Lebanon: Time to Step Back From the Brink

WASHINGTON - Describing the current Lebanese political impasse as a moment "pregnant with incredible danger", a U.S. expert Tuesday urged rival factions and their international patrons to adopt of a formula of "no victim, no vanquished" in order to mitigate a possible descent into civil war."When I think back to that horrible day in March of 1975, when the [Lebanese] civil war began, go back to the newspapers from that period. You don't pick up El-Nahar [newspaper] the next morning and it says 'civil war starts in Lebanon'," said Augustus Richard Norton, an expert on the Shi'a of Lebanon who teaches international relations at Boston University.

"No, you collapse into a civil war, you sort of incrementally slide into a civil war, and that's my great fear today," said Norton during a panel discussion at Georgetown University's School for Foreign Service.

"The logic of one side coming out on top in this game, and one side being vanquished is a very, very foolish logic, and it is confounded by both logic and Lebanese history."

Lebanon is currently embroiled in its worst political crisis since the end of its 1975-90 civil war. The year-long power struggle between the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the opposition, led by Hezbollah, has been exacerbated by a three-month presidential deadlock.

Ever since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud left office on Nov. 23 without a successor being elected, the impasse has created a new and dangerous status quo, one which has fomented sectarian tension and witnessed continued political assassinations.

The current paralysis of the Lebanese government has also exposed domestic actors' dependence on international powers such as the U.S., Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran -- each with presumably different motivations and end goals, which further complicate a solution for the immediate domestic conflict.

To reduce Lebanon's current political impasse to a proxy conflict between the U.S. and Iran, or to define it as a battle for democratic values between the "legitimate" government of a "burgeoning democracy" -- as the George W. Bush administration describes the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance -- and the Iranian-supported March 8 Alliance portends an ominous future for the country.

"The presidential vacuum has taken on an entirely different meaning and weight," said Bassam Haddad, the director of the Middle East Studies Programme at George Mason University, evolving from a local event into a "symbol of larger regional conflicts, some of which with international implications" -- primarily the Iran-U.S. stand-off.

"The end result is what we witness today, which is a zero-sum game, in which each party feels that any loss or any gain or any gain on the part of the opposition is loss on its part," said Haddad.

The sharply divided factions have agreed on the election of Army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman as the consensus president, but power-sharing between both coalitions and the shape and nature of the future cabinet remains unresolved. The opposition demands veto power over future government decisions, a move which the majority has strongly rejected.

A parliamentary session to elect a new president was postponed for the sixteenth time on Monday, until Mar. 25.

"I presume they want to postpone the elections at least one time for every Lebanese sect, granted we had 18 of them in Lebanon, so we have at least two more to look forward to," said Bassam Haddad.

In response, the White House condemned the delay as "unacceptable" and urged outside forces to stop meddling in the deadlocked political process. Meanwhile, former Lebanese Forces militia leader Samir Geagea -- a senior anti-Syrian political and former warlord -- arrived in Washington during the weekend after receiving an invitation from the George W. Bush administration.

The immediate causes of the current impasse have their roots in November 2006, when Hezbollah decided to pull its ministers from the coalition cabinet and stage, along with controversial Christian general Michel Aoun, a sit-in in the centre of Beirut, calling for the resignation of the incumbent government and a "more representative government" in which Hezbollah and Aoun -- referred to by Western media as the March 8 Alliance -- would have enough seats to effectively veto government decisions.

On the streets of Beirut, there is a palpable fear in the air; sporadic street clashes between supporters or rival camps continue regularly. The Lebanese military -- in a state of high-alert for nearly three years -- remains overstretched. The appearance of the Destroyer U.S.S. Cole off the coast of Lebanon -- in order to promote stability in the region, according to the U.S. State Department -- appears to have had the converse effect for many Lebanese, worried by the prospect of another military conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, one which could catapult the country into another humanitarian crisis similar to the 2006 war.

Hezbollah's broader goals not withstanding, Norton described the unlikely alliance between the pro-Syrian Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah and Christian General Michel Aoun as potentially reflecting a step away from the sectarian dependence that defined much of Lebanese politics, before, during, and after the civil war.

"If you examine Maronite communities and look at people in terms of socio-economic status, what do you find? You find that people of higher social economic status... are more likely to support Michel Aoun than the Lebanese Forces," said Norton.

"This suggests that what Aoun is doing is appealing to a group of people who are looking for a rational and responsive and non-corrupt government, because they have the credentials to prosper in a system that is more of a meritocracy than the current system today," he said, adding that one finds a similar base in the burgeoning Shi'a middle class, "people who feel very much excluded from the current system," thus giving a strategic coherence to the alliance, as well as a class coherence that should be taken into account.

Yet, he warned: "There may be a historical power shift underway but this is not going to happen overnight. This is something that is going to occur over years and decades, but to accelerate this," said Norton, "is sheer folly."

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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