Political tensions reached levels not seen for quite some time between Hariri’s Future Movement and Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement. Observers have linked the war of words to disagreements over upcoming administrative appointments such as public prosecutor, head of Shura (State) Council, Head of the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), and Secretary General of the Palace of Justice. In a move reminiscent of previous appointments, Bassil has been trying to monopolize Christian-allocated state posts to his party alone while also having a say in non-Christian appointments. His resort to sectarian rhetoric is also not new as he accused Sunni politicians of “grabbing Christian rights”. The tensions eased temporarily as Hariri and Bassil held a five hour long meeting during which it was rumored they agreed on the divisions of the appointments.
Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces Party, weighed in on the issue as he met Hariri and demanded abiding by a clear mechanism for the shortlisting of qualified candidates rather than relying solely on political deals. Such stance highlights the Lebanese Forces’ wariness of being excluded from the appointments bargain as Geagea himself said “Bassil wants to choose all Christian appointments, forgetting that there are two Christian parties that he must take into consideration”. Along with Geagea, Hariri and Berri have come to express their acceptance of adopting a mechanism of selection but whether this will be adopted and followed through remains to be seen.
In line with the political struggle over state appointments, parliament approved the nomination of five new members of the Constitutional Council. The process was heavily criticized as each nominee was loyal to one of the major parties thus rendering the role of the highest judicial authority in Lebanon questionable. A few MPs walked out of the session in protest such as Samy Gemayel, Paula Yaacoubian, Jamil al-Sayyed, and Jean Talouzian. Reports point to “political shares” in the newly appointed members to be two for the Free Patriotic Movement, one for the Amal Movement, one for the Progressive Socialist Party, and one for the Future Movement; knowing that issue was brought to the agenda without prior notification and the deputies were given 58 CVs on the spot to review and vote accordingly. The remaining five members will be chosen by the Council of Ministers and are expected to be distributed along the following lines: one for the Future Movement, one for Hezbollah and Amal Movement, and three Christians on whom the Lebanese Forces and Marada are theoretically supposed to have an influence on their choice.
The division of the Constitutional Council appointments appears to be a sign of things to come and a continuation of previous clientalist policies. Because the law stipulates the appointment of the Constitutional Council’s members half by the parliament and half by the cabinet and hence needs political agreement, this political influence is expected to remain until the law is changed to give the appointment power to the High Judicial Council. Nevertheless, the new parliament and cabinet, expected to carry out much-needed economic and political reforms, have yet to break from decades-old practices that drove the country to breaking point it is at today.
Tensions in the Mountain
The mountain area of Chouf and Aley again made the headlines as clashes between Progressive Socialist Party (PSP – Jumblat) supporters and Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP – Arslan) minister in government Saleh el-Gharib, left two dead and several injured. The clashes came as a result of Bassil’s visit to the region, of whom Gharib is an ally, and the protests that accompanied it from the residents. Tensions spread across surrounding areas, and roads were blocked in protest. Such incidents have become a regular occurrence in Chouf during the past couple of years. Since May 2018, several clashes have occurred between PSP supporters on one hand, and LDP and Tawhid Party (Wahhab) supporters on the other. The ongoing accusations between parties reflected on the cabinet as the last meeting was aborted to allow mediation efforts a chance to find a solution acceptable to all.
Irrespective of the conflicting versions of what led to the latest round of violence, two key observations can be highlighted. First, Jumblat is under pressure of losing his inflated influence on the political scene as a result of new parliamentary alliances which nullified his previous “king-maker” status, and a weakened Druze front as rivals backed by Hezbollah and Assad vie for power backed by an alternative Druze spiritual authority than the Druze Council of Sheikhs under his influence. Second, Bassil’s highly sectarian rhetoric since last year’s parliamentary elections has inflamed tensions in the region, reopened old wounds, and made him an unwelcome visitor among a large segment of the Druze community. Weapons abundantly available among civilians and parties supporters are enough to cause very serious damage to civil peace and national stability. These conditions, along with the previous intra-Druze clashes, laid the groundwork for probable confrontations and violence.
2019 Budget – Continued
Since the transfer of the draft budget to parliament almost a month ago, it is still under study by the Finance and Budget Committee. The committee has refused to repeat last year’s ultra-fast passage of the budget and is committed to properly assessing it. At this rate, Lebanon is poised to enter the seventh month of 2019 without an approved budget. Feeling the urgency of the situation, Prime Minister Hariri called on the parties in the national unity government and the committee to rise up to the responsibility and be coherent in their stances. The committee thus far has revised or amended several budgetary points but affirmed the commitment to the 7.6% budget deficit. Some of the decisions taken so far include increasing fees on work permits of foreigners, fees on motor vehicles, fines for labor law violations, travel fees, tax increase on interest rates from bank deposits to 10%, combating tax evasion, amending income tax, and voting down hotel room fees. The Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb (Gemayel), the Azm (Mikaty) and many others, still have several concerns with the budget, notably to on the extent to which it has launched the real structural reforms needed for turning around the Lebanese downfall. However, they are hesitant to delay much a budget that will be implemented for 5 months and are already preparing the 2020 budget discussion that should theoretically take place in September.
Xenophobic Rhetoric on the Rise against Syrian Refugees
Building on the sense of nationalism, sectarian fears, resentment over the past Syrian occupation, and rising socioeconomic tensions, anti-refugee sentiment has simmered over the past weeks in Lebanon. Spearheading the nationalist rhetoric for the return of Syrian refugees is the head of the majority Christian Free Patriotic Movement and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Bassil went as far as stating that Lebanese people have a “genetic distinction” that makes them resist the integration of refugees. This inflamed rhetoric has emboldened his supporters to storm shops run by or employing Syrians and bully them by chanting “Syria get out” as well as “employ a Lebanese”. Another incident also occurred in Deir al-Ahmar where a clash between refugees and firefighters led to the forced eviction of 400 Syrians and some of their tents were later burned to try to prevent return.
Shops owned by Syrians are being shut down, billboards encourage the hiring of exclusively Lebanese workers, fines are being handed out to illegal employment of Syrian workers, and “concrete tents” in refugee camps are being demolished. The camp in Arsal is one example of the latter practice. As authorities tighten restrictions on already impoverished refugees who have been used as a scapegoat for the country’s countless problems, tensions have thus began to run high as refugees angrily state they have nowhere else to go because if they go back to Syria, young men will be drafted into Assad’s army. All this political escalation and tightened measures endanger the stability of the country and could push Syrian communities to the brink. Populist rhetoric only serves short-term goals of its propagators while threatening long-term peace.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Labor began a campaign for a stricter application of the Lebanese Labor Laws notably with regard to “giving priority for Lebanese labor” and organizing the work of foreign/migrant labor including Syrian refugees, but his work falls short of a holistic approach to the issue. The government is yet to adopt a general policy on managing the refugees’ crisis and their return in spite of all calls for it to do so. A proper government policy, which has been missing since 2011, is needed to deal with the refugee issue in a realistic and right-oriented manner. Short of this, the risk of drifting into measures and individual policies making life unbearable for Syrian refugees carries dangerous consequences, not to mention making any possible return neither safe nor voluntary.
Reviving the Russian Initiative of Refugee Return
A Russian delegation headed by (Special Envoy to Syria of President Putin) Alexander Lavrentiev, met with President Aoun, Prime Minister Hariri, Speaker of Parliament Berri, and Foreign Minister Bassil to discuss the Russian initiative for the return of Syrian refugees. So far, the initiative has not really materialized into anything tangible because of the lack of funding and international support. Lebanon, host to over a million Syrian refugees, has expressed support for the initiative through its official representatives, but disagreements within government remain over holding direct talks with the Assad regime. In this light, Zasypkin, Russian Ambassador to Beirut, stated that Russia is willing to facilitate possible talks between Lebanon and Syria.
The initiative has been frozen for a few months, and it has been reported that no real progress was achieved during the latest talks, with more focus on Russian-Syrian negotiations. On the contrary, the visit was more focused on Lebanon’s participation in the upcoming Astana summit in July which includes Russia, Turkey, and Iran. The logic behind the invitation is that Lebanon’s presence will push for a “political or institutional framework for return” as well as playing a role in the reconstruction process. In a sense, all three topics are interrelated: political solution to the Syrian conflict, reconstruction obstacles, and framework for return.
While Lebanon had been relatively safe since the bomb attacks between 2013 and 2016, and while security forces have announced foiling several attacks over the past years, Eid al-Fitr this year was different. Abdel Rahman Mabsout conducted consecutive attacks targeting Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces personnel in Tripoli. The assailant took the lives of four servicemen before being surrounded in an apartment where he detonated a suicide belt. Mabsout was socially alienated as a child, fought with ISIS in Syria before being arrested in Lebanon in 2016. He was then released from prison in late 2017. The possible trigger that led Mabsout to conduct the attack more than one year and a half after his release has been reported to be his family disowning him on the same day. The attack reignited the discussion about ISIS returnees, political interference in judicial matters, Islamist prisoners, structural causes for terrorism, and most importantly, the threat of lone wolf attacks. These types of attacks on the rise worldwide and are hard for security forces to counter. Even Minister of Interior Raya el-Hassan clearly stated “Can I tell you we can curb it 100%? We can’t curb it. Countries that are perhaps more advanced than us have not been able to.” No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and investigation so far have not proven the formation of Joint Criminal Enterprise. Yet credible fears remain around the reoccurrence of such event especially since weapons are available, ISIS fighters are returning home, continuing failure of judicial system, and other systematic problems.
Countless condemnations and condolences were received locally and internationally from Shia and Sunni religious figures, Saudi Foreign Ministry, Jordanian Foreign Ministry, and others.
Southern Border Negotiations – Continued? Delayed? Postponed?
The Israeli Minster of Energy, Yuval Steintiz, stated that negotiations with Lebanon are expected to begin next month with hopes that an agreement can be reached within a timeframe of six to nine months. Israeli optimism however was not shared by Lebanon’s Speaker of Parliament Berri who accused Israel of going back on previously agreed conditions. These negative statements reflected on Satterfield’s latest visit during which he met Berri, Hariri, Bassil, and General Joseph Aoun. Reports have pointed to a possible collapse of the US mediation efforts as previously agreed upon terms were altered. One disagreement is the role of the UN as Satterfield proposed the UN merely acts as a “good offices” rather than a patronage. This effectively places the US as the head of the negotiations. Other contentious points include the separation of the land and sea border demarcations, setting a timeframe, and putting the agreement in writing. Even though Satterfield will head to Israel again, it is unclear whether the negotiations have hit a dead end especially as Satterfield prepares to assume his new role as US ambassador to Turkey. For more details on the ongoing dispute, please refer to our report from last month.References
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