Meet the Lebanese Press: From dialogue to declarations

The merry-go-round of dialogue sessions between the government loyalist and the opposition camps just got a fresh push when persistent parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri called for yet another set of roundtable negotiations after several months’ hiatus. The press is abuzz with weighing the pros and cons, as well as gauging the chances of success or failure, of such talks. Nicolas Nassif of Al Akhbar argues that the thresholds for both parties have gone down significantly and hence some gains may be made. Imad Mrammel of As-Safir points out that the differences are too much to overcome.

That Berri’s call is for a “declaration of intentions” as opposed to a resolution of the issues suggests that the threshold of expectations has also gone down. The call was enthusiastically received by the government-majority March 14 movement’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who struck a conciliatory tone amid speculations that he is attempting to mend fences, however faintly, with Damascus. But big hurdles remain in the way of any significant rapprochement between the two sides.

Agreeing on a presidential candidate remains a top demand, but as next year’s parliamentary elections draw closer, divvying up ministerial posts has become less relevant when little is expected from a divided and short-lived government. Instead, eyes are all on negotiating the terms of next year’s elections that would guarantee each faction more seats and ultimately more say in the country’s future government. It has become clear that both sides lack either the will or the means to gain the upper hand.

Save any major regional developments that translate into outright confrontation, both camps are likely to use this opportunity to better situate themselves for the next showdown either in the ballot box a year from now or much earlier if those in Washington perpetually charting a new Middle East decide to resort to a gloves-off approach before a new US administration is sworn in. Washington’s last chance may be during the upcoming visit by US President George W. Bush to the region. Some media reports suggest a green light from Bush could embolden the March 14 camp to go it alone and elect a slim majority president. This is unlikely without full material backing from Bush. The odds may be low, but the fact that his trip coincides with the 19th attempt to elect a president scheduled for 13 May could be a bad omen.

The outcome of this latest call for dialogue may be the best litmus test of whether the omen remains such or turns into something more sinister.

Al Akhbar, Nicolas Nassif, 29 April 2008, “ ‘Declaration of Intentions’ extends to the loyalist camp and the opposition: The dialogue of low thresholds”:

The invitation by parliamentary speaker [Berri] to hold roundtable discussions under the theme of a “declaration of intentions” is intended to pave the way for an internal balanced compromise, and to present an agenda that does not involve the election of the consensus candidate army chief Michael Suleiman as president. This is a clear signal to the loyalist camp that this provision is not part of a trade-off and not linked to demands of forming a national unity government or drafting a particular election law.

The slogan of a ‘declaration of intentions’ … was the culmination of several developments that reflected the deterioration of the wagers of both the loyalists and the opposition in the course of their internal struggle. Both have given up the threats that they used to trade in the past months — the touchiest of those demands being the threat of stalwart members of the loyalist camp to resort to the international tribunal and that of the opposition to undermine the legitimacy of [Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora’s government.

After the opposition insisted on nominating Michel Aoun as its sole candidate for the presidency, and then demanded the formation of a national unity government in which it has a veto power, the threshold of political demands began to gradually get lower to the point where the nomination of the army chief was not rejected, participation in the government reduced to one-third of cabinet posts, then finally the latter demand was shelved and negotiating over the election law came to the fore.

For its part, the March 14 forces also embarked on lowering its threshold of demands. From insisting on a quorum of a slim majority, to accepting the presidential nomination of someone they objected to as the ally of Damascus [army chief Suleiman], to a willingness to engage in a national dialogue under the patronage of the Arab League with no precondition of electing a president first, to its support of Nabih Berri’s call for dialogue, to the lowest threshold of negotiating with the opposition if that would lead to the election of a president.

As-Safir, 29 April 2008, Imad Mrammel, “Aoun: The current signs are not encouraging … and I don’t trust the loyalist intentions”:

Despite apparent signs that the chances of answering [parliamentary speaker] Nabih Berri’s call for dialogue are on the rise, scrutinizing the declared positions and the hidden intentions among the majority and opposition camps shows that there remains difficulties in agreeing to commence such a dialogue. And even if we assume that such a dialogue takes place, that does not necessarily mean that one can expect much from it.

One of the signs of the difficult challenges awaiting such a dialogue prior to its launch is the insistence of the majority camp that there be a guarantee that the discussions lead to electing a new president on 13 May, whether or not points of contention like government composition and electoral laws are resolved.

In this regard, General Michel Aoun tells As-Safir that there is no reason for a dialogue if [March 14 movement insist on] prior guarantees of electing a president on 13 May.

… And in addition to locally-made worries, there is the question of the extent to which the regional and international climate is amenable to a new round of talks, and whether there are any developments in regard to the tense Syrian-Saudi relations that would provide a regional safety net for such a dialogue. Another factor is the extent to which the United States is ready to facilitate a compromise given it is being constantly accused of foiling any such attempts at reconciliation. And since several of these questions remain unanswered, some might respond to Berri’s call for dialogue not based on faith in reaching a settlement but as a “political tactic” designed to avoid being blamed for the ongoing crisis.

Meet the Lebanese Press is The Electronic Intifada’s regular review of what is making the rounds in the Lebanese press and the pundits’ take on it.

Hicham Safieddine is a Lebanese Canadian journalist.