Meet the Lebanese Press: Post-summit syndrome

Showed up, but not on the agenda: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is received by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before the Arab Summit in Damascus, 28 March 2008. (Omar Rashidi/MaanImages)

What’s next for Lebanon after the Arab Summit that concluded last weekend in Damascus?

Marx said history repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce. Arab summits tend to repeat themselves as tragedies and farces at one and the same time, and the latest summit in Damascus was no exception. Summit soap opera moves by top and low-level delegates over closing statements, the tone of speeches, and other trivialities were the norm.

Meanwhile, the three main crises simmering in the Arab world — Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine — were paid mere lip service. This is because this summit was more about inter-Arab rivalry and bickering than about solving any of the pending problems, and the Lebanese file was one of the battle grounds of this rivalry. Thus, despite the little that was accomplished the summit proceedings and its outcome did hold some clues regarding the unfolding of events in Lebanon in the near future.

As Ibrahim al-Amine of Al-Akhbar points out, the fact that no inflammatory rhetoric was exchanged between Syria and its Arab rivals (namely Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and that the Lebanese crisis failed to feature prominently in the discussions signaled that an escalation of tension in Lebanon, at least for the very near future, is unlikely. But as pro-US Arab governments are likely to try and undermine the Syrian presidency of the Arab League for one full year by encouraging mini-summits outside the framework of the Arab League (one such mini-summit was convened in Cairo by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and attended by Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas), the Lebanese situation might again turn for the worse.

Meanwhile inside Lebanon, a teacher’s strike was held on 2 April as the working class is becoming increasingly fed up with a worsening economic situation amid a lack of proper functioning of state institutions. Talal Salman of As-Safir argues that protests for better standards of living are bound to remain toothless without any rallying beyond opposing political camps and without the rebuilding of state institutions.

In a side development, the same paper reported that Lebanese army chief Michel Suleiman, looked to as a compromise presidential candidate, is not prepared to wait much longer to become president. Though there are calls for him to extend his tenure a few more months, he is planning to retire this upcoming August. His departure could seriously undermine the stabilizing effect the Lebanese army operations have had amongst Lebanese factions amid harsh political and community antagonism.

Al-Akhbar, 31 March 2008, Ibrahim al-Amine: “The Summit has passed … and Syria wins point-wise”:

Saudi Arabia was more at fault than Egypt in terms of demoting its level of representation at the Arab summit in the Syrian capital. The presence of any high-profile Saudi official would have stolen the limelight from others and possibly altered the summit’s program completely.

The host country was able to contain the pressure and attacks to which it was subjected. Both the Saudis and the Egyptians failed to bring the Lebanese crisis to the fore of concerns to be addressed at the summit. And even those counted amongst Saudi Arabia’s allies did not try in preliminary, plenary, or closed door [sessions] to turn the Lebanese file into the main bone of contention at the summit.

In terms of the Lebanese file, the Syrian president saw that if the Lebanese delegation was present, Syria would have been willing to discuss everything relating to the Lebanese situation including the modus operandi of the Arab initiative, the efforts of the Arab League general secretary, and the future of Syrian-Lebanese relations. But the absence of Lebanon and other delegations, the president said, will complicate things. At this point, Libyan Leader Mouammar Qaddafi interjected to argue that it is not proper to discuss the Lebanese issue in the absence of representatives of the country. [Qaddafi] suggested that the issue not be discussed at all, even in the closing statement, and at some point the Libyan leader threatened to withdraw from the summit if the Lebanese issue was put on the table for discussion. This prompted the Syrian president to approach Qaddafi and ask him not to object to restating in the closing statement the commitment towards the Arab initiative in regards to Lebanon.

An-Nahar, 3 April 2008, Nayla Tueni, “Incomplete ‘Arab Summit’ ”:

What do the Lebanese expect from an incomplete and amputated Arab summit due to the absence of the only Christian Arab president in the Arab and Islamic world? We have to repeat over and over that the absence of the Lebanese president, the Christian in particular, is the newsworthy event and not the summit itself.

What is unfortunate is the fact that nothing will change after the summit.

On the eve of the summit, the Lebanese heard intonations confirming a dangerous thing, namely that the current situation in Lebanon is being normalized to accommodate a long-term presidential vacancy. And we fear that this vacuum is of benefit to local political forces.

The Lebanese do not possess the means to change their situation as long as they succumb to believing everything they hear and are unable to distinguish truth from falsity. Whatever is said in the non-event title “Arab Summit,” one cannot ignore the significance of the ushering in of the Lebanese crisis into the axis of Arab politics and regimes. This means that Lebanon, at the height of its crisis, may be stronger than all those who wish its destruction, whether in the interest of outside forces or the selfishness of domestic ones.

As-Safir, 3 April 2008, Talal Salman: “Striking against an ‘anonymous’ in the absence of the state … and society?”:

It is futile to assume that the serious social crisis can be solved while the political crisis continues to grow till it almost wipes out the state and its institutions. And regardless of the exchange of accusations between the governing and opposition camps, the state’s governing apparatus is in a miserable state ranging between vacuum (the presidential post) and decision-making paralysis (the government whose legitimacy is contested) …

At this moment, if we exclude security institutions (namely the army that is in charge of societal security and is burdened by its deployment as a buffer force between brothers-enemies in the streets and squares and newly-formed front lines), there is not a single institution that is fulfilling its obligations under the law in handling the needs and woes of the country.

This is why objections and cries of help in protest of grim social conditions in general and sinking living standards in particular are barely anything more than “lawsuits” against a John Doe.

There are no solutions in the absence of the state. And the state is awaiting the “Arab initiative,” and the Arab initiative awaits a new governing formula based on partnership that was difficult to attain in the past and is becoming almost impossible to achieve between the government and the opposition. The Arab initiative awaits Arab reconciliations between the forces of “moderation” and the forces of “resistance.”

Meanwhile, private and public employees, workers, peasants and farmers [have been orphaned], with no one [to care for them] and no party coming to their aid.

The situation will continue to deteriorate until the Lebanese awaken to the fact that whether they were in the governing or opposing camp, they have no future without a state …

The state is the base — who will look after the state? That is the question.

Meet the Lebanese Press is EI’s twice-monthly review of what is making the rounds in the Lebanese press and the pundits’ take on it.

Hicham Safieddine is a Lebanese Canadian journalist.

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