Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 40-41

Special Report

Lebanon’s Huge Expectations of a Year Ago Falter Under Harsh Realities

By Samaa Abu Sharar

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud talks to reporters in downtown Beirut after a March 30 cabinet meeting. Anti-Syrian ministers stormed out of the session after a heated row between Lahoud, a close ally of Damascus, and Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh (AFP Photo/Ho/Dalati & Nohra).

MUCH has changed in the country of cedars in the year following the Feb. 14, 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The emergence of the March 14 alliance, embracing as it did most of the country’s political parties, with the exception of the Shi’i Hezbollah Party and Amal Movement, seemed to promise a formerly unimaginable partnership. The alliance, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from various religions and backgrounds, was the driving force behind Syria’s long-awaited withdrawal from Lebanon and the U.N. probe into the Hariri assassination, as well as the resignation and detention of key security officers suspected of the crime. The first parliamentary elections in the absence of any foreign power also were held, further reinforcing these alliances and resulting in a new majority in parliament, led by Sa’ad Hariri, son of the former prime minister.

Ziad Majed, vice president of the Democratic Left Movement, described the mobilization of Lebanese on March 14 of last year as an exceptional event in the country’s history, abolishing many taboos, especially those pertaining to top security officers, who were untouchable during the Syrian presence. “Beirut was restored as a capital, bringing this huge crowd together to the heart of the country,” he recalled, “and for the first time the feeling of citizenship among Lebanese reigned,”

In the opinion of As-Safir journalist Hussein Ayoub, the most significant change in Lebanon since last year is the dramatic transformation of the country’s regional position. “For decades Lebanon was considered as one of the strategic cards that Syria used in its confrontation with regional powers and the West,” he noted. “Today Lebanon stands in the complete opposite direction.”

On the opposite front stood what the new parliamentary majority has labeled the pro-Syrian coalition, or the March 8 coalition. Hezbollah and Amal, longtime allies of Syria, did not distance themselves from Damascus following the Hariri assassination. Unlike several key Lebanese leaders who once stood by Syria, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah continued to defend Damascus fiercely, describing Hezbollah’s relation with Syria as a strategic one. Hezbollah, Amal and now the Free Patriotic Movement—whose leader and potential presidential candidate Gen. Michel Aoun, a Christian, recently joined forces with the two Shi’i groups—accuse the majority of having replaced their alliance with Syria with that of the West, namely the U.S. and France. March 8 supporters joke that Anjar, headquarters of former Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon Roustom Ghazali, has been replaced by Aouker, where the U.S. embassy stands.

Behind such jokes, however, lie serious divisions that have paralyzed the country politically and economically over the past year. As-Safir’s Ayoub sees Lebanon today standing between two logics—those of the March 8 and March 14 coalitions—neither of which represents an independent national consensus. Consequently, he argues, Lebanese who stand in the middle have no forum on the country’s new political stage.

According to the Democratic Left Movement’s Majed, “one of the reasons” behind the confusion and uncertainty reigning in the country today was the failure to oust Lebanese President Emile Lahoud a year ago. At the time Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, a key political figure and Christian leader, rejected any movement in that direction. Today, Sfeir has given the green light—as long as Lahoud’s sacking is the result of a legal process rather than street protests.

Majed, one of the dynamic activists of the March 14 coalition, believes Lahoud’s ousting a year ago could have changed the political map in Lebanon. Seen by the majority of Lebanese as one of the remaining symbols of Syrian dominance in their country, Lahoud is accused of obstructing the work of the government, as well as impeding essential security, legal and diplomatic appointments. Many participants in the March 14 coalition’s mass demonstrations following the Hariri assassination carried out huge banners reading, “Lahoud is swimming while the country is sinking,” criticizing the silence of the president—an ardent swimmer—during difficult times.

The Shi’i parties, on the other hand, particularly Hezbollah, view Lahoud as the guardian of armed resistance. The president recently declared in an al-Jazeera TV interview that Hezbollah should retain its arms until all Palestinian refugees return to their homeland. The majority of Lebanese, who want to see Hezbollah disarm in accordance with U.N. Resolution 1559, do not agree with that position, since it is viewed as linking the issue of Hezbollah’s disarmament with the unforeseeable solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Despite the general consensus on that issue, however, the parties comprising the March 14 coalition differ on how to go about it. While MP Sa’ad Hariri insists on internal debate to resolve the dispute, MP Walid Jumblat, head of the Progressive Socialist Party and the real driving force behind the March 14 coalition, sought Washington’s help in disarming Hezbollah during a recent visit to the U.S.

These conflicting issues, in addition to the status of Shebaa Farms, still occupied by Israeli troops, have brought the country to a standstill in the past year, causing Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri to call for a national dialogue, which was initiated more than a month ago. Although it generated much hope, apart from an accord to collect Palestinian arms outside the refugee camps within six months and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Syria there has been no agreement on the crucial issues on the table.

Nor, predicts As-Safir’s Ayoub, will anything ultimately come of it. “The dispute does not involve trivial issues,” he pointed out, “it tackles crucial issues that were already adopted in the Taif agreement,” and hence already have been agreed upon. In its March 23 edition, As-Safir described the dialogue as being transformed into a permanent institution whose services might always be required—”at least until a conviction is established locally of what has already become a reality for more than one Arab capital, that treating the Lebanese-Syrian file is the actual key to approaching views regarding issues on the table. Otherwise,” the Arabic-language daily editorialized, “all will be trying to win time in anticipation of new political balances internally and regionally.”

Despite their difference on a number of topics, both Ayoub and Majed believe the solution to the country’s problems lies in early elections based on a new electoral law of proportional representation, which eventually would pave the way to a new government and presidential elections.

Until then, however, Lebanese must deal with the harsh realities that are dividing their leaders, and consequently their country. A well-known TV personality touched a sensitive spot when she hosted a group of children under 11 to discuss political developments in Lebanon. The young guests, who represented most of the country’s existing political parties, echoed their political leaders—leaving a shocked country to contemplate what its future leaders could look like. The TV presenter justifiably ended her show by addressing the Lebanese public, saying, “If you liked what you saw tonight then continue with what you are doing, and if you don’t then you’d better start doing something about it before it’s too late.”

That, in a nutshell, is exactly what many fear. Talk about another civil war scares all Lebanese, but many political analysts see fertile ground for such a war. According to Ayoub, the country’s political dialogue is only encouraging further political and religious divisions. “All the ingredients exist,” he warned. “All we actually need is a regional or international push toward another civil war. Fortunately, this is unavailable at the moment.” 

Samaa Abu Sharar is a free-lance journalist based in Beirut.

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