Lebanon is going through exceptional circumstances. What has come to be known as the "Lebanese formula" is in danger due to the variation in positions and visions between this country’s components regarding its position vis-à-vis the conditions in the region. This variation has clearly reflected on the political situation that is experiencing a consensus crisis on the formation of a government that would run the affairs of the country that is struck by deep economic and social crises. These were exacerbated by the Beirut Port explosion in the summer of 2020 and the devastating effects it left on the Lebanese capital, and eventually the assassination of the political activist Luqman Salim, which is seen by some as a prelude to the return of the assassinations of every activist facing the centres of power in Lebanon, specifically Hezbollah which was directly accused of the assassination.
Against the backdrop of those developments, the Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rai has called for a special international conference, under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), to help Lebanon get out of its crises, after the political class failed to find solutions to the miserable conditions in Lebanon, especially after the failure of the French initiative which the French are trying to save through contacts made by President Emmanuel Macron with the Americans and some Arab countries. This explains al-Rai's declaration that all "Lebanese, Arab and international initiatives and mediations have been exhausted".
Al-Rai's call for the internationalisation of the Lebanese crisis has received the support of a wide sector of Christians, Sunnis and Druze, in addition to opponents of Hezbollah among the Shiites. Many political parties have also announced their support for the call, such as the Lebanese Kataeb (Phalanges) Party, the Lebanese Forces, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), the Future Movement, and many intellectuals and social figures.
In the general theoretical sense in international relations, internationalisation is when a specific issue is placed in the hands of several countries or international organisations, including the UN. Internationalisation needs an actor to launch it and demand its materialisation until the issue is accepted by the UN and referred by the General Secretariat to the Security Council (UNSC).
The foundations of al-Rai’s position
In his request for the international conference, the position of Patriarch al-Rai is based on several pillars that he considers essential to preserving the Lebanese entity. These are as follows:
In an interview with the Al-Nahar newspaper, al-Rai enumerated the reasons that prompted him to launch the call for an international conference under UN auspices for Lebanon. In his opinion, the country “has reached a situation that is no longer tolerable, has become sick, and everything in it has stopped. The matter does not need proof: in order to elect a President of the Republic, we wasted two and a half years; in order to name a prime minister and form a government, we wait for nearly a year; and the parliamentary elections are repeatedly postponed”.
Al-Rai believes that the problem that Lebanon is facing is the impossibility of reaching an understanding between the political actors to form an important government, the loss of trust between those actors, the disruption of dialogue, the suspension of the state dynamics, and the absence of a constitutional authority capable of reviving it.
Patriarch al-Rai has specified that the function of the international conference for the revival of Lebanon would be to consolidate the National Accord Document issued by the Taif Conference in 1989, apply it in both letter and spirit, and rectify the apparent loopholes in the amended Constitution on its basis in 1990, given that this document, with the constitutional amendments emanating from it, is the main regulator of the constitutional and administrative structures of the state, and the pillar of the social contract between the Lebanese. Thus, it constitutes the main reference text for consensus between them.
There are many indications that Patriarch al-Rai’s move would not stop at this point and that he would continue his efforts to hold a general national conference in Bkerké between the various political and partisan actors and popular groups supporting his option, in order to formulate a political concept and produce a paper with which to approach the international community to protect Lebanon.
The actors' positions
Al-Rai’s position has received wide Christian acceptance as most of the Christian parties and organisations have rushed to support the Patriarch’s position. The Christian community shall be witnessing a movement in the coming stage to support al-Rai’s position, through meetings and seminars between many powers, movements and parties.
Despite the division witnessed by the Christian community, its social majority supports the Patriarch’s call, especially that it comes in the wake of a mass movement experienced by Lebanon against the corruption of the ruling class, in which the various Lebanese components participated.
Opposition to the Patriarch’s position comes from the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Gebran Bassil and its founder General Michel Aoun, the current Lebanese President who enjoys the majority of Christian representation in Parliament. The call for an international conference constitutes an embarrassment for the FPM in front of its environment and public because of the FPM’s alliance with Hezbollah which seems to be the primary target of the call for the international conference, through its hegemony over Lebanon and its possession of a power superior to that of the state, thanks to its non-legitimate weapons. The FPM is trying to keep itself safe from the repercussions of the movement led by Bkerké, given that the FPM does not want to suffer more losses in the Christian environment. However, at the same time, it does not want to annoy or provoke Hezbollah. The FPM's political body has issued a statement in which it supported al-Rai's call for political neutrality, but on the condition that the Lebanese and neighbouring countries agree to neutrality.
Hezbollah rejects Patriarch al-Rai’s call for an international conference. Hassan Nasrallah has placed it in the context of internal division, considering that it comes within the framework of the tendency by some Lebanese to overwhelm the other Lebanese. Indeed, he said that it was a call for war and the occupation of Lebanon by foreign forces.
Observers believe that Nasrallah, who deliberately refrained from responding directly to Patriarch al-Rai, would not have released his position had he not sensed some seriousness in the internationalisation proposal. It is noted that Hezbollah’s political executives and media did not get involved in a polemic with the Patriarch or criticise his call outside the official speech of Nasrallah, as the latter fears the lifting of the Christian cover from Hezbollah which is secured by its agreement with the FPM pursuant to the so-called Mar Mikhael Accord which was signed by the two sides on 6 February 2006. A joint committee was formed by the two sides to review the existing agreement in order to assess the past 15 years. Nasrallah also fears embarrassing his ally and raising tension in the Christian street against him.
The Patriarch’s call has received great support from other sects (Sunnis and Druze) and Lebanese intellectuals, considering that it embodies their demands that they raised at the 17 October 2019 movement against corruption and Hezbollah’s weapons.
The call for an international conference on Lebanon constitutes a new political development whose path and destination are not known by anybody. However, the next stage shall certainly witness sharp polarisations among the Lebanese players. Relations between the actors shall also witness further tension and rupture.
Internationally, many difficulties seem to face the implementation of the idea of internationalisation, given that the international mood at this stage does not seem to be receptive to a development of this kind in an inflamed region that the international actors seek to take towards settlements and consensus. Therefore, the international will may not be in favour of adding further complications to the already complex regional scene.
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