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Witches' Brew in Lebanon

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HO won the Lebanon War in 2006? The question is hotly debated—but not so much between Israel and the Arabs as among Arabs themselves, and especially the Lebanese. In Israel the consensus is clear: the Winograd Committee, appointed by PM Ehud Olmert to investigate his conduct of the war, declared his performance a failure. Since then, though, Olmert has put the issue behind him and forged ahead toward the Annapolis Conference, which is billed as the latest hope for restarting negotiations toward a permanent agreement. In Lebanon the question “Who won?” continues to bubble—as does the entire political situation. Hezbollah’s protest-tents in Beirut are a constant reminder that civil war could break out any minute. The Shiite organization brands the Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, a traitor, denying his government’s legitimacy.

In the view of Siniora, Hezbollah’s capture of Israeli soldiers in July 2006 served Iranian interests while bringing disaster on Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has a different opinion: the war, he holds, was a divine victory: it delivered a mortal blow to Israel’s power of deterrence. But the debate is not confined to these two. Syria and Iran celebrated the defeat of Israel, while Saudi Arabia and Egypt, backed by France and the United States, endorse Siniora’s reading. The argument has degenerated into a power struggle for control of Lebanon. Who will rule—the coalition led by the Shiites under Nasrallah or the current governing alliance, led by the Sunnis with Saad Hariri at their head? Saad is the son of Rafik Hariri, assassinated on February 14, 2005, at the behest—it is suspected—of Syria.

The coalitions and alliances in Lebanon are extremely complex, because they include more than political currents. The ethnic-religious factor is deeply involved. When the French pulled out in 1943, the two top Muslim and Christian leaders reached an unwritten agreement known as the National Pact. Governance was divided along ethnic-religious lines. But many Christians emigrated, and the Muslims, with their higher birth rate, became the majority. Reflecting this change, the apportionment of powers was modified in the Taif Agreement of 1989, but ethnicity remains the key. The presidency goes to a Maronite Christian, the prime ministry to a Sunni, and a Shiite must be speaker of parliament (with power to veto legislation). This formula is further complicated by conflicts of interest within each religious-ethnic group, especially the Christian. The divisions are geographical too. What is more, each group enlists foreign allies against its rivals.

The ethnic conflict is reaching a climax this month, November 2007, because the term of President Emil Lahoud will end on the 24th, and there is no agreement among the rival groups as to who should succeed him. The lack of accord, we shall see, raises again the specter of civil war.

The Lebanese president has broad authority. Among other things, he is supreme commander of the armed forces, has a hand in appointing the prime minister, has legislative powers and heads cabinet discussions. He is directly elected by the parliament. On the first round of voting a two-thirds majority is required, but if a second round is necessary, a simple majority will do.

The parliament (Chamber of Deputies) is elected in general popular elections. Each religious community has a specified allotment of seats, adding up to half for the Christian groups, half for the Muslim. (This 50-50 division does not reflect the current demographic reality.) Candidates vie within geographical constituencies that include the other religious groups. (Competing Muslim candidates, for example, must vie for Christian votes within a constituency, and vice-versa.) Because parliament chooses the president, the outcome of the general elections is crucial. At the moment, for instance, Hezbollah has enough parliamentary seats to block a two-thirds majority in the first round of presidential voting.

Theoretically, the Maronites, led by their patriarch, should agree on a single presidential candidate. But the Maronites are split. Their strong man, Michel Aoun, forged an alliance with Hezbollah even before the war, and now he seeks the presidency. His Maronite rivals are partners in the Sunni-led coalition, which controls parliament by a slight majority, far less than the two-thirds needed in Round One.

The presidential elections include a broader political dimension that threatens to hurtle the country again into civil war. To understand it, we need to turn the clock back seven years, to a time when Lebanon had enjoyed a rare decade of stability, backed by a consensus including Saudi Arabia, Syria and even Iran. In the year 2000, two events occurred that broke the consensus. In May Israel withdrew its troops from the southern part of the country. In November George W. Bush, who viewed the Middle East in terms of a conflict between good and evil, was elected president of the US.

Israel’s withdrawal reshuffled the deck

When Israeli PM Ehud Barak pulled his army out of Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah interpreted this as a triumph, but he failed to consider the long-term implications. Lebanon’s Prime Minister at the time, Rafik Hariri, was a close ally of Saudi Arabia, where he’d grown rich. Before Israel’s withdrawal, Hariri had tolerated Syrian “protection” of his conquered land. With Israel out, however, he could no longer see any justification for the continuing Syrian presence.* America’s allies also began to question the legitimacy of the armed Shiite resistance, Hezbollah.

