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Ana Maria Luca

Berri’s lines in the sand

By keeping his ties with Riyadh when Hezbollah was slamming it, Nabih Berri seemed to stray slightly from March 8

Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri expresses his condolences to the new Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz in January 2015 at the Diwan Royal Palace in Riyadh. (AFP/Dalati and Nohra)

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam told Ashark al-Awsat that he feared for Lebanon and everything in it before seeing Saudi King Salman this morning. The visit did not come at the happiest of moments for Saudi-Lebanese relations: reports claimedthat the Saudi government had blocked the funds promised to the Lebanese Army after Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah slammed Riyadh for its intervention against the Shiite Houthi insurgency in Yemen. Lebanon has been without a president for a year—Salam’s executive in Beirut is not working very smoothly among differences between ministers of Hezbollah led March 8 and March 14 alliances over security appointments; a military operation against jihadists fighters on the eastern border with Syria; and Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis.

 

But there was one thing the Saudi King told PM Salam that was meant to reassure Salam: “Hezbollah's stances don't affect the Lebanese-Saudi ties. Parliament Speaker Berri is wise and intelligent,” King Salman said, according to MTV Lebanon.

 

There are reasons the Saudi King might trust Nabih Berri. A lawyer, the Shiite president of the Lebanese Parliament since 1992 and the leader of Amal Movement, seems to be one of the few voices of reason in the Lebanese presidential vacuum. Despite the fact that his job for the past year has been to constantly postpone presidential elections and that his political party is generally overshadowed by Hezbollah in most constituencies, his middleman strategy and his ability to avoid antagonisms has kept him in the game through very perilous political times.

 

 

The middleman

 

The head of a legislative body that has been failing to meet the two-thirds quorum required to hold the presidential elections, Berri has obstinately been calling for election sessions despite his own political allies—the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah—boycotting the elections. This Wednesday’s session, a year into the presidential vacuum, only 32 out of the 128 members of parliament decided to attend. Berri had no choice, as many times before, to call for a new session to elect a Lebanese president on 25 June. This is what the head of the Lebanese parliament has been doing for the past year: postponing parliament sessions.

 

At the end of April 2015, after presiding over a relatively empty room for 11 months, Berri did threaten to dissolve the parliament. But that was an empty threat because, technically, he doesn’t have the constitutional right to do so; only the cabinet can do that, at the request of the president, whose prerogatives are now held by PM Salam.

 

Berri recently pledged to defend the government “with all his strength,” over concerns that the cabinet would collapse because of the Arsal battles and the security appointments. “I will be at the forefront of those defending it,” he said. He did not explain how he would do that in practice, but he stressed that “it is the right of the state, the army, the people and the resistance to liberate any occupied inch of Lebanese territories in the south, east, or even in the west toward the sea, and not to keep the occupation. I am with the resistance in any occupied place.”

 

Berri was also harsh on some of his political allies. He did not hesitate to slam Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, son-in-law of FPM leader Michel Aoun, when Bassil said with confidence that “Lebanon would not exist without the FPM.” “This is dangerous rhetoric,” Berri said carefully, without naming names. Berri also found the opportunity to address the FPM’s boycott of parliamentary presidential election sessions. “I have said before and repeat now that I have done my duties. And the boycotters have to reconsider their [decision] and listen to what their conscience tells them,” he stressed, again, carefully not naming the boycotters.

 

 

Stray, but just a little

 

But all things said have a limit and Nabih Berri will not cross it, An-Nahar commentator Ibrahim Bayram told NOW. “Berry is taking a very obvious stance, different from his allies’—since the Syrian crisis began he has taken different stances than Hezbollah’s, for instance. They are defending the Syrian regime, while [Berri] is calling for the support of the [Lebanese] army,” Bayram said. “But, at the same time, he still supports the resistance and the importance of the resistance. These are the limits that Berri is playing in and with. He is playing the role of ‘firefighter’ and ‘peacemaker.’”

 

He also said that Berri has been stressing stability, and has been careful to keep good relations with all political factions, hasn’t closed off any communication channels, and has insisted on the importance of state institutions dealing with terrorism threats. Moreover, when Nasrallah slammed Saudi Arabia for their campaign against the Yemeni Shiite tribes, the Amal Movement leader preserved a good relationship with Riyadh. 

 

Hezbollah hasn’t seemed to mind Berri’s relationships with its enemy, as long as he does not oppose the party directly, and Berri has been careful to never stray too far from Hezbollah. “He knows the limits very well, Bayram said. “He can’t be hostile toward Hezbollah at this moment, and he also can’t cut of the lines of communication with other counterparts on several issues and topics, even with Michel Aoun, despite the big differences he has with him. He won’t transgress these limits; his history will not allow him to do it; his Shiite constituency will never allow him to do it.”

 

Al-Balad commentator Ali al-Amine told NOW that another reason for Hezbollah not being upset with Nabh Berri’s nationalist stances is that nothing Berri has been doing hinders the the party’s plans in Lebanon or across the region. “If there is ever a decision from Iran and Hezbollah to collapse the government in Lebanon, the government will collapse whether Nabih Berri wants it to or not,” he said. “But, for the moment, we’ve seen no indication that anybody, even Hezbollah, wants this government to fall.”

 

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609

 

Amin Nasr contributed translating.

 

Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri expresses his condolences to the new Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz in January 2015 at the Diwan Royal Palace in Riyadh. (AFP/Dalati and Nohra)

Despite the fact that his job for the past year has been to constantly postpone presidential elections and that his political party is generally overshadowed by Hezbollah in most constituencies, Berri’s middleman strategy and his ability to avoid antagonisms has kept him in the game through very perilous political times."