Member of Parliament Michel Murr’s break with the Change and Reform bloc some weeks ago certainly ruffled Christian feathers in the opposition. As for the Shia in the opposition, there seem to be very tangible divisions emerging, too, between Amal Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who recently returned from a regional tour to renew calls for national dialogue, and Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who has recently been altogether more concerned with the Israel-Lebanese border.
With the glue holding these disparate groups together clearly weakening, the March 14 coalition has rather effectively been able to employ a divide and conquer strategy, targeting one constituent element of this Change and Reform, Amal, Hezbollah alliance after another.
Murr’s split with the Change and Reform bloc was a major turning point. The MP carries some significant political clout in his Metn home, and his influence is sure to be sought by both sides of the political spectrum in future elections or Christian power plays. Upon his departure from the bloc, he called for the immediate election of Amy Commander General Michel Suleiman as president without any preconditions. Doing so clearly distanced him from the rest of the opposition, which has been adamant about electing Sleiman only after a cabinet has been decided upon and an electoral law for 2009 chosen.
And while it might be too early to fully evaluate the consequences of Murr’s movement, it is undeniable that this is one indication of a wider Christian split. Opposition Christian leader General Michel Aoun has every reason to worry that his power base is crumbling. The Metn by-elections of last year were just a hint of splits – like this one – to come. Had Murr left Aoun at that point, as many then-hoped, the victory surely would have gone to March 14, Kataeb candidate Amin Gemayel rather than Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) candidate Camille Khoury.
“I have failed to convince the bloc’s MPs of the need to elect a president. This is why I have decided to create public pressure in this regard,” Murr told NBN Television on Thursday. He also expressed his regret for former President Amin Gemayel’s defeat in the 2007 Metn by-elections. “I voted for Camille Khoury, but my conscience was telling me, ‘You don’t have the right to elect anyone in Pierre Amin Gemayel’s place.’”
Aoun today is bogged down on a number of fronts. Another is the recent postponement of FPM internal elections. Although official FPM statements cited logistical and administrative reasons for the delay, many insiders have privately confirmed to NOW Lebanon that the postponement is directly related to the growing conflict between two increasingly divergent groups within the movement: Aoun’s inner circle and the so-called “FPM opposition.”
Murr must have read that the tide is turning in the favor of March 14, or at least against the opposition. Today, he is actively opening new communication channels with the Kataeb. Party official Selim Sayegh confirmed on Thursday that Gemayel and Murr discussed the latest developments in the presidential elections by phone.
On the 8th level
Likewise, the other two key parties of the opposition – Hezbollah and Amal – are suffering from their own setbacks. In the aftermath of Hezbollah operative Imad Mughnieh’s February assassination, the armed party has promised the Lebanese and the world that they plan to retaliate against Israel, the surmised perpetrator of the hit. Despite the ongoing, internal presidential crisis, Hezbollah has put resolving domestic affairs on hold once more.
Speaking to NOW Lebanon, March 14 General Secretary Fares Soueid said that Mughnieh was Hezbollah’s spine, just as Hezbollah remains the opposition’s spine. “In this sense, Hezbollah and eventually the opposition has taken a very strong blow with his assassination,” he argued.
According to Soueid, Hezbollah has now taken upon itself the impossible task of eliminating Israel through open war. “They are trying to compensate for this impossibility with internal issues. Berri, meanwhile, is trying hard to distance himself from Hezbollah’s hegemony, but he is incapable of changing anything,” he added.
The Syrian effect
There have been reports on new political moves in Syria, too. In an interview with As-Safir, former Prime Minister Salim Hoss said he had met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Wednesday. Hoss conveyed Assad’s willingness to delineate official borders between Syria and Lebanon and to begin diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Two days later, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida reported a possible visit by the Syrian president to Riyadh, a move seen as an attempt to restore bruised Saudi-Syrian relations. The paper also revealed that there have been a number of visits by high ranking Saudi officials to Syria.
And, despite Assad’s statements denying any communication between Damascus and Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday that Damascus and Tel Aviv have been secretly exchanging letters in an attempt to reach a clarification on a peace agreement between the two countries.
Are things finally moving in the right direction for Lebanon? That remains unclear. What is quite apparent, though, is that the opposition realizes that it’s in a serious bind. To obscure their failure to make any positive contributions to resolving the Lebanese crisis, the big three of the opposition have therefore set their sights on distraction. And so, Aoun goes looking unsuccessfully for mass graves and also revives the specter of Palestinian settlement, and Nasrallah warns the Israelis that he is bringing war to their own backyard. It’s time for these men’s followers to ask themselves if this is really where their parties’ priorities should lie.