As my Emirates flight from Dubai touched down Thursday evening in Beirut, I had the feeling of returning to a land where deja vu is a fact of daily life. The same names persisting for two decades or three or even more. Gemayal. Hariri. Nasrallah. Jumblatt. Aoun. Geagea. Berri. Recycled speeches and words. One about resistance another about sovereignty. Each accusing the other of cow-towing to foreign powers. As I made my way into the city centre, the taxi driver -- from Ba'albek -- managed to go on a tirade against the yuhud (Jews) and the haramiyin (bastards a.k.a. politicians), within a few minutes of us leaving the airport. Soon I was amongst friends discussing what would happen next.
This past week was quite eventful for Lebanon. Within a span of almost 24 hours, Christian opposition figure Michel Aoun announced the failure of the Saudi-Syrian initiative and the Hezbollah-led opposition group withdrew from the unity government, effectively collapsing it just as Prime Minister Saad Hariri was meeting President Obama at the White House. Somewhere out there, Robert Fisk is snickering to himself - Pity the Nation.
Yet, is anyone surprised? The only surprise is that the walkout of the 10 opposition ministers (and one minister allied with President Michael Suleiman) did not happen sooner; that the facade of an elusive compromise persisted for so long. Syria and Saudi Arabia had been working behind the scenes to try to bring about a deal to address the ramifications of a possible indictment of Hezbollah by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in the coming days. Yet, just like the Doha Agreement of 2008, even if there was a breakthrough it would likely be a transient one. Why? As always, Lebanon finds itself in the same tug-of-war, the same sects, the same zuama' (leaders), the same 'foreign powers' or as Jumblatt calls them dark forces -- the same ***t.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. If by some miracle, Saad Hariri is reappointed as the Prime Minister (he is the caretaker PM until the crisis is resolved), or if a consensus candidate emerges (such as the likes of Muhammad Safadi or others from the Sunni-strongholds of the North) it will only be to defer the next inevitable crisis by a few months, to simply be precipitated again by the STL releasing its findings, or the next parliamentary elections, or by an errant rocket towards Israel, or someone sneezing etc. Lebanon may be in crisis today, but it is in permanent paralysis. That paralysis experiences a convulsion frequently, but that only masks the underlying condition. Lebanon is still frozen. Frozen since its last census conducted in 1932. Frozen since the unwritten Shari'a that is the National Pact, agreed to in 1943 and carried out religiously ever since. Frozen despite civil conflict on repeated occasions, including a 15-year brutal war from 1975-1990.
Despite being frozen, the leaders will warmly wait for directives and indications from abroad. Walid Jumblatt is on his way to pay homage to his once foresworn enemy -- who he vowed in typical Jumblatt-will-do-the-opposite-soon fashion he would never meet (including once to me) - President Bashar al-Assad. PM Saad Hariri racked up frequent flyer miles on his return DC, stopping in Paris and Istanbul to consult with the leadership. There will be a flurry of activity by political leaders in a rush to the different embassies in Beirut.
Then, Friday night sees a speech by Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah (likely by the time this article is posted) and there will be more to come. It is still March 8 versus March 14. Again. Again Again. Five years on and still the same fight, around nearly the same issues (or at least borne from the same tree). And it won't change. Not yet. Here's why:
-- The United States is still uncomfortable with Hezbollah in a Lebanese government;
-- The United States needs Lebanon to remain in Hariri or Hariri-allied hands prior to any confrontation, military or otherwise, with Iran
-- The United States and Israel view the STL as a way to hold Hezbollah accountable under international law and target the group
-- Iran is dedicated to seeing Hezbollah lead the government in Lebanon to angle for positioning vis-a-vis the West
-- Israel will continue to threaten Lebanon to ensure it remains unstable and because it has unfinished business with Hezbollah
-- Hezbollah does not trust Hariri and his allies in March 14 because they view them as hostile to the resistance and pseudo-collaborators with Israel in 2006
-- The Future Party and others fear that a government with Hezbollah gives the group both the state projection of power in addition to their power as a militia
-- The constant convulsions of crisis provide the political leaders with a purpose and position, rather than have to answer to the daily concerns of citizens
-- The permanent paralysis maintains the grip on power of political leaders and avoidance of political transition that would undermine the system of patronage and nepotism that is now pervasive.
Solve the above and Lebanon will calm down and fade from the newspaper headlines. Until then, pity the nation.
Taufiq Rahim is a Visiting Fellow at the Dubai School of Government, and blogs regularly on TheGeopolitico.com.