Saturday, February 03, 2007

Will the Lebanese come to a compromise?

Last week in Lebanon street battles between the opposition and government groups left six people dead and many more injured. Two months ago the opposition started an open-ended strike in the capital and the suburbs. The strikers ask for increased representation in the Cabinet and call for improved national defense, reduction of poverty and political reform. These events remind the Lebanese of the start of the 15-year civil war that ended 17 years ago.

The current crisis emerges from a cumulative record of events. A long civil war that ended in 1990, an Israeli occupation of the South that ended in 2000, a four-decade Syrian domination and exploitation that ended in 2005, an intermittent series of battles with Israel that culminated in summer 2006, a 40-year militia culture that was started by Palestinian refugees, copied by Christian politicians and perfected by marginalized Shi'a, all the above and more have made Lebanon a web of domestic, regional and international conflicts.

The street action is led by Hizbullah and Michel Aoun's (secular Christian) party. Hizbullah is a political party (known locally as a resistance movement) with a private army; its popular social service program is for the Shi'a, the largest community in the country. While Hizbullah leaders are most concerned about military defense against Israel, Aoun's party is focused on political reform. Aoun is a charismatic reformer with a militant and a military past. The opposition, Aoun's party and Hizbullah, have found common ground in their campaign to defend and reform Lebanon. The opposition is keen on leading a peaceful campaign. But civil resistance easily turns uncivil. In times of crisis, unresolved issues, open wounds and past grudges re-emerge from the previous civil war.

In a sense, the current revolt is a continuation of the summer war. Last summer Hizbullah surprised Israel with what it hoped to be a daring act that would lead to "negotiation." This risk-prone militia carried out a border raid that involved the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. To Hizbullah's dismay, the hostage swap with the Jewish state turned into a war of disproportionate retaliation. The result of the July/August battle of 2006 was the death of a thousand Lebanese civilians, destruction of South Lebanon's infrastructure, displacement of a million people, spread of a million unexploded cluster bombs and pollution of the sea coast. Hizbullah's war machine survived the Israeli assault but the militia's leaders had to confront a new strategic reality in South Lebanon. Through a rushed, U.S. led resolution, United Nations forces and the Lebanese Army took over control of the southern border region. Hizbullah lost its stronghold in the South, the principle domain of the Shi'a community.

Since Lebanon was pieced together by French generals in 1920, it has been almost a "no-sovereignty zone," conducting politics with international remote control. The current Lebanese government receives orders from Washington, Paris and Saudi Arabia; the opposition receives support from Syria and Iran.

Domestic disunity invites regional and international intervention. Government leaders and their allies lack credibility and the leaders of the "Reform and Change" opposition exercise almost tribal control over their constituencies.

But while Lebanon is starting to unravel again as a state it still remains a country with a rich intellectual potential and a phenomenon that is unique in the region. This country is blessed with personal freedoms but cