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Accueil > Entretiens > Interview with Christian Thuselt – Lebanese political situation in the (...)

Interview with Christian Thuselt – Lebanese political situation in the Middle East
Article publié le 26/05/2017

By Mathilde Rouxel, in Berlin

Christian Thuselt is Lecturer of Middle East Politics at the Department of Political Science, Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg/Germany. He studied at Tuebingen and worked as a Researcher at the German Oriental Institute at Beirut. His work is primarily on political parties in the Middle East, the Lebanese political system, on history of political notions, and Middle Eastern Christianity.

What were the issues at stake at the Arab summit (held in Amman on 29th-30th March) and what role did Lebanon play in these negotiations ?

First, the Palestinian question stood once more in the foreground, unsurprisingly without tangible results. The fact that this issue was on the agenda can be attributed to fears of notable change in American Middle East foreign policy towards Israel/Palestine under the current administration. These fears relate to the question of the Israeli capital, for instance whether the American mission should be at Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem, to the legalization by the Knesset of Israeli settlements that had been officially considered illegal and to the possibility of an explicit normalization before a comprehensive peace-agreement bringing about full Palestinian statehood. That was against the background of Israeli PM Netanyahu urging for some “regional solution” by facing “common dangers” by which he mainly referred to Iran and its allies throughout the region. Despite the dominance of states that are rather hostile towards the “Islamic Republic”, the Arab League does, by no means, agree on this issue. The Syrian war and the wars in Yemen and in Libya were also addressed on the agenda, as the presence of Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, clearly indicated. However, Arab leaders have no common position on these three wars. One of the principal disadvantages of the whole forum obviously is that it only encompasses Arab states. While Turkey and Iran are part of a Middle Eastern conflict system, they are not part of an Arab cultural system on the basis of which the Arab League is actually organized. Thus, relevant regional actors are not participating in any of the Arab summits. Since the Assad-controlled Syrian government, having been excluded since 2011, did not take part either, the newly elected Lebanese president Michel Aoun, known to be sympathetic to the Teheran-Damascus-axis and its smaller allies, has been made an unofficial spokesman of the Iran-affiliated part of the regional divide within the Arab League.

Can you explain the reasons for the deterioration of diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia ?

The election of Michel Aoun affected Saudi-Lebanese relations since the Lebanese political landscape is currently divided into two camps that are organized along their alliances with foreign powers. The “14th of March”-block is rather pro-Western and pro-Saudi while the “8th of March”-alliance supports the Syrian government and Iran. It is important to note here that while their respective foreign alliances seem to be constitutive of Lebanese politics, the respective parties’ political identities are not genuinely based upon them. Rather, each party’s identity has been formed through interactive processes on the national level and within their respective sectarian societal pillars. The fact that they ally themselves with specific foreign countries is rather an indirect result of these cleavage lines. The prospect of a pro-Iranian government in Beirut is an unpleasant one for Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the election of Aoun was only facilitated by bringing the “14th of March” parties back in : the Christian main rival, the conservative Lebanese Forces, and the liberal Sunni-dominated Mustaqbal-bloc voted for him. In return, Mustaqbal-leader Hariri became Prime Minister, a position that has been far more powerful than the presidency since the end of the civil war in 1990. This, in turn, guarantees the Saudis that their interests will be considered. However, when the newly elected president praised Hezbollah and its allies as part of the country’s defence (along with the official army), King Salman of Saudi Arabia cancelled his visit to Beirut. To smooth over these differences, PM Hariri travelled together with the president to the summit in Jordan ; normally the head of government does not accompany the head of state to these meetings. Thus, in fact two “Lebanons” were present there, aptly illustrating the ongoing conflict in Beirut. Yet, Aoun’s most important asset is his capacity to act as the symbolic representative of Lebanese (and somewhat also Syrian) Christianity, which is much worried by militant Saudi-backed Sunni Salafism in Syria.

What role does Hezbollah play after the election of Michel Aoun to the presidency of the Lebanese Republic (on national and international levels) ?

Michel Aoun, once known in Lebanon as a staunch opponent of Syria and Iran, over roughly the last ten years has moved closer to Hezbollah and its partners in an effort to “Lebanonize” the organization : by offering them a “secular” (that is : allegedly non-sectarian) Lebanese national identity, Hezbollah should be integrated into the Lebanese political landscape as a “normal” party among others. In fact, that is about finding slivers of common ground with them. Ambitious and within the dynamics of a very conflictual political system that is marked by harsh rhetoric and even open political violence, Michel Aoun has increasingly adopted the political language of the “8th of March” alliance. Most remarkably, he referred to Syria as “closest to absolute democracy” on Syrian state-TV in October 2012. Yet, his plans to “Lebanonize” Hezbollah might be ill-fated : turning Hezbollah into a “normal” political party is beyond reach for the time being. Hezbollah has always focused on “Resistance” as a means to prevent having to answer questions as to what the organization actually wants to be : a party, a counter-society, a reserve of the Lebanese army ? “Resistance” could be understood : when they address Aoun and their less religious supporters, they refer to Resistance as a patriotic duty functioning as a surrogate for the weak Lebanese state. Alternatively, towards the more radical adherents, the notion could assume the form of a holistic concept of transforming society according to an Iranian model. Therefore, even a sudden end of the Syrian war would most probably not lead to sudden disarmament. Most importantly, the blood shedding in Syria strains Hezbollah’s strength, making it more dependent than ever on foreign (Iranian) resources. The ongoing negotiations on a new electoral law suggest that Hezbollah wants something for itself and its base since any shift towards a more proportional representation in Lebanon might benefit its role as the strongest actor in the country’s probably most numerous community (exact numbers are unknown). On a wider, international level, this might weaken Lebanon’s economic position since banks suspected to be close to the “8th of March” usually work under difficult conditions. Moreover, it can hardly be expected that Israel and several Arab states, among them Saudi Arabia and Jordan, would tolerate Hezbollah gaining considerably in military capacity : the Israeli press has reported that the organization has doubled its strength.

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