informed Mikati that they are in favor of passing a new decision on wage increases and not simply amending the previously passed decision.

Participants at the meeting also discussed the government budget and a consensus was reached to put forward a unified vision on the tax issue at the cabinet meeting. The two Amal movement ministers intended to present a paper at the cabinet meeting detailing their views on the draft budget and their vision on tax policy.

The parties would also discuss Hezbollah’s and Amal’s support for MP Michel Aoun’s nominee, ambassador Charbel Wehbe, for director of consular and political affairs. However all three parties had concerns regarding the candidate nominated to the position of secretary general for foreign affairs.

The Aoun-Nasrallah meeting also allowed participants to delve into local and regional political and security matters. Aoun praised the positive developments in the relations between Hezbollah and the Maronite Patriarchate. Other issues that were discussed were the Syrian crisis as well as the US withdrawal from Iraq and its implications on the general situation in the region.

Another meeting seen as part of reviving this alliance was between Nasrallah and the Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bishara Rai. On Tuesday December 20 a hotline, or a “Red Phone” as it is referred to in local jargon, was established between Haret Hreik, a southern suburb of Beirut considered the headquarters of Hezbollah, and Bkirki, the See of the Maronite Catholic Patriarchate.

Nasrallah received a delegation representing Rai. The delegation included archbishop Boulos Mattar and two members of the Bkirki Muslim-Christian dialogue committee, archbishop Samir Mazloum and Emir Hareth Chehab.

This meeting was a result of the increased communication between the two sides since Rai was elected patriarch of the Maronite church. The resulting agreement from this meeting put an end to claims that Rai was reviewing his positions and backing away from the stand he took in Paris in support of the resistance to Israel.

This analysis was based on a sermon that the Patriarch gave on December 11 demanding that arms in Lebanon be restricted to the Lebanese state. Rai however quickly explained his position in private councils affirming his continued support for the resistance.

Tuesday’s meeting was a confirmation of the relationship between the two sides reflecting their mutual desire to improve shared communication. Sources said that both sides emphasized the need to strengthen their relationship and activate the joint committee to “help dispel any misunderstanding and solve any potential crisis.”

Sources say the meeting lasted three hours and the two sides discussed the situation in Lebanon and the region, especially the situation in Syria and its impact on Christians.

Rai’s representatives emphasized “the importance of Muslim-Christian coexistence and the need to preserve Christian presence in the region.” The guests expressed their concern over the possibility of the Syrian regime’s collapse and conveyed Rai’s view stating: “We hope for a true Arab Spring but now we are not witnessing an Arab Spring but rather a harsh Arab winter.”

In the same context, the delegation expressed its fear over the possible dispossession of Christians in Syria. The delegation recounted incidents involving Christians – especially in the Syrian city of Homs – giving Hezbollah’s leadership the impression that the patriarchate is well-informed about what is happening in Syria, with Christians and other minorities.

Nasrallah responded to these fears by noting that the situation in Syria “is improving and calming down.”

Sources indicate that the voting law was also briefly discussed at the meeting and the patriarchate made it clear that it is not necessarily committed to the so-called Orthodox proposal and is willing to discuss other proposals.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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