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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Lebanon goes back to tearing itself apart

The Washington Post reports that less than a month after the war's end and just two days after Israel lifted its naval blockade, Lebanon has gone back to the pattern of ethnic conflict that has torn the country apart for most of the last forty years.
"Lebanon is at a crossroads," said Gemayel, who was president during wars from 1982 to 1988. "Either we draw the lessons from the war and build a Lebanon that is genuinely democratic and liberal, and an example of intercommunal coexistence, or we are headed for the disintegration of Lebanon."

In their own ways, Israel and the Bush administration have grappled with the same problem in Lebanon. In parallel policies, they have insisted that Hezbollah disarm and fully join in the Lebanese political process. But because Lebanon's political institutions do not reflect Hezbollah's wider support in the population, the militant Shiite Muslim movement has made it clear that greater changes will be needed before it lays down its arms.


The Lebanon most foreigners think of -- tolerant, easy-living, Western-oriented -- bore the imprint of Maronite families such as the Gemayels, and not by accident. France, the mandate power here until just after World War II, originally carved Lebanon off from Syria to provide a place for the Maronites in the predominantly Muslim Middle East. They made it into a "hinge country," linking East and West.

To rule the new country and preserve its unusual personality, France left behind a system under which the president and the army commander must be Maronites, giving decisive power to what was then the major community. The prime minister was to be Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite.

Lebanon's demography has changed drastically since then. No official census has been taken, a reflection of how delicate the issue is here. But academics said that over the past two decades, Shiites have become a plurality -- estimates range from 32 percent to 45 percent of the population -- and Maronites a minority of less than a quarter. With Sunni Muslims and other sects counted, the overall balance has changed to more than 60 percent Muslim.

Hezbollah's emergence as a political party and armed militia was in large measure a response to that shift. In effect, the organization stepped in to represent Shiites because many of them felt the government did not, particularly in the southern hills along the border with Israel.

"We are not a replacement for the state," Hasan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, said in a recent televised interview. "But where the state is absent, we have to take up the slack."

The war with Israel further dramatized the gap between Lebanon's institutions and its new political demography. Communal strains had been swept under the rug for years under the leadership of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. But in the crucible of a destructive, bloody war, those strains suddenly seemed glaring.


As a result, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni economist, spoke in the name of Lebanon and received foreign visitors such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for negotiations about the war. But he had to check with Nasrallah regarding important decisions, because Hezbollah was the seat of Lebanon's real power of war or peace. [Israel Television's Mabat nightly newscast (which is simulcast on radio here) reported this evening that Hezbullah has had it with Siniora, whom it regards as being too pro-West. CiJ]

"What institutions do we have?" asked Social Affairs Minister Nayla Moawad, a Maronite and the widow of assassinated president René Moawad. "We have inherited a non-administration. The Lebanese government is like this box," she said, holding up a silver coffee-table decoration. "There is nothing in it. It is empty."

Moawad and other Christians, along with Sunni Muslims, have stressed that the right response is strengthening the Lebanese government. Hezbollah must recognize that only the state can have the power of arms, they said, and it must turn away from Iranian-style theocracy to become part of the relaxed mix that has made Lebanon so attractive over the years to investors and Arab vacationers.

"It is up to Hezbollah to make this decision," Gemayel said. "Unfortunately, Lebanon is hanging on the choice."

Although the country's Sunni establishment fought the Maronites in the 1950s and again in the 1970s in the heyday of Arab nationalism, it has recoiled at Hezbollah's politically charged brand of Islam and its ties with Iran. In the debate over Lebanon's identity, conducted before the war in a round of meetings called the National Dialogue, most Sunnis opted for alliance with the Maronites and endorsed their demand for Hezbollah's disarmament.

"Nasrallah has been lying to us all along," sneered a Sunni minister in describing Hezbollah's participation in the National Dialogue.

Nasrallah has gone out of his way to reassure fellow Lebanese that Hezbollah has no intention of remaking Lebanon to look like Iran. In his recent interview, he pledged loyalty to the Lebanese tradition of religious and social tolerance.

"Lebanon is a pluralistic country," he declared. "It is not an Islamic country. It is not a Maronite country. It is not an Orthodox country. It is not a Shiite country. It is a country of consensus. You have nothing to fear from anybody from Hezbollah."

But Nasrallah's pledge was not well received by many Sunnis and Maronites. Hezbollah only weeks ago went to war without consulting the government, they noted, and moved as soon as the cease-fire took effect to help refugees without reference to government agencies charged with the same task. [Not to mention that Hezbullah is supported by Iran, and we all know what Iran's agenda is. CiJ]

Perhaps more important, they noted, was Nasrallah's postwar assertion that Hezbollah must be taken into account in government deliberations from here on out. The party ran for office in the last elections, gaining seats in parliament and two ministers in Siniora's cabinet. But Nasrallah seemed to be saying his group will be seeking more power now that, in his words, it has fought a war on Lebanon's behalf.

A share of power that reflects the Shiites' true place in the population would probably change Lebanon's orientation significantly, the Sunni and Maronite observers predicted. But a refusal to acknowledge the demographic change and Hezbollah's enhanced status after the war, they said, would be a recipe for more intercommunal conflict. As a result, the timeless view from Gemayel's terrace may be in for a change.

"I don't see Lebanon surviving as it is today," said Dori Chamoun, leader of the Maronite-based National Liberal party and son of a former president and longtime political figure, the late Camille Chamoun. "It is inevitable that the Christians will have a smaller share of the country. I only see one solution, cantonization. Everybody wants it. Nobody says it out loud." [The melting pot is apparently not a solution. Welcome to the Middle East. CiJ].

In a recent book, Gemayel proposed abandoning Lebanon's current system and replacing it with election of the president by popular vote and decentralization along the geographical lines that largely define where Muslims and Christians live in any case. "The institutions of Lebanon are tired," he said. "They are drained of their blood."

The losers in such a change would largely be Sunni Muslims, Chamoun pointed out, because by and large they have not carved out sections of the country as theirs. Public Works Minister Mohamad Safadi, a Sunni who lives in Beirut, said he was discussing the problem with his wife recently and reassured her that, if worse comes to worst, they could always live in their weekend house -- in the quintessentially Christian port of Byblos.


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