Lebanon’s Speaker Shows His True Colors

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

Guest Commentary

Nabih Berri, head of Lebanon’s primarily Shiite Amal Movement, who has served as Parliamentary Speaker since 1992, has finally confirmed what many Lebanese have long suspected. Rather than a senior official representing all religious sects and a respected mediator between Iran’s radical proxy Hezbollah and the 14 March / Future Movement, he has indelibly stamped Hezbollah’s flag on his forehead.

His speech delivered before a crowd of thousands on Wednesday 31 August marking the disappearance of one of Amal’s founders — Imam Musa Al Sadr — and his companions in Libya 38 years ago, included the obligatory muscle-flexing against Israel and was so one-sided it could almost have been penned by Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.

While blaming Libya’s late leader Muammar Qaddafi for “the worst type of abduction…” Berri expressed the belief that Sadr, born in the Iranian city of Qom in 1928, is still alive. If he believes that, his mental faculties are called into question; more likely he was creating a crowd-pleasing scenario to give the mesmerised hope that someday their founder will pop up sporting a beard down to his knees.

A host of conspiracy theories whirl around the cleric’s disappearance, each more farfetched than the other. In 2008, Lebanon indicted Qaddafi but Libya denied the accusations, asserting Sadr and his delegation left the country on a plane to Rome while suggesting he may have been the victim of a Shiite power struggle. That sounds more plausible than the idea that 88-year-old Sadr is in hiding or imprisoned or that Qaddafi had him killed over theological differences of opinion.

Qaddafi was quirky but he was no Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, who thinks nothing of executing officials for the crime of slouching in their chair. The Libyan leader had no motive. Amal should research closer to home to find out who benefited from their former chief’s vanishing.

Of far more concern to me is Berri’s endorsement of Hezbollah’s call for a new political system based on proportional representation, spelling an end to the Taif Agreement mandating seats in Parliament divided equally between Christians and Muslims while increasing the powers of the Sunni prime minister over those of the Maronite president.

Lebanon is politically stagnated and is still without a president due to Hezbollah’s insistence on Michel Aoun, the former head of the 8 March spearhead the Free Patriotic Movement that signed a memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah.

I have long argued that Lebanon should dump its antiquated confessional system bequeathed by the French occupiers. In most countries on the planet — especially those without sectarian issues — proportional representation giving political parties seats in parliament in proportion to the popular vote, is workable. But the very real danger for Lebanese Sunnis, Christians and Druze is that over the entire country Hezbollah and its political allies could potentially collect more than half the votes, correspondingly garnering over 50 per cent of parliamentary seats.

“Proportional representation is the cure for our national diseases and it is the vehicle by which we can be transported to citizenship rather than isolation and bigotry,” he said. What he means is that handing control to Hezbollah, Amal and their allies would silence opposing voices.

His eagerness for proportional representation contradicts his 2014 commitment. “Power-sharing between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon would not change under any circumstance,” he assured the Lebanese then, claiming to speak on behalf of Shiites, Sunnis and Druze.

Another troubling aspect of Berri’s impassioned speech was his implied threat to destabilise his fragile country if things do not go his way.

“Let us stop political absurdity…in the face of forces that are continuing their coup against the political life,” he said, adding, “We will resort to the power of the people, if needed.” The “forces” he refers to are the political parties that object to an Aoun presidency, and the question remains what he means by “the power of the people” as opposed to the peoples’ decision, which could be interpreted as a referendum.

The phrase is not transparent. Is he talking about legitimate street protests or twisting arms using armed Shiite militias? If the latter, he is raising the spectre of civil war, the last thing Lebanon needs when such divisions in surrounding countries have amounted to an open invitation for the “Islamic State” and other terrorist fanatics to step-in.

Berri’s threats to Israel will not leave its Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shivering in his shoes, but the topic needed to be brought up as an entree for his recommitment of what he calls his country’s ‘Diamond formula’ — the adherence to a state comprised of army-people-resistance [Hezbollah/Amal militia].

“Disarming the resistance before eliminating Israel’s threat is a heresy,” he said, which basically means never. Israel is not going anywhere soon and as long as Lebanon remains under the control of an Iranian-backed armed entity, peace is unlikely to occur during anyone’s lifetime.

Hezbollah and Amal have become one. Berri and Nasrallah share the throne on behalf of Tehran. In July, Berri urged Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to “rectify” their relations with Iran, which he termed an economic necessity. He also blasted the Kingdom for suspending aid to the Hezbollah-infiltrated army and internal security services and for imposing sanctions on companies and individuals with links to Hezbollah.

Riyadh has behaved appropriately. In April, the controversial Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, who heads two militias, was in Beirut meeting with Nasrallah.

Now, according to the Lebanese National News Agency, Muqtada Al Sadr flew to Beirut on Wednesday, a visit that coincides with that of a high-level Houthi delegation which, a few days ago, has been in Baghdad lobbying Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, who has recognised them as “representatives of Yemen”.

The Houthi visitors were also filmed in Iraq with the leader of the Imam Al Brigades, laughing as he threatened to grind Saudis into dust. An unconfirmed report asserts Al Sadr and the Houthi delegation, accompanied by members of Iraq’s Hashd Al Sha’abi militias, are meeting with Nasrallah in South Lebanon. It is evident that Lebanon is officially an Iranian hub for Shiite criminals who have launched a war against Sunnis.

When Iranian government officials have been heaping insults upon Saudi and boast of Iran’s domination of Arab capitals, including Beirut, there will be no GCC-Iranian detente unless and until the ayatollahs begin behaving like good neighbours rather than aggressors.

Earlier this year, Mr Berri was elected by colleagues in the Arab Parliament — founded within the Arab League to give voice to ordinary Arab citizens — to serve a three-year term as the Parliament’s President. He does not deserve to hold that post since his allegiances lie not with Arabs but with Iranians.

In June, commentator Emile Khouri wrote: “Iran is continuing with its plan to cause a complete political vacuum in Yemen” to paralyse the state so that it is ripe for Hezbollah’s takeover; he may well be right on that score and it appears Berri is oiling the way.

Now that Berri has wrapped himself in the Hezbollah/Iranian flag, I believe it is time for the GCC to designate this individual as ‘persona non grata’. He should be barred from visiting member states and from meetings held between Lebanese and Gulf representatives at all levels.

I feel deeply sorry for the Lebanese people and worry for the fate of their homeland, a country that grabbed my heart during my first ever visit in the early 1970s. Until its people find a way to wrest it from Iran’s clutches, the dark clouds preventing its blossoming politically, economically, diplomatically and socially will continue to obscure its tomorrows. For me, who once spent wonderful summers in Lebanon, believed in its people, celebrated their successes and did not hesitate to invest in their future, this is one of the saddest realities of my life!

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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