Saturday, November 11, 2006

Lebanon : Ongoing show of sad politics

Lebanon: Ongoing show of sad politics -The Arab American News-

Ghassan Rubeiz

Lebanon is facing a serious domestic political crisis involving Hizbullah. As stated in U.N. Resolution 1701, the international community demands eventual demilitarization of all militias. Given the instability in the region, Hizbullah is not ready to disarm. It is lobbying hard for more influence in the Lebanese cabinet to protect itself from speedy international intervention.
Hizbullah has threatened the government that it will stage street demonstrations if the cabinet is not widened to offer the opposition better representation. In a decisive meeting this week the parliament leaders are discussing the possible widening of the cabinet to avoid a crisis of escalating civil disorder. Hizbullah is already represented in the cabinet by two ministers and three additional Shi'a representatives.

It is already difficult for the foreign troops stationed in Lebanon to act as they wish. The U.N. Resolution is structurally difficult to enforce. To de-militarize Hizbullah the newly deployed peace troops need the approval of the weak Lebanese government. If Hizbullah and its political allies are well represented in the cabinet, they can block any unwelcome U.N. intervention. Since Hizbullah expects escalating hostilities from Israel, it wants to maintain its military readiness for the future.

An interesting development in February of this year enhanced Hizbullah's formal stature domestically. Early in the year, Michel Aoun, a popular Christian leader, forged an alliance with Hizbullah to reinforce a "reform and change movement" in the government. As a result, this Shi'a-Christian alliance has become the largest political force in the country. This alliance pledges to work on improved national defense, political reform and electoral change.

Aoun's supporters argue that he has achieved several objectives in his unexpected alliance with a militia movement. Aoun's followers, about half the Christian community, have enhanced their rapport with the Shi'a. The Aoun alliance with Hizbullah may have also softened the Christian community's obsession with Syria's political shadow over the country. Many argue that Aoun has distanced his followers from accepting the dominance of Western foreign policy. Finally, the alliance raises the chances of reforming the electoral law to allow emigrants to vote.

Aoun's critics argue that his alliance with Hizbullah is a pure act of electoral profiteering.
They interpret Aoun's move as a desperate act to advance his chances to be the next President of the Country. His opponents see his embrace of a militia party as an act that undermines the sovereignty of the state.

Hizbullah's formation and its evolution is partially a product of Lebanon's domestic confessional politics. The largest religious communities in Lebanon are the Shi'a (35 to 40 percent), the Christians (30 to 35 percent) and the Sunnis (20 to 25 percent). The current sectarian system offers Shi'a and Sunni the same number of parliament seats and it also offers Christians and Muslims 50/50 power sharing. There are no accurate or official statistics on the size of the 17 specific confessional communities and there is no agreement on whether the Lebanese abroad qualify as citizens.

According to a national agreement, when the parliament elects a new president next September, he will have to be a Catholic, a Maronite representing the largest Christian sect. When legislators elect a Speaker of the House they will chose a Shi'i. The president of the republic will appoint a Sunni prime minister.

Sectarian power sharing breeds perpetual distrust. Each religious community feels insecure about its future, especially the Christians. Having been intensely exposed to European ways of life, the Christian community of Lebanon is the most secular minded of the three main religious communities. However, this community is glued to the sectarian political system that has guaranteed it privileged representation. But this privilege has been eroding since the Taif Accord that ended the civil war 16 years ago. This agreement reduced the power of the Christian presidency and increased the power of the Sunni Prime Minister.

The Christian community, which has lost about half of its population through emigration over the last few decades, is hesitant to embrace a quota free system. Without quotas Christians anticipate Muslim domination of the parliament. This fear is based on the theory that majority rule in a traditional society does not guarantee minority rights.

There is also Sunni fear of change. In a secular election the Sunnis are afraid of losing political leadership to the Shi'a, the largest community, and the only one that runs a militia. A pure majority-rule political system would also give the Shi'a an edge in governance.

The Shi'a of Lebanon are not immune from anxiety about their future. The population of Shi'a is increasing but their representation in the state remains constant. The Shi'a have been the community of economic under-privilege for several decades. Because of their position on the border they have been exposed to displacement and ruthless attacks from the Israeli army over the last four decades. The summer war precipitated the latest wave of destruction and displacement.

The cease-fire arrangement that ended the war this summer was a band aid solution. The intricacies of Lebanese politics and the regional rivalries were not factored in to the shallow diplomacy of the UN. Resolution 1701 mandates the eventual demilitarization of Hizbullah, but this resistance movement is not willing to comply soon. The "resistance" does not wish to hand its arms to the state because it does not respect the current regime or trust the circumstances. Hizbullah accuses the Lebanese government of caving in to Israel, U.S. and European demands for de-militarization of armed militias. The government responds by accusing Hizbullah leaders of being agents of Syria and Iran.

The summer war made Hizbullah even more popular than before. A recent poll shows that 58 percent of the voters support Hizbullah. In this week's well-publicized parliamentary encounter Prime Minister Siniora, a pragmatist, is likely to yield to the Hizbullah-Aoun request. But he is also careful not to alienate the U.S. and the donor countries who insist that Hizbullah should be controlled militarily.

The silent majority of the Lebanese population watches politicians debate power–sharing and national defense with disdain and fear for their future. The people desire change but they are not ready for it.

This week's marathon political negotiations are likely to reach a compromise and defuse the crisis. But whatever solution emerges it is not likely to last long. Lebanon is an ongoing show of sad politics. Aoun and Hizbullah should not be ignored but their threats of taking their demands to the streets may not be easily justified, given the current post-war fragility of the country.

The author is a Lebanese Arab American commentator. His blog is


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