Across the Bay

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Playing Politics in Lebanon

Take a look at this Reuters report (via Chuck Freund) for more on what lies ahead for Lebanon in the aftermath of Karami's resignation. Interesting notes on Lahoud, the opposition and the Patriarch. All stuff that Tueni hinted at. It puts my earlier post ("What Next?" below) into perspective. Young and Saghieh are both quoted.

Lebanese "people power" faces uphill climb

By Lucy Fielder

BEIRUT, March 1 (Reuters) - "People power" may have forced Lebanon's government to stand down but popular opposition is unlikely to sweep away the entire Syrian-backed system, analysts said.

A surge of grief and mass protest that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, for which many Lebanese blamed Syria and the government, forced the cabinet to resign on Monday. But Syria has no intention of leaving its tiny neighbour, analysts say. "There was a symbolic victory achieved by the opposition," Sami Baroudi of Beirut's American
University told Reuters. "But unless certain tangible things take place on Hariri's investigation, or the security apparatus or the Syrian presence in Lebanon, we are still in the realm of the symbolic." Lebanon needs a government acceptable to all at the top before elections in May, so the disparate opposition movement is waiting for the next move by Syrian-backed Christian Maronite President Emile Lahoud. "Everyone is waiting for President Lahoud, what he'll opt for, and this means, implicitly, the Syrian decision," Hazem Saghieh, commentator for pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper said.

A Syrian decision to extend Lahoud's term in September pushed two key allies, Druze Walid Jumblatt and Sunni Muslim Hariri, into the arms of a Christian Maronite-led movement that vocally opposed Syria's dominance. But Christian Maronites are loath to tackle a presidency traditionally reserved for their sect and therefore the very man who has control of the army and
security. Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir has made political deals with Lahoud before, Beirut-based analyst Michael
Young said. "The opposition wants to avoid giving the president the opportunity to exploit factional tendencies and they don't want to embarrass the patriarch," he said. "They would be happy to see him go, but they don't want to make it a personal issue." Lebanon's president cannot, under the constitution, pick the next prime minister. So the opposition must decide whether to take part or boycott consultations with him on forming a government to oversee elections, handle investigations into Hariri's killing and deal with the Syrians if it redeploys any troops before May.

Analysts said Lahoud was unpredictable. "If he opts for a hardline military government then we're heading towards a confrontation between the regime and the opposition," Baroudi said. "If he calls for a neutral government, then that will be a time of reconciliation."

SHI'ITE CHALLENGE

A main challenge for an opposition movement that is touted as cross-sectarian but mainly Maronite, Druze and Sunni is that Lebanon's biggest community, the Shi'ites, have largely stayed away. "Most Shi'ites have absolutely no problem with the
Syrians leaving," Young said. But Syria backs and arms their largest party, Hizbollah.

Growing dissent against Syria puts the "Islamic resistance" that drove Israeli occupying forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 in an awkward position. Jumblatt, a main opposition figure from Lebanon's Druze community, says the opposition must talk to the guerrillas. "Clearly there is an effort to move Hizbollah towards a middle ground and a notion that if they can get
Hizbollah to withdraw its support for the current regime, it will become weaker and more willing to make concessions," Baroudi said.

RUTHLESS AND SECRETIVE

Opposition figures appear now to have turned on Lahoud's pillars of support, analysts said, especially Syria's bitterly resented security and intelligence services in Lebanon. Jumblatt blamed security chiefs for Hariri's death and the October assassination attempt of MP Marwan Hamadeh and asked for their resignation in a Reuters television interview on Tuesday. He has often said Syria's intelligence and security in Lebanon were a worse problem than its 14,000 troops there.

Attacking such a secretive and ruthless presence is a daunting task, but Hariri's assassination has meant criticism of the intelligence services can now be overheard in Beirut cafes and read in Lebanese and Arab newspapers. "A pre-requisite of the strength of a security apparatus is to be, in a sense, sacred, that no one would mention them in small talk," Hazem Saghieh,
political commentator for pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat said.

But Syria, in the face of huge international and domestic pressure, could use those very forces to crush the opposition challenge, analysts said.