Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Wrong Way to Change the Government

The leadership of the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange Party called upon their constituents to come out in large numbers without raising the possibility of any further escalation. (photo: Haytham alMoussawi)


Published Monday, October 22, 2012

After it appeared that the Lebanese government was on its way out – with Prime Minister Najib Mikati suggesting on Saturday that he would resign – the ministers’ moods changed completely after March 14 protesters attempted to storm the government’s main headquarters in downtown Beirut.

The protesters had gathered on Sunday in Beirut’s central district to bury former head of the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF) Information Branch Wissam al-Hassan, who was killed in a car bombing on Friday afternoon.

Many ministers are now predicting a new lease on life for the government, saying that March 14 handed them this gift “on a silver platter,” due to the violent turn that the funeral took on Sunday.
Mikati was in high spirits by the end of the weekend after receiving calls from the UN general secretary as well as from both the US secretary of state and France’s foreign minister. The state department also declared than Hillary Clinton and Mikati had agreed on “the US providing assistance in the investigation into the assassination” of Hassan.

Echoes of such international reassurances for Mikati have even reached Saudi Arabia, which will be receiving the prime minister in the coming days as he arrives in Mecca to make his hajj pilgrimage to the holy site.

Lebanon’s Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani and head of ISF Ashraf Rifi also came out in support of Mikati. The mufti declared his opposition to bringing down the government by force, while the security forces – with the help of the army – defended the government headquarters and kept protesters away from Mikati’s home in Tripoli.

The Christian parties within the March 14 coalition were already beginning to talk about the composition of the new government after they heard reports that President Michel Suleiman was not eager to change the government until a credible alternative exists.

March 14’s Christian parties tried to act in a balanced manner on the eve of Sunday’s funeral: on the one hand, they wanted to mobilize the largest possible numbers; and on the other, they did not want to raise their demands beyond what their Future Party allies would accept.

“If [Future party leader] Saad Hariri chooses to resort to popular pressure to bring down the government, we will be with him; otherwise a large turnout will suffice and we will leave any ratcheting up of pressure for later discussions,” according to a March 14 activist.

On the the eve of the funeral, the leadership of the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange Party called upon their constituents to come out in large numbers without raising the possibility of any further escalation.

By the end of the funeral, following some provocative speeches and media calls to attack the government’s headquarters, Christian protesters were at the forefront of those who charged the building, believing that the decision to do so was coordinated at the leadership level.

This was why Lebanese Forces and Phalangist flags and placards dominated the crowd that clashed with the security forces and army personnel protecting the government compound. Their party leaders were taken aback by the scene and called on them to immediately retreat. Phalange sources even claimed that their pictures and flags were used in the clashes even after their members withdrew from the scene.

For the Christian leadership in March 14, besieging the government headquarters is crossing a red line, due to the building’s significance in the eyes of their Sunni allies in the Future Movement. An attack of this kind is something that even Saad Hariri himself could not contemplate. This led to calls by virtually all March 14 leaders to pull back, while maintaining the goal of toppling the government.

Phalange Party sources say they are basing their actions on two constants: first, they will continue to demand that the government resigns and to call for the formation of a national salvation government, in accordance with what party leader Amin Gemayel told the president.

Second, “there is no truth behind the general view that Western diplomats asked Mikati to remain at the head of the government. Those ambassadors who were asked by the Phalange maintained that their priority is stability, not the government,” one Phalange leader insisted.

As for the Lebanese Forces, their calls center around demanding that the current government be replaced by one led by March 14, along with a refusal to negotiate with the March 8 parties on the composition of any new government before the current one resigns.

The Christians of March 14 are now asking themselves what will happen next, after their failed assault on the government headquarters. Even though they may not all agree on the imminent fall of the government, they are all seeking to take full advantage of Hassan’s assassination ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.

These are some of the views they share:

First, that the West is concerned about stability and could be convinced of keeping the government in place if it can keep its promises. However, March 14 also believes that the assassination of Hassan will make Mikati more beholden to Hezbollah, given the anger it sparked on Mikati’s home turf in the North.
Second, that Mikati benefitted from the assault on his office and managed to use it to maintain his position as prime minister. He also succeeded in gaining the support of Mufti Qabbani and Mufti of the North Malik al-Shaar, both of whom rejected evicting the government by force.

Third, March 14 will not return to the national dialogue roundtable, making changing the government a precondition for their future participation. In this matter, it appeared that they won over the president in backing such a stance.

Fourth, March 14 was hoping to evict the prime minister after having mobilized the street against him within 24 hours of Hassan’s assassination. There is, however, an unspoken concern among many in the coalition’s ranks that it may have wasted an ideal opportunity to do so, with the funeral giving the government a new lease on life instead of ending it as March 14 had hoped.

Hiyam Kossayfi is a journalist at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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