Doha Agreement Brings Temporary Calm to Lebanon but Avoids Tough Political Choices
Note: this article by POMED Policy Associate David Mikhail originally appeared in the June 2008 POMED Newsletter.
“Obviously in any compromise there are compromises. This was an agreement that I think served the interests of the Lebanese people. And since it served the interests of the Lebanese people, it served the interests of the United States. We support the democratically elected government of Lebanon.”
The Doha agreement, the subject of this resigned endorsement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in ending the presidential vacuum that had persisted in Lebanon for six months, yielded several checkmarks in the democracy column: the presidential appointment of General Michel Sleiman; increased hopes for the formation of a unity cabinet; and the return to smaller electoral districts, long called for as more equitable than the system in place since 2000.
But as the post-Doha political realities begin to emerge, it is clear that the agreement could ultimately represent yet another win for short-term, ephemeral stability rather than a catalyst for the longer-term reforms truly needed for democracy in Lebanon.
Lebanon after Doha
As of yet, Doha has not brought an end to Lebanon’s political deadlock, but merely transferred it from the parliament to the executive. The usual partisan bickering has emerged as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a member of the Future Movement, the largest party in the March 14 Coalition majority, has been unable to produce a unity government due to disagreements over the disbursal of cabinet portfolios. And even if agreement is reached on a unity government, the possibility of prolonged deadlock is dangerously high, as the opposition’s veto power will further decrease the already limited room for political maneuvering for Hariri and Siniora.
Meanwhile, northern Lebanon has continued to see fighting between militant Sunni jihadists and local Alawites, a Shiite sect. Though the fighting has clear sectarian roots, the Doha agreement likely served as a catalyst, as the perceived one-sided gains achieved by Hezbollah at the expense of the Sunni-based Future Movement have escalated pre-existing tensions into violence.
Along with the Sunni-Alawite fighting comes the question of whether the Future Movement, and in particular its leader, Saad Hariri, can continue to retain its base of support, including Sunni fundamentalists. In 2005, the party relied heavily on such groups to secure a parliamentary majority for the March 14 Coalition. However, the widespread perception that Hezbollah and Syria were the only winners in Doha, particularly given Hezbollah’s retention of their weapons in spite of the agreement’s call for a commitment against the use of force, has sapped the Future Movement of the political capital necessary for consensus building.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah continues to maximize its gains from Doha while its efforts to control Lebanon’s security institutions have contributed to the deadlock over the cabinet. The specter of Hezbollah bringing the fight to Beirut streets – it was their successful military incursions and brief occupation of Sunni West Beirut that sparked the Doha talks – clearly continues to hang over the negotiations, resonating in Amal leader Nabih Berri’s recent remark that “If the matter of the government is not resolved by the end of the day (Friday, June 27), we will enter a negative phase.”
The second-most notable outcome of the Doha agreement was the creation of 26 electoral districts, representing a symbolic step towards reversing the 2000 electoral law that established the previous 14-district framework, widely seen as rooted in maintaining Syrian control.
However, while Doha does make reference to the draft legislation created by the Boutros Commission – formed in 2005 to address electoral reform and headed by former foreign minister, Fouad Boutros – the commission’s signature recommendation of moving toward proportional representation is ignored. Under the proposed Boutros legislation, 51 of the 128 parliamentary seats would be determined on the basis of proportional representation. With this provision now in the proverbial drawer, and given that years of gerrymandering have already consolidated sectarian followings, the expectation that these smaller electoral districts alone will significantly alter the status quo has diminished.
The Challenge Ahead: Reversing History
The legacy of Doha is not yet known, and in this regard it is much like the numerous peace plans and ceasefires we have seen with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the value of the agreement will be determined by whether political leaders utilize the breathing space they have acquired. If a real national dialogue to address Lebanon’s political ills occurs between now and the 2009 elections, then Doha will have been worthy of the support it has received from the United States and the United Nations. But if the Doha agreement has demonstrated anything so far, it is that Lebanon persists as an environment where hard choices are endemically avoided; whether it is March 14 accepting greater political representation for Shiites or Hezbollah relinquishing its weapons.
The U.S. has until now also avoided a tough decision. The Bush Administration has unsuccessfully marketed its security-based approach towards Lebanon as a democratic cause; throwing all of their support behind March 14, implicitly endorsing a framework that has systematically underrepresented the Shi’a, the largest group in Lebanon. The question is whether the U.S. role as security actor can evolve into that of an honest broker, calibrating their support for March 14 with an openness towards facilitating talks with all parties.
The Doha Agreement has been hailed as fitting the traditional Lebanese mantra of “No Victor, No Vanquished.” But if the post-Doha period is only used to continue Lebanon’s tradition of skirting the tough choices that democracy invariably requires, only the first half of this slogan will remain accurate.