June 8, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 520

On Eve of Lebanon's Parliamentary Elections, Struggle between March 14 Forces, Hizbullah-Headed Opposition Heats Up

June 8, 2009 | By H. Varulkar*
Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 520


The struggle for power in Lebanon between the country's two political camps, the March 14 Forces and the Lebanese opposition headed by Hizbullah, began in the wake of the Hizbullah-Israel war, in the summer of 2006. At that time, the country was in political crisis after Shi'ite ministers from Hizbullah and Amal quit, and declared the government "illegitimate." [1] The crisis and power struggle reached its climax on May 7, 2008, when Hizbullah gunmen took over Beirut and other areas with the aim of forcing the government to retract two anti-Hizbullah decisions. [2]

Following this clash, the Arab countries, led by Qatar, intervened, calling the Doha Conference on May 21, 2008. The conference was ostensibly aimed at resolving the disputes between the March 14 Forces and the Lebanese opposition, but actually sought to decide the conflict in Hizbullah's favor. Indeed, under the Doha Agreement, released at the end of the conference, the March 14 Forces had to comply with the opposition's demand and give it more than a third of the government seats. [3]

Today, in advance of Lebanon's parliamentary elections, the battle for power in the country has been renewed in full force, and is manifested in three essential questions concerning the future of Lebanon and its parliamentary regime:

I. The Future of the Taif Agreement and the Christian-Muslim-Druze Coalition's Fear that Hizbullah Will Increase Shi'ite Power and Take Over the Country

According to the March 14 Forces, Hizbullah seeks to change the Taif agreement [4] and the Lebanese constitution, both of which state that the parliamentary seats are to be allocated evenly between Christians and Muslims. The claim is that Hizbullah seeks greater representation for the region's Shi'ites by changing the Taif agreement so that a third of the seats would go to Christians, a third to Shi'ites, and a third to all the other Muslims - Sunnis, Druze and Alawites together. In Lebanon, this proposal is called muthalatha, or "allocation by thirds," and it is meant to replace the allocation to two groups, called munasafa.

According to the March 14 Forces, the idea of muthalatha was first proposed by senior Iranian officials as early as July 2007, when Lebanon was in acute political crisis and Iran and various European elements were conducting contacts behind the scenes in attempts to resolve it. [5] The March 14 Forces are warning of the grave risks it poses, as it is likely to greatly strengthen the Shi'ite position in the regime at the expense of Lebanon's other ethnic groups. Under it, the number of seats held by Christians will drop from a half to a third, and the Sunnis will lose strength too, since their share in the regime will be less than a third, while Shi'ites will have a full third. [6]

In a series of articles, the Al-Mustaqbal daily, which is identified with the March 14 Forces, warned against Hizbullah's intention to take over the regime, and pointed out that Hizbullah was likely to use the upcoming parliamentary elections to that end - just like the Nazi party did in Germany in 1933. The paper also said that Hizbullah would not hesitate to use weapons again, as it did on May 7, 2008, or even to destroy all Lebanon to impose its aims. [7]

Senior Lebanese opposition officials, including Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, rejected these arguments against the muthalatha, claiming that the March 14 Forces were making it all up. [8]

II. The Debate Over the Makeup of the Next Government and the "Obstructing Third"

In recent months the March 14 Forces and the Hizbullah-led opposition have been arguing over the makeup of the post-elections government. The March 14 Forces reject the principle of the "obstructing third," which Hizbullah obtained at the Doha summit following its violent May 7, 2008 takeover of Beirut. They characterize it as a dishonorable invention, which was meant to be a temporary solution, and which was imposed by force of arms. Moreover, they state that it paralyzes government activity, and that they will never again give a right of veto to the opposition.

The Hizbullah-led opposition, on the other hand, is demanding that the principle of the "obstructing third" be retained in the next government. In fact, its spokesmen have stated that even if Hizbullah wins, it will be willing to grant this right to the opposition led by the March 14 Forces. [9]

In a May 15, 2009 speech, which was aimed against the March 14 Forces, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah set out the Forces' two options. The first option was that following the elections, a government would be assembled in which the opposition would have the right of veto, no matter which camp ended up in the opposition. The second option was to hold the elections using a different method: proportional representation elections in which all Lebanon will be a single electoral zone. [10] In such a case, the Hizbullah-led opposition would obviously win, because today Shi'ites comprise the country's largest ethnic group. In effect, the options with which Nasrallah presented the Lebanese were either a government in which the Hizbullah camp has the right of veto, or a change in the electoral system that will produce a government in which the Hizbullah camp has a majority.

Also in his speech, Nasrallah called May 7, 2008 - the date Hizbullah took over Beirut - a "glorious day in the history of the resistance," and told the March 14 Forces never to forget it. The March 14 Forces understood this to be an explicit threat of a recurrence of these events if Hizbullah did not get its way. March 14 Forces general secretariat coordinator Fares Sa'id expressed this as follows: "Hizbullah is trying to extort us and to make us choose between the 'obstructing third' [which means that Hizbullah] has control of the country - and a repeat of its May 7 [takeover of Beirut]..." [11]

III. The Question of the Continued Term of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman

Recently, the March 14 Forces have claimed that the Hizbullah-led opposition is also planning to remove Lebanese President Michel Suleiman after the parliamentary elections, and to appoint instead their ally Gen. Michel Aoun. Their apprehensions regarding such a plan intensified following reports published some two weeks ago in Lebanon. According to these reports, Aoun mentioned the possibility that President Suleiman's term may be "suddenly" cut short, and a need would arise to elect a new president. [12] Another factor that intensified their apprehension is the attacks in recent weeks aimed by senior opposition officials at President Suleiman. Hizbullah representatives, Michel Aoun, and others have accused him of interfering in the parliamentary elections and of pro-March 14 Forces bias. [13]

The March 14 Forces are also bringing up how Aoun proposed, at the Doha summit, that Suleiman's term in office be limited to two years, instead of the usual six. They are pointing out that at the time the Doha agreement was signed, rumors were rampant that Hizbullah had promised Aoun that he would take Suleiman's place after the upcoming parliamentary elections. Also, they are stressing that relations between Suleiman and the opposition have always been on the brink of crisis because Hizbullah is displeased with how Suleiman generally takes a neutral line - unlike previous president Emil Lahoud, who was an absolute supporter of Hizbullah. [14]

It should be noted that senior opposition officials, including Aoun himself, have denied that there is a plan to remove President Suleiman from his post.

*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] The Hizbullah-led opposition camp and then-Lebanese president Emil Lahoud declared that the government, which now consisted of only the March 14 Forces, was illegal and illegitimate. They demanded that a national unity government be established, in which over a third of the ministers would be from the opposition. This would enable these ministers to veto government decisions, some of which require a majority of two-thirds of the government ministers. The March 14 Forces' refusal to comply with this demand (known as the demand for an "obstructing third") led the country into a grave political crisis, to the point of violent clashes in which Lebanese civilians were killed.

[2] On May 6, 2008, the Lebanese government decided that Hizbullah's private communications network was "illegal" and "harms state sovereignty," and decided to try those responsible for setting it up. It also decided to fire Beirut airport security director Wafiq Shuker, who is close to Hizbullah.

[3] Under the Doha agreement, both sides also agreed that Michel Suleiman would be Lebanon's new president.

[4] The Taif Agreement, signed October 22, 1989 at Taif, Saudi Arabia, ended the Lebanese civil war, which broke out in 1975. The agreement included a series of reforms in Lebanon's political structure, which had been established in 1943. These reforms included a reduction in the powers of the Maronite president, an increase in the number of parliamentary seats, and an equal allocation of seats among Christians and Muslims (as opposed to the 6:5 ratio in favor of Christians that prevailed prior to the agreement).

[5] At that time, senior Iranian officials, headed by Ali Larijani, proposed that Hizbullah give up its arms in exchange for a constitutional amendment that would create a new political equation in Lebanon by increasing the Shi'ites' power in parliament - that is, the muthalatha.

[6] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 16, 2007; March 17, 2009; May 11, 2009; May 20, 2009.

[7] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 27, May 12, and May 14, 2009. The March 14 Forces stress that the upcoming elections are "more fateful than ever" for Lebanon and the entire region, because they will determine the face of Lebanon for the coming years. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 5, May 8, 2009.

[8], May 15, 2009; Al-Nahar (Lebanon), May 9, 2009; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 11, 2009;, May 10, 2009. It should be noted that Michel Aoun and other senior members of his party have lately spoken against the Taif Agreement, while Hizbullah is careful not to speak against the agreement, but rather calls to implement it. Moreover, one of the slogans of Aoun's election campaign has been the call to establish the "Third Republic" in Lebanon. (The First Republic was founded after Lebanon received its independence in 1943, and the Second Republic was founded after the Lebanese constitution was amended in the wake of the Taif Agreement). According to the March 14 Forces, Aoun's Third Republic slogan is just another name for the muthalatha plan. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 18, 2009; Al-Nahar (Lebanon), May 10, 2009; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 14, 2009.

[9], February 16, 2009; Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 7, 2009; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 13, 15, 16, 2009, April 19, 2009. The March 14 Forces, for their part, have rejected this suggestion, stating that they object to the "obstructing third" in principle.

[10], May 15, 2009.

[11] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 19, 2009. In another speech 10 days later, on May 25, 2009, Nasrallah retracted his remarks about May 7 being a glorious day in Lebanese history, in response to harsh criticism by Sunni leaders from the Lebanese opposition, including former Lebanese prime minister Salim Al-Hoss. Nasrallah said that he agreed with these leaders that May 7 had actually been a "sad and unfortunate day.", May 25, 2009.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), May 10, 2009;, May 9, 2009.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 12, 2009; Al-Mustaqbal, Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 15, 2009; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 18, 2009.

[14] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 4, 2009, May 11, 2009, May 12, 2009. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 499, "Syria and the Lebanese Opposition Against Lebanese President Michel Suleiman," February 19, 2009, Syria and the Lebanese Opposition Against Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.

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