A dialogue of the deaf

12 August 2015

Some Future Movement politicians called for putting it out of its misery. Hezbollah MPs also questioned its meaning and purpose. There is no agreement anywhere in sight after 16 rounds of dialogue between Future Movement and Hezbollah, but the negotiations are set to continue.

Meant to defuse the Sunni-Shiite conflict that has increasingly threatening Lebanon’s national security since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the dialogue kicked off last December. The 16th session between the two parties discussed “proposals to resolve the political crisis” and “a number of social issues that are of concern to citizens,” according to a vaguely formulated statement issued after last Wednesday’s session.
 
 
Supporters of the March 14 movement, which opposes the Syrian regime, wave the Lebanese flag and the Future Movement flag as as they demonstrate in Beirut after the funeral of top intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan, a prominent opponent of Bashar Assad, and his bodyguard, who were assassinated on 19 October 2012. (AFP/STR)
 
 
A continuously changing agenda

The ‘political crisis’ refers to the presidential deadlock that Lebanon has been suffering since May 2014, when former president Michel Suleiman left Baabda Palace. The priority of Hezbollah’s politburo, as its members put it, is “ending the presidential vacuum.” Future Movement’s priorities seem to differ radically from those of Hezbollah, since the members of the Loyalty to Resistance parliamentary bloc asked Future Movement to “facilitate the proposed solutions” instead of “carrying on with the policy of escalation and complication, which will only prolong the crisis and worsen the situations.” Hezbollah has been supporting its political ally Michel Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency and his party’s electoral proposals, while Future, March 14’s largest party, has been trying to avoid those solutions. 
 
In time, the dialogue also addressed security plans in Lebanon and the issue of the Syrian refugees. But it has consistently reached a deadlock over one main grievance that the Future Movement had: Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.
 
Continuing negotiations with Hezbollah puts Future Movement in a difficult position. Dialogue at the political leadership level does not mean it garners the support of the Sunni street, where years of anti-Hezbollah political rhetoric from both MPs and clerics and also the involvement of Hezbollah in Syria have managed to deepen Sunni anxieties. Moreover, residents of Tripoli, clerics and even Future Movement politicians believe that Sunni grievances against Hezbollah are far from being resolved.  
 
The negotiations are not going anywhere, a Future Movement member told NOW. “This is a dialogue of the deaf. Even in Hezbollah they lack the power to make their own decisions. We’re negotiating with a party that depends on Iran; it’s is part of a big system. We reached the 16th session of this dialogue and nothing happened,” he said.
 
 
No support in the Sunni street
 
The Sunni community in particular has many longtime grievances against Hezbollah. A Future Movement member and resident of Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, where anti-Hezbollah sentiment is very deep, told NOW that the dialogue, “at least at this moment, is futile. Hezbollah, in Lebanon, cannot be questioned, it’s above the law. It controls the government and the country,” he said. “We all know that stability in Lebanon depends on stability in the region. This initiative has nothing to do with any regional agreement, so it can’t possibly bring any results.”  
 
The Sunni community, on whose support Future Movement relies as a political party, has old scores with Hezbollah. Many in the Lebanese Sunni community blame Hezbollah for the assassinations of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and former minister and Hariri advisor Mohammad Chattah. “We cannot forget this history. What’s the logic behind sitting down with a criminal? And it is very well known that Hezbollah’s signature is unwelcome and not honored,” Future MP Mouein Merhabi said.
 
 
An old and forgotten initiative
 
The dialogue is not the first attempt, from the Sunni side, to reconcile with Hezbollah. In 2008, after the clashes between Future Movement supporters and Hezbollah, two Salafist sheikhs from Tripoli, Hassan al-Shahhal and Safwan al-Zoaghbi signed a memorandum with the party. It was never implemented, as the community, as well as other clerics and even Future Movement distanced themselves from the initiative.
 
Future Movement MP Mouein Merhabi told NOW that “Hezbollah hasn’t changed its behavior. It’s carried on its policies, not to mention its intervention in the Syrian civil war,” adding that he is one of the many party members who do not support the dialogue. “Hezbollah carried on with its assassinations and I don’t think anyone from the Lebanese counterparts has a clear, impartial vision to revisit how to deal with Hezbollah.”
 
 
Too many compromises
 
A Sunni sheikh in Bab al-Tabbaneh told NOW that the Sunni street perceives Hezbollah as an enemy in part because of its interference in Syria, but also because of security incidents in the Bekaa Valley. Moreover, many see the security plan in Tripoli as directed against Sunnis and as being part of a sort of compromise between Future Movement and Hezbollah as a result of the dialogue. “It was easy to be a fighter around here a few years ago,” the sheikh said. “People used to fight, but never get arrested because they had political cover. After the dialogue, they had no more political cover.”
 
According to Merhabi, regardless of a seemingly obvious futility in the process, both Lebanese political factions are trapped. “Nobody wants to say ‘I killed the dialogue.’ None of the parties want to be blamed by the media and the public for stopping this dialogue, because both will receive a torrent of accusations of bringing the country into chaos,” he said. “I can’t see any positive results for this dialogue. The country is falling apart. Everybody’s waiting for something to happen.”
 
Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.
 
Amin Nasr contributed translating.
 
This work originally appeared in Now.

de Ana Maria Luca (Beirut, Liban)

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