Matters came to a head in 2004, when the pro-Syrian president, Emil Lahoud, was about to finish his term. Syria engineered a change in the constitution, giving Lahoud another three years. Rafik Hariri resigned in protest. One month later, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which called for a Syrian military pullout and the disarming of Hezbollah.

Since then events in Lebanon have followed at a dizzying pace. Hariri was assassinated. Protest demonstrations led Syria to withdraw its military in April 2005. One month later The Rafik Hariri Martyr List, an anti-Syrian bloc lead by Saad Hariri, captured control of the legislature, winning 72 of its 128 seats in the face of Syrian opposition. Siniora became prime minister. Although Hezbollah joined his government, it found itself under continuing pressure to disarm. Then it abducted two Israeli soldiers. Despite Nasrallah’s denials, the intention may have been to provoke a strong enough Israeli response to justify its continued existence as a militia.

Lebanon now approaches the end of Lahoud’s extended term, and there is growing concern that the country may come apart. On November 9 Al-Hayat published details about a French proposal to Syria concerning the Lebanese presidency: the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butrus Sfeir will present a list of candidates, from which (Sunni) Saad Hariri and the (Shiite) head of parliament, Nabih Berri, will choose one. Syria has not yet agreed, because it demands as a precondition that the West normalize relations with it; it demands, in particular, that the West cancel an international tribunal investigating suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

The Syrians worry that the tribunal will focus on their head of government. They don’t want Bashar Assad to wind up like Slobodan Milosevic. For its part, Hezbollah knows that the West will threaten it next—hence it doggedly resists all western interference in Lebanese affairs. Hassan Nasrallah has denounced the French proposal of compromise. Many Lebanese accuse him of representing the interests of Iran, which conditions its approval on an easing of sanctions against its nuclear program.

The fate of the presidency, in short, has become bound up with that of both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah’s ally, Iran.

The big question is whether a new Lebanese president will recognize Security Council Resolutions 1559 (to disarm Hezbollah) and 1757 (to investigate Hariri’s murder). Lahoud accepted neither. Without his approval, Siniora’s agreement to these resolutions has no constitutional force. Now, with American encouragement, Siniora is threatening to convene parliament and have it elect a president by a plain majority, ignoring the regulation demanding two-thirds in the first round. Such a step could lead Hezbollah to establish an alternative government.

Hezbollah claims that if there were general elections without ethnic allotments, it would win, for the Shiites make up about 45% of Lebanon’s population. Such elections, however, would divide the country irrevocably, because the Christians and the Sunnis hold the economic power.

Into whose hands will Lebanon fall? Into the hands of Syria and Iran or into those of America and France? All say they want a president on whom all will agree. But the US and Iran don't agree about anything.

The date November 24, on which the question of the presidency is to be resolved, comes two days before the Annapolis Conference. The results of the latter will depend to a great degree on what happens in Lebanon. PA President Mahmoud Abbas faces a situation like that of his Lebanese counterpart, Fouad Siniora. Hamas has conquered Gaza and refuses to recognize his legitimacy. Abbas and Siniora are both linked to America, while Hamas, like Hezbollah, is tied to Syria and Iran. This rift affects the other Arab states that are expected to take part at Annapolis. It diminishes the chance that the conference can succeed. Who among Arab rulers will be ready to bet on two weak leaders—over against the criticisms of Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran?

The struggle for the Lebanese presidency reflects a broader struggle, and agreement between the Lebanese sides depends on a broader agreement. The American-Israeli axis would have to agree with the Syrian-Iranian. At present this seems unlikely. America bleeds in Iraq and can’t see its way out. We are a far cry from 2003, when it thought it could topple and raise regimes. Since that year the Middle East has been sliding into a series of civil wars, which are underway already in the Occupied Territories and Iraq. What happens in Lebanon will be a sign for the future. If civil war erupts here too, it may easily spread to other Arab lands.

We began by asking who won the Lebanon War. Now it is clear that there were only losers. That war reflected the crisis of the entire Middle East. Anyone who wants to see what lies ahead should take a close look at coming events in Lebanon, because that situation will test the intentions of all on whom the fate of the region depends. "end"

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