Across the Bay

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Struggle for Lebanon's Soul

The Struggle for Lebanon's Soul

Michael Young

Wall Street Journal. 6/6/05.

BEIRUT -- On Thursday, Lebanese opposition journalist Samir Kassir was killed by a bomb placed under his car. In recent years, Samir -- a good friend -- had boldly criticized the power of the security and intelligence services in Lebanon, earning him threats and harassment from government goons. His death showed that Lebanon's security apparatus, created and supported by Syria, remains largely intact despite the departure of Syrian soldiers last April. The killing has stunned the Lebanese, for being so contrary to the national mood two months ago -- when, on March 14, an estimated million people gathered at an opposition rally in Beirut to express a desire for deep change in their society.

Lebanon is indeed potentially on the threshold of a grand transformation. It is in the midst of parliamentary elections taking place over consecutive Sundays, and for the first time since the end of the war in 1990, Syria is not calling all the shots (though last week, three Syrian intelligence officers reportedly crossed the border to fiddle with electoral matters in the north). Events in recent months have been accompanied by relatively little violence. The Lebanese have high expectations, even as many feel the hardnosed electoral horse-trading after the Syrian pullout was a sorry chaser to the national amity displayed earlier.

It was, but with much that is complicated lying ahead, it is important for the Lebanese and the international community to get their priorities straight. Unless the security and intelligence apparatus set up by Syria is dismantled, Lebanon can expect little in the way of sustainable progress in the coming years.

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The big election winner will likely be Saadeddine Hariri, second son of the late Rafik Hariri, whose assassination on Feb. 14 precipitated the collapse of the Syrian order in Lebanon. Since being abruptly elevated in April to inheritor of his father's political mantle by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah (the Hariri fortune was made in the kingdom, and the family bows to Saudi authority), the young Mr. Hariri has revived Sunni Lebanese morale, while seeking electoral alliances across the political and sectarian spectrum. He is expected to control, with his close ally Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, almost two-thirds of the seats in the new Parliament. The other largest blocs will include two Shiite parties -- Hezbollah, but also the Amal movement led by the current Parliament speaker, Nabih Birri.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Hariri, Mr. Jumblatt, and some Christian opposition politicians, all of whom had opposed the Syrian presence, came to a clandestine agreement with Hezbollah and Mr. Birri -- who had sided with Syria after Hariri's death -- to approve an election law defending their influence in Parliament. It was a classic Levantine deal, perhaps unavoidable to ensure that voting would take place on schedule. Yet it also alienated many Lebanese, who saw that, regardless of the convulsions of recent months, the established political elite will protect its interests without consulting anyone when it comes to power-sharing.

One person feeding off the ambient discontent is Gen. Michel Aoun, the former head of a military government that tried, but failed, to force Syria out of Lebanon in the late 1980s. Previously in exile, he's now returned; and like many a populist leader, he thrives on confrontation. Several years confined to the idiocy of rural life in a villa outside Paris have made him resentful. The general feels he embodied true opposition to Syria, and has no patience for those like the Hariris and Mr. Jumblatt who turned on the Syrians late. Gen. Aoun legitimately observes that their Damascene conversion was self- serving, coming only after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad extended the mandate of his Lebanese counterpart -- and their enemy -- Emile Lahoud last August. But the general also tends to overlook the fact that Rafik Hariri paid with his life, and plays down the other fact that Mr. Lahoud brought him back from France, apparently to sow dissent in the anti-Syrian opposition. Politically ambitious, Gen. Aoun has played along, assuming he will eventually triumph against all sides. But he is also seen as non-sectarian, making him popular in many quarters, and the only real challenger to the convenient status quo being cooked up by most of his political rivals.

Many see in Gen. Aoun's confrontation with his foes a struggle over Lebanon's soul. That's only half the story. What the Lebanese disregard, and that which the international community should focus on, is the need to remove the leftovers of Syria's legacy in Lebanon. A 29-year presence, almost half during peacetime, allowed Damascus to place its people -- allies, agents and run-of-the-mill profiteers -- into the highest institutions of state, as well as the army, the security services, and the intelligence apparatus. While Syrian soldiers have left, unknown numbers of intelligence agents seem to have stayed behind.

Sitting atop the remnants of the Syrian order are Messrs. Lahoud and Birri. Watching closely what is going on, with influence over the affairs of state, is Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah. The senior levels of the Lebanese Army and the security and intelligence services are intact, even though some chiefs were removed in the aftermath of the Hariri murder. The top officers may no longer take their orders from Syria, but they were implicated in its misrule, and so have a vested interest in avoiding profound change that may expose them or lead to their removal. The good news is that those more egregiously tainted by collaboration with Syria are not representative of their institutions as a whole, most of which, particularly the army, still command public respect.

The most solid cornerstone of the former Syrian edifice is Hezbollah. Alone among political groups it has weapons, popularity among Shiites, and the will to protect itself against perceived threats. The U.N. Security Council has called for the group's disarmament in Resolution 1559. However, Hezbollah has managed to persuade a majority of its coreligionists that this is all an American and Israeli plot to undermine the community. In defending its own future, Hezbollah also inevitably protects what remains of the Syrian order. That's why any reform program will hit up against the combined resistance of Syria's former allies. In its details, the new state many Lebanese dream of remains very much a hostage to the old state they thought they had finished with after March 14.

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What saved Lebanon throughout its modern history was its pragmatism. The disappointment of the Lebanese is understandable, but it's also unavoidable that representatives of the old order -- Messrs. Hariri, Jumblatt and Nasrallah -- will continue to have a say in what happens. Where the international community can make progress, however, is in pushing for the elimination of the residues of the Syrian system where this counts the most. If Lebanon is to enjoy international assistance -- and with a debt of around $36 billion, the leverage is considerable -- then Mr. Lahoud and Mr. Birri, as the two highest officials in the state, must go, followed by senior officers in the various security apparatuses. The U.N. investigation into Rafik Hariri's murder will soon begin -- it may be extended to include the killing of Samir Kassir -- and provides a useful mechanism to help bring this cleansing about, since the implication of these agencies in the crime or its cover-up is widely
suspected.

That leaves Hezbollah. The party would take any such purge as an existential challenge, a threat to its anchor in the state, and would try to block it. It refuses to disarm, and has threatened violence if disarmament is forcibly attempted. No one doubts its readiness to place its interests above those of the rest of society. However, faced with a domestic consensus for change and an international community patiently, but firmly, insisting on implementation of Resolution 1559, Hezbollah could soon find its position untenable. A way to accelerate change is to reduce its influence in the broad security network, even if that means compensating the party in other parts of the bureaucracy.

The so-called Cedar Revolution was a remarkable moment for Lebanese unity, and was propelled by exasperation with Syrian hegemony. The Syrians are mostly gone, but not the foul system they set up. If Lebanon is to truly progress -- and Mr. Hariri, likely the next prime minister, has made reform a priority -- the international community must help the Lebanese dismantle a political and security structure that was created to suffocate aspirations for change.

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Mr. Young, a Lebanese national, is opinion editor of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.