Sleiman goes to Baabda. Is Lebanon Back from the Brink?

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By Emile El-Hokayem – The election of Army Commander General Michel Sleiman as president of Lebanon on the heels of Hezbollah’ violent powerplay in the streets of Beirut and the subsequent Doha Agreement closes the chapter of transition from Syrian rule to imperfect sovereignty. The chapter it opens is less certain, with outcomes ranging from state consolidation to de facto Hezbollah takeover to renewed civil war. Indeed the depth of anger and mistrust between and within the various sects seems bottomless, and the Doha Agreement, by no means comprehensive or satisfactory to everyone, could well turn out to be the first ceasefire in the new Lebanese civil war. But as became clear from the celebrations around Sleiman’s inauguration, a sense of optimism exudes from normal Lebanese citizens who only two weeks ago witnessed the worst communal violence since 1990.

Much will hinge on the new president’s ability to play a balancing role between the various groups, transcend factional politics and affirm the authority of the state against external and domestic threats. This is a daunting task for Sleiman, who certainly knows the ambivalent feelings the Lebanese people have toward him. On one hand, they have always viewed with suspicion military men running the country, a sense accentuated by the perceived LAF connivance with Hezbollah during the May fighting. On the other hand, they realize that the Lebanese Army is the only functioning and cohesive institution left in the country. Lebanon’s fragmented society is difficult terrain for military rulers, which explains why the country did not endure a military dictatorship as did many other Arab countries.

Indeed, Lebanon has a troubled history of army generals acceding to top positions of power. If Lebanese have fond if romanticized memories of General Fouad Chehab’s rule from 1958 to 1964, their experiences with General Michel Aoun (the interim and contested Prime Minister who led a bloody and self-defeating war against the Syrians in 1988-1990) and General Emile Lahoud (who, as President from 1998 to 2007, deepened Lebanon’s obedience to the Syrian suzerain and stifled domestic opposition) have been mostly negative. This is why, absent moral character and abidance by constitutional principles, Sleiman could well join his predecessors in the political graveyard of military figures who have promised a lot and delivered little.

Sleiman has therefore two models to choose from. Replicating the Lahoud model would be disastrous. Backed by Syria, Emile Lahoud gave Hezbollah full support, abused his powers as president and used the Army as an instrument of domestic control, tarnishing its image with much of the population. After Lahoud’s term was extended by Syrian diktat and his erstwhile rival Rafik Hariri killed in a likely Syrian-inspired bombing, massive popular discontent led to the ouster of Syrian troops and Lahoud’s political isolation.

The other, more positive model is Fouad Chehab, a president who alternatively sought consensus and confrontation with the country’s sectarian leaders in order to assert state authority. Chehad showed moral rectitude and commitment to institution-building, two virtues rarely found in Lebanese politicians but that Sleiman should propound. However, Sleiman is arguably in a weaker position than Chehab since the powers of the presidency have been weakened by the 1989 Taef Agreement. His authority has already been eroded by the Doha Agreement which granted him only 3 Cabinet positions out of 30. Sleiman’s top aide and probable choice as Army commander was also killed in December 2007.

Other concerns about Sleiman stem mostly from his rise to the top Army position during Syrian rule. He was named in 1998 when Syrian intelligence ran the country and he remains unwilling to voice any public criticism of Syria. These concerns are mitigated by the fact that Sleiman was until 2005 a marginal figure in the Lahoud-run security system, with military intelligence and internal security officials reporting to Lahoud and his Syrian overlords above Sleiman’s head. Futhermore, at the height of the Cedar Revolution in the Spring of 2005, the LAF resisted calls to crackdown on and even facilitated the peaceful popular protests that rocked Beirut and pushed the Syrians out.

Sleiman’s eruption on the political scene will create new political realities. Thanks to the powers of the presidency and his new status as the country’s top Christian leader, he is likely to emerge as a powerful player able to draw new political lines and inspire new political alliances. He will likely erode the appeal of the country’s other general-cum-politician, Michel Aoun, whose base of support combines the military and Christians seeking powerful Christian representation. He will also attract fence-sitters and independents thanks to the privileges and patronage of the presidency. In all likelihood, the division of the country in two camps (the March 14 parliamentarian majority and the March 8 opposition) will give way to a more diffuse political game, with changing alliances dictated by Sleiman’s tenuous balancing game.

Importantly, Sleiman is well positioned to reform Lebanon’s security system, make it more accountable to civilian institutions and transform it into a credible defense force. While cohesion will continue to trump capability, the organizational, training and equipment needs of the LAF are acute as evidenced by last year’s fighting against Fatah al-Islam. In recent years, Sleiman oversaw several military deployments that over-stretched an under-equipped and under-trained force but brought the LAF massive public support. From the deployment in the South after the summer 2006 war against Israel to the 2007 mini-war against a jihadi outfit, the LAF restored its credentials, although they were dented by its lack of intervention during the Hezbollah mini-coup of May 2008.

In his inaugural speech, Sleiman mentioned the formulation of a defense strategy as a priority of his term. He would do well to engage in serious thinking about this objective. A credible LAF would go a long way to address Lebanon’s key challenge of how to transform Hezbollah, which exercises a de facto veto right on the country’s security, defense and foreign policy, from an autonomous militia to a normal political party.

In his inaugural speech, Sleiman touched on many of the right notes. He talked about citizenship, youth, development, state authority, national security and other themes. He comes to power with a better image and record than his military predecessors. The challenges are huge, but he must remember that in 6 years time, he will be judged for his character and commitment.

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