Friday, August 31, 2012

March 14 Youth stages a comeback

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

There were only a few dozen people at the Universite Saint Joseph car park at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, and for 15 minutes it looked as though the planned March 14 Youth rally was going to be a disaster. But then they began arriving—by the car, the jeep and the busload. One after another, hundreds of students from the Lebanese Forces (LF), the Future Movement, the Kataeb, al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah and the National Liberal Party (NLP) began beeping horns, waving flags and chanting. While the ostensible purpose of the rally was to call for the resignation of Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour and the expulsion of Syrian Ambassador Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, it was also a flexing of muscles for the March 14 parties themselves.

“God, [Lebanese] Forces, Doctor [Samir Geagea] and nothing else!” went the LF students, prompting al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah to retort, “There is no God but Allah!” Nearby, a circle of Future students chanted, “Saad [Hariri], Saad” and “God protect you, Free Syria Army!” Posters bore such slogans as “How long will our prisoners be in Syrian jails?” and “Respect Us or Leave.”

After marching down Ashrafieh’s Charles Malik Street, the 1,000-plus crowd gathered outside the Foreign Ministry and began by singing the national anthem. “We’ve had enough of always being ruled by Syria,” a Kataeb student, Karim, told NOW Lebanon. “Not only the ambassador, but the entire criminal Syrian regime has to go,” said Ahmad of the Future Movement. Various student leaders gave speeches, while MPs including Future’s Ahmad Fatfat, the Kataeb’s Nadim Gemayel and NLP’s Dory Chamoun shook hands and gave interviews.

The rally comes at what may be an auspicious time for the opposition bloc, as its incumbent rivals are increasingly squeezed by events in neighboring Syria. Since the surprise arrest of former minister and tight Damascus ally Michel Samaha on August 9, and the subsequent official charging of him along with Syrian National Security head General Ali Mamluk with plotting “terror attacks,” key pillars of the government—from President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Miqati down—appear to be distancing themselves somewhat from the Assad regime. Even the defiantly pro-Assad Hezbollah leadership has reportedly been having private doubts about the relationship.

These unprecedented developments have left some analysts questioning whether March 14 is effectively rising to the occasion. “March 14’s response to the situation in Syria has been quite uneven and heterogeneous, which is a reflection of the state of the political alliance,” said Elias Muhanna, assistant professor at Brown University and author of the Qifa Nabki blog. “Some members have been looking for direct ways to weaken March 8, while others are taking a more cautious approach. Certainly there is a lot of apprehension about the fallout of a regime change in Syria. We're certainly not witnessing the same degree of enthusiasm to spearhead an international pressure campaign against the Assad government from Beirut, as we saw in 2005-07,” he told NOW by email.

Al-Hayat columnist Hazem Saghieh, too, feels that March 14’s response to events has been lacking. “Regarding the Samaha case, I think March 14 should insist on extending the affair, on using it as an entrance to investigating everything which has happened in Lebanon lately,” he told NOW. “Also, they should be more insistent regarding the treatment of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This is a political, moral and human cause which should not be dealt with half-heartedly.”

However, Muhanna also argued that their comparative inaction may pay dividends later. “In a sense […] this more cautious approach has worked to the advantage of Syria’s enemies in Lebanon. It almost seems as if the Future Movement has taken a page from Hezbollah’s playbook by sitting in the opposition, staying out of the limelight, and allowing the geopolitics to do the talking.”

Saghieh, too, cautions against an overreaction on March 14’s part. “I don’t think it’s wise to call for the resignation of the government now. Without wanting to describe the government as efficient, we need something; we need the bare minimum to keep peace. Peace is very fragile in Lebanon, and the removal of this government would not help anyone.”

If March 14 is to truly capitalize on the potential rewards of a weakened or even vanquished Damascus, Saghieh adds, it may need to reinvent itself fundamentally. The bloc is held back by “their lack of dynamism, and the way they conceive politics as something related to elections only,” he said. “Theoretically, they can gain a lot, but practically the question is are they going to invest, do they know how to deal with the changes?”

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