Berri's "initiative" sowed confusion in the ranks of the March 14 movement, with some seeing it as a trap, and others seeing the proposed talks as the only option available to Berri to spare the country sectarian warfare. Most of the March 14 leaders are united in that the agenda needs to be changed, with some willing to participate in the hopes that maybe the more crucial issues could be broached during the course of the dialogue.
Berri's call for "consultations" not only smells like a trap, but like a coup d'etat. Berri says that sparing the country civil strife is the job of everyone, yet he doesn't try to exact any compromises from his own allies. The criminalization campaign waged by Hizbullah following the July war is fueling much of the unrest between Sunnis and Shias. Limiting the agenda to discussing ways to basically peacefully topple the Siniora government supports the Hizbullah-Aoun argument that the stubbornness of this government will bring destruction to the country.
In that context, Berri's 15-day limit, and the invitation he sent to the majority to basically discuss the best way for their peaceful demise under the threat of civil unrest is at worst an ultimatum, and at best an assumption of a role Berri, constitutionally at least, has no business playing. As a parliament speaker, he should be concerned with running the parliament, accepting (and not ignoring) petitions by the majority to hold extraordinary sessions to pass important legislation, and yes, discuss the performance of the cabinet within the walls of the parliament. During his press conference yesterday, he dangled a carrot to the majority by promising to activate parliamentary committees to discuss the economy in light of the upcoming Paris 3. This is reminiscent of the arrangement the Syrians once made with Rafik Hariri: you handle the economy and we handle the rest. We all know how that arrangement ended up, and where it left Hariri.
Berri is riding a high wave courtesy of a fabled role he played during the Israeli war, and because of aggrandizement of stature courtesy of March 14, who put him on a pedestal out of spite for Hizbullah. Berri's stature among Shias may also have risen, but he has not taken off his Hizbullah cloak, nor can he. Even if he wanted to, he will never become what March 14 wants him to become: a national leader who understands that an elected majority has the right to at least set the parliament's agenda.
Berri, who at one point refused to hold a parliament session in honor of Samir Kassir, a brave and inspirational journalist killed by Syrian intelligence, has gained a lot from the weakening of the presidency. Lahoud has been reduced to a Syrian mouthpiece, with no real weight in political circles, except to use whatever prerogatives he has to obstruct the appointments of judges and security officials. Berri, however, acts like the country's de-facto president. This is not only a result of March 14's misguided faith in him, but also the consequence of Michel Aoun's obsessive behavior. By obstructing the removal of Lahoud and the election of a new president, Aoun, perhaps unwittingly, allowed Hizbullah and Berri to get comfortable in the seat vacated by the Syrian intelligence, which played the role of both instigator and broker.
Hizbullah wasted little time in accepting Berri's initiative. Whatever political defeat they suffered during the war is being reclaimed for them by Berri, who at the end cannot afford to divorce them. Hizbullah and Berri also enjoy strong support by the Shia community, which they nearly own. The few dissenters among the Shia stand little chance to challenge Berri and Hizbullah. Voices like Ali Al Amin and others are savagely fought and marginalized by Berri, who views them as a threat, and Hizbullah's own religious scholars usually take care of rebuking their statements.
This Shia duo is gaining power at a frightening speed, and they are not intimidated by the number of deputies March 14 has in parliament. Their enemy is any international resolution that could weaken their grasp. The Hariri tribunal and anti-Syrian UN resolutions would hurt them as much as they would hurt the Assad regime. It is high time March 14 woke up to this fact and calculated accordingly.
Every day, March 14 leaders watch the rug being pulled from under their feet, whether by this duo's maneuvering, or by pro-Syrian parties seeking to weaken the positions of the different leaders within their own sects.
A case in point is what's happening in the Sunni community. All the former Sunni prime ministers, many of them abject failures, have created a grouping whose job is to criticise the current government and essentially act as mouthpiece for Assad. Just yesterday, Saad Hariri accused Syrian intelligence of waging a campaign against the Sunni mufti, after the latter appointed a Mufti for the Akkar region, where many Islamists are believed to dwell. The appointment sparked fury among pro-Syrian Sunnis, who view the Mufti as a Hariri ally. Hariri has been trying to reclaim the Sunni community and consolidate his leadership, and so is the Mufti. Syrian intelligence had turned the Mufti into a powerless figurehead, and sponsored many Islamist parties and installed them in mosques in Beirut and other areas. A strong Sunni leader always spelled trouble for the Assad regime. Saad Hariri's recent success in winning over the Jamaa Islamiya was a blow to the Syrians, who are now encouraging defection from the Islamist party. Al-Mustaqbal now quotes al-Jamaa almost daily, and most of the time the positions are very similar to Siniora's.
Jumblatt had to fight a similar battle in his Druze community, and has recently succeeded in dethroning the pro-Syrian Sheikh Aql. As for the Maronites, Aoun has taken care of turning the diversity of that community into a curse.
It is easy to view what is happening in Lebanon as a battle between sects, or sectarian leaders. But there are also battles occurring within every sect, many of them instigated and directed by the Syrian regime, which is expert at directing intra-sectarian and inter-sectarian conflicts in the country. The real and final battle is over Lebanon, its identity and future role in the region.
Berri has successfully pushed March 14 into a corner. It is unlikely that he will agree to change the agenda to at least include the presidency and the so called defense strategy that led the country to ruin. Those in March 14 who believe that they could broach these topics during the discussion will be opposed by those who strongly believe that this is another Syrian-sponsored trap. Already, Walid Jumblatt will probably not attend, and is scheduled to be in the US, meeting with Rice, Cheney and speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Tuesday. Geagea has voiced his disappointment, and Hariri's paper, al-Mustaqbal, has described the initiative as something woven out of Hizbullah and Syria's web of demands. Hariri's and March 14's final position is still to be determined, and is also contingent on the Saudi position, which so far seems to be in favor of Berri's initiative.
March 14 should not feel intimidated by Berri's fears of civil war. He, as a party to this conflict, is responsible for controlling his "street". After all, it was his followers who brandished weapons to fight Sunnis in a mixed Beirut neighborhood last month. A full-fledged civil war cannot take place without his and Hizbullah's consent and instigation. For all that, Hariri and co. should spend less time publicly admiring Berri's non-existent statesman qualities, and stop thinking that by doing so they are appeasing a street that's being infllamed by Berri's own allies anyway. They have to accept the fact that the speaker plays for the opposite team. If March 14 can't, at the very least, introduce a topic of discussion into a "consultative" session, then they might as well hand the country back to Assad.