To dialogue or not to dialogue?

Su Al Ahram  – After a nine-month hiatus, the national dialogue has resumed in Lebanon amid controversy over the agenda, reports Omayma Abdel-Latif from Beirut.

A new round of Lebanon’s national dialogue opened on Tuesday 9 March, with little hope that it will seriously address the sorry catalogue of Lebanon’s chronic problems.

 The first session of this new round was procedural, with the next session being set for 15 April.This is the second round of national dialogue to be held in the Baabda Palace chaired by Lebanese president Michel Suleiman. The first was held on 16 September 2008, two months after Suleiman was appointed president, and while it continued for seven sessions, there were no decisive outcomes on the important issue of the time, a national defence strategy for Lebanon.

The idea of national dialogue was the brainchild of Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, who in March 2006 called for a mechanism of this sort to get the country out of its sectarian and political polarisation.

Since then, the most important outcome of the dialogue has been the breaking of the psychological barriers between Lebanese political archrivals, or, as the then majority leader Saad Al-Hariri put it, “to get the Lebanese to talk to each other.”

The last session of the former round of dialogue was held on 1 June 2009, a week before the crucial parliamentary elections on 7 June. Nine months later, Suleiman called for a new round of dialogue, but the presidential statement which broke the news on 28 February did not include an agenda for the discussion or a time frame.

Many questioned the timing of the announcement, insinuating that it was the result of international pressure exercised on the president to address the issue of the armaments still held by Hizbullah.

Suleiman rejected these insinuations, and Hizbullah backed Suleiman. In a speech on 16 February, the Hizbullah secretary-general said that the resistance movement believed that the call for national dialogue made by President Suleiman was not the result of international pressure.

However, Suleiman still came under heavy criticism from across the Lebanese political spectrum for the selection process adopted for the dialogue, this illustrating a policy of exclusion of important sects and political personalities, critics said.

 Aides to the president explained that the selection criteria were primarily based on the results of the 2009 elections, and there was no question of sectarian representation.

In previous discussions, the mandate of the dialogue has been to work towards forging a national defence strategy, an issue which could not be more timely in the light of Israeli threats to resume its military attacks against Lebanon.

On the eve of the dialogue, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned that Lebanon would pay the price for “any action by Hizbullah”.

However, the dialogue’s participants have nevertheless been divided until the last minute on the agenda. Right-wing Christian parties, including the Phalanges and the Lebanese Forces, have insisted that the issue of Hizbullah’s arms should be the sole topic discussed.

In press statements made on Monday 7 March, Samir Geagea, former head of the Lebanese Forces, said that “the only item which remains for discussion on the dialogue table is Hizbullah’s weapons.”

The Phalanges politbureau, meeting on the eve of the dialogue, also said in a statement that Hizbullah’s retaining its arms was not a matter of “inevitable reality” and that the dialogue should also be approached from the perspective of building state institutions.

In response, Lebanese government minister Mohamed Fneish said that the issue of disarming Hizbullah “was not up for discussion at the national dialogue”.

“Some have implied that the dialogue seeks to establish when Hizbullah will be disarmed,” Administrative Reform Minister Fneish was quoted as saying by the state news agency ANI.

“However, this issue is not a subject for discussion and will not be debated at the dialogue.”

For its part, Hizbullah’s Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem said that the dialogue was meant to discuss the issue of a national defence strategy and come to agreement on it.

Qassem said that there would be no discussion on what some Christian leaders have described as “the weapons of Hizbullah”.

Weapons were “the outcome of the defence strategy and not the source of it,” he said.

While the chances are slim that Lebanon’s politicians will be able to reach consensus, given their fundamental differences, any failure to do so could backfire and will likely undermine the position of the presidency, the official sponsor of the dialogue.

Observers fear that focussing the dialogue on one issue, such as the national defence strategy which has been and continues to be the locus of much disagreement, risks pushing the dialogue to the brink of failure.

One way out might therefore be to broaden the scope of the discussion to include other issues, and Berri’s proposal to discuss economic and social issues during the dialogue sessions is significant, as it could indicate a search for common ground.

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