Thursday, November 29, 2012

What's next for March 14?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Wednesday’s postponement until January of a national dialogue session scheduled for Thursday demonstrated the continuing failure to break the political deadlock into which the country plunged after October’s dramatic assassination of intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan.

In the days following Hassan’s killing, which groups including the March 14 coalition and Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) blamed on Syria, March 14 announced a complete boycott of all government and parliamentary activity until the current cabinet, led by Prime Minister Najib Miqati, was dissolved.

One month later, however, the cabinet remains intact and even appears to have a degree of support from March 14’s international allies, including the United States and the European Union, who have expressed fears of a power vacuum.

Accordingly, March 14’s boycott tactic has faced criticism even from those sympathetic to its broader vision. A leading independent politician with close ties to March 14 told NOW Lebanon that he preferred not to comment on the boycott, “because I would be forced to criticize it, and now is not the time to do that.”

Recently, both President Michel Suleiman and the PSP have been trying to coax March 14 back into all-party talks.

How exactly March 14 could be induced to embrace dialogue, however, is unclear. One option, proposed by former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the independent Tajaddod Movement, is for the coalition to launch a separate initiative on its own terms. “A solution would be for them to set the points that should be taken into consideration and agreed by the other side in order to launch a new dialogue,” he told NOW. “We’re back to square zero, we need to start all over again, and I think they should be setting a priority list, or let’s say starting points, for a new discussion.”

However, Dr Imad Salameh, political science professor at the Lebanese American University, believes nothing short of the cabinet’s collapse will bring March 14 to a dialogue table. “March 14 has no way out other than confronting the current government,” he told NOW. “For years, March 14 has been trapped over and over into senseless dialogue in which it always ends up making concessions. That’s why the resignation of this government is a pre-requisite for further dialogue.”

Certainly that was the view of March 14 partisans interviewed by NOW at the sit-in opposite Beirut’s Grand Serail on Tuesday evening. Since October 20 – the day after Hassan’s assassination – around half a dozen tents have been erected outside the Prime Minister’s office, and the activists who have spent their days and nights there told NOW they aren’t budging.

“The only compromise we will accept is that the government goes. Nothing less,” said Jihad Naamani of the Future Movement. When asked if he felt the sit-in was achieving its goals, Naamani said, “Yes, just by keeping our camp alive and having lots of people coming down every night for meetings and seminars, we are accomplishing our part of the goal.” While admitting that the government had succeeded in fending off March 14’s demands thus far, Naamani asserted that the cabinet would fall “within two or three months” at the most.

Contra Ahdab, Salameh argues the onus is in fact on March 8, not March 14, to break the deadlock. “The way out is not March 14’s responsibility as far as I’m concerned, it’s the responsibility of the current government and those who control it, particularly Hezbollah. If [the latter] want to yield a fair share of power and control of security apparatuses, which seem to have totally slipped into the hands of [March 8], then March 14 will have reason to negotiate.”

PSP secretary-general Zafer Nasser, however, questions how such an agreement could be reached without March 14 agreeing to talk in the first place. “One cannot offer anything to them if they don’t participate in dialogue,” he told NOW. “One has to sit with them and talk so they offer something and the other party offers something. You cannot tell them, ‘Here you go, this is a settlement’ and then ask them to attend dialogue. They would say, ‘Why attend dialogue if a settlement has already been reached?’”

To this, Salameh retorts that March 8 shares the blame for the lack of talks. “The media says [that March 14 is the one blocking dialogue], but in actuality one should ask what are the issues being discussed? Are we going to negotiate whether Hezbollah’s arms will become subject to government control? Are we going to negotiate a new government? Are we going to negotiate the restructuring of the security apparatuses?” Without these items on the table, says Salameh, dialogue “will only lead to additional concessions on March 14’s behalf and will strengthen the position of the government and Hezbollah.”

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

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