Lebanon: Much ado about nothing

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Lebanon: Much ado about nothing

Post by Admin on Thu Apr 24, 2008 3:05 pm

You have to hand it to Lebanon's veteran parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri.

In
a country politically paralyzed for months as bickering politicians
fail to elect a new president, and burdened by a lifeless economy and
the ever-present specter of sectarian and factional violence, Berri
last week arranged for a circular wooden table and 14 chairs to be
placed on the second floor of the parliament building in central
Beirut. He wasn't just moving the furniture around; he was mounting an
optimistic bid to bring the nation's feuding leaders together for a
fence-mending dialogue.


The
chance that round-table talks will lead to a breakthrough appears
remote, however. Government supporters have already dismissed the
proposal, and most Lebanese have resigned themselves to a prolonged
political stalemate. Many glumly predict that the United States will
have a new president before Lebanon does. And there may be more to that
comment than simply a January benchmark: Lebanon's political battle has
become a proxy war for foreign powers locked into a struggle to shape
the Middle East -- the U.S., Saudi Arabia and France support the
government; Iran and Syria back the opposition led by Hizballah .


"Without
the regional balances clearing a little bit, the major external players
in Lebanon will not facilitate a breakthrough," says Paul Salem,
director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center.
"Unfortunately, the domestic players in Lebanon are under too much
external influence to make a deal among themselves."


Many
of the region's traumas and tragedies reverberate in Lebanon's politics
-- the Arab-Israeli conflict, the plight of Palestinian refugees,
al-Qaeda-inspired militancy, Syria's sour relations with leading Arab
states and the West, the spread of Iran's influence, and the
Sunni-Shi'ite tensions stoked by events in Iraq. That's quite a
plateful for a country two-thirds the size of Connecticut and with a
population of 4 million, many of whom are seeking to emigrate to more
stable environments. Although there are no official statistics
available (in a country whose ethnic and sectarian balances are so
politically charged that a population census hasn't been taken since
1932), one estimate last year claimed that a quarter of the population
had left in the year following the summer 2006 war between Israel and
Hizballah.


Still,
Lebanon's lawmakers continue to go through the motions. On Tuesday,
they gathered in parliament for their 18th scheduled attempt to elect a
new head of state since President Emile Lahoud left office last
November. Berri, one of Lebanon's wiliest politicians, surprised
lawmakers with his decision to hold the session instead of postponing
it as he has done in the past. Politicians from the anti-Syrian March
14 coalition that dominates the government hurried to parliament, along
with opposition counterparts, to see if quorum would be reached to hold
a vote.


The
parties all know the outcome of the vote, of course. It was agreed
months ago that the commander of Lebanon's army, General Michel
Suleiman, will be the next president. Suleiman is a consensus
candidate, acceptable to the March 14 coalition and the opposition, and
would hold the balance of power in a government of national unity to be
formed after he is elected. But the Hizballah-led opposition refuses to
allow Suleiman to be voted into office until it is guaranteed a
veto-wielding one-third share of the next government. While the
opposition in all likelihood represents even more than a third of the
population, a one-third share of the government would allow the
Hizballah-led opposition to block decisions it opposes, such as moves
to dismantle the movement's military wing. So, the March 14 bloc
rejects the opposition demand, suspecting that it will be used to
further Syrian and Iranian interests in Lebanon at the expense of its
own U.S. and Saudi backers.


There
was no surprise, then, when Berri postponed Tuesday's parliamentary
vote -- not enough legislators had shown up to create a quorum. Instead
of setting a date for a new session, he repeated his call for dialogue
among the top leaders. "Let us undertake dialogue instead of trying to
one-up each other, because doing this has become dangerous," he told
reporters. Indeed, fears of violent clashes have resurged since the
weekend when two members of the government-allied Phalange party were
gunned down at a checkpoint in the Christian town of Zahle in the Bekaa
Valley. The alleged assailants were supporters of a local opposition
MP. Police are hunting the gunmen amid calls for revenge and
accusations that the opposition is protecting the killers.


In
another unwelcome sign of potential instability, al-Qaeda deputy leader
Ayman al-Zawahiri has promised that Lebanon will play a "pivotal role"
in the battle against the "Crusaders and Jews".

"Lebanon
is a Muslim frontline fort," he said in an audiotape released Tuesday.
"I call upon the jihadist generation in Lebanon to prepare to reach
Palestine and to banish the invading crusader forces which are claimed
to be peacekeeping forces in Lebanon," he added, referring to the
United Nations troops deployed in south Lebanon. Given that grim
forecast on top of the country's other woes, small wonder that the
ambition of so many Lebanese simply is to leave the country.



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