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Rallying the troops
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 02 - 2011

14 March commemorated the anniversary of Rafik Al-Hariri's killing, but the movement has never looked so beleaguered, reports Lucy Fielder from Beirut
Lebanon's western-backed 14 March marked the sixth anniversary of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri's assassination this week, but despite rabble-rousing speeches from Al-Hariri's son Saad and other leading figures, the event highlighted the beleaguered nature of the movement as it declared its move into opposition.
On 25 January, Al-Hariri lost his parliamentary majority and the premiership to Najib Mikati, a centrist tycoon nominated by Hizbullah's alliance. It was joined by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's bloc, marking his formal defection from Al-Hariri's coalition; Mikati and three other MPs from the northern town of Tripoli also switched sides. At the rally in BIEL, an exhibition complex in the central Solidere area of Beirut that was rebuilt by Al-Hariri's father, Saad announced that his movement was now in the opposition. That seemed to signal the failure of Mikati's attempts to form a broad-based unity government, though given the frequent shifts in loyalty and principle that mark Lebanese politics, it may be too soon to say for sure.
Al-Hariri outlined the 14 March movement's strategy in the coming period. "Dear friends, today we are in the opposition, which is based on the three following principles. First, we are committed to the Constitution. Second, we are committed to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). Third, we are committed to protecting public and private life in Lebanon from the dominance of weapons," he told the audience of several thousand people.
He called for mass protests on the streets on 14 March to commemorate the vast gathering in Beirut's Martyrs Square on that date six years ago to pressure Syria to pull out its troops, accusing it of being behind the assassination, something Damascus denies and Al-Hariri retracted last year.
Judging from the speech, Al-Hariri's strategy, if he does stay out of the cabinet Mikati is expected to form in the next couple of weeks, will focus on discrediting the prime minister-designate as "Hizbullah's man" within the Sunni community of which both men are a part. He will also rally his supporters against Hizbullah's weapons arsenal to fight Israel and behind the tribunal to try suspects in the killing of his father.
The result of such a campaign would likely be increased Sunni-Shia tensions. Hizbullah's brief takeover of mainly Sunni parts of Beirut in May 2008, in response to a government clampdown on its communications networks, was seen as a humiliating defeat and affront to Sunni dignity.
"Weapons directed against the Lebanese people are weapons of strife, and strife in Lebanon serves only Israel, which is our only enemy," Al-Hariri said. The tribunal is widely expected to indict members of Hizbullah, further stoking sectarian fury.
Karim Makdisi, assistant director of the American University of Beirut's Issam Fares Institute, said Al-Hariri was returning to a narrow sectarian agenda. "Al-Hariri's been a bit cut off from the mainstream, so now he's turning to the rightwing part of his coalition, which both needs and enjoys this kind of sectarian bashing and populism," he said. Al-Hariri's absolution of Syria had alienated some of his more hardline followers; his speech marked a mission to win them back.
Makdisi said the worst-case scenario for the coming months is a repeat of the years of polarisation and sporadic street fighting that led up to the events of 2008 and the Doha Accord that ended the strife. This time round, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon would replace UN Security Council Resolution 1559 of 2004, which called on Hizbullah to disarm, as a rallying call uniting 14 March and its western backers against the group.
A standoff over the tribunal sparked Lebanon's latest government crisis. Hizbullah wanted Al-Hariri to sever official cooperation with the court, and many expect Mikati to carry out its wish. But Makdisi said now that Hizbullah had a prime minister to its liking, it might choose not to give its opponents such ammunition, instead relying on informal agreements and trusting Mikati not to move against the group once the indictments are issued. "I think they'll give Mikati a lot of latitude to come out with a ministerial statement that is very vague on the tribunal and face down his Sunni critics," he said. "Hizbullah wants to preserve this government as long as possible to take it through the first phases of the STL indictments."
If Mikati forms a cabinet composed purely of members of the Hizbullah-led 8 March coalition, he is expected to keep many of the contentious big names in the background and rely on technocrats, Makdisi said. Local newspaper reports suggest some behind-the-scenes squabbling between popular 8 March leader Michel Aoun and President Michel Suleiman over the allocation of Christian seats.
It is unclear how easily Al-Hariri will be able to mobilise against Mikati, who has a popular base in Tripoli and appears to have a green light from Saudi Arabia, hitherto Al-Hariri's staunch backer. Some articles in Saudi London-based Elaph, in recent weeks have suggested a degree of support for Mikati in Riyadh.
Makdisi said that while Egypt's uprising has thrown into question the future direction of a key ally, Saudi Arabia would want a quiet Lebanon.
"Mikati doesn't have the national popular backing that Al-Hariri does, but he's viable enough," he said. "The Saudis will want stability in Lebanon, which Mikati can provide, while it deals with what's happening in Egypt."
Egypt's ousted president Hosni Mubarak was also a key ally of Al-Hariri's Future Movement, particularly former prime minister Fouad Al-Siniora, further adding to Al-Hariri's woes.
"I think 14 March is counting on the tribunal indictments being this huge thing and I don't see it with what's going on in the region," Makdisi said.


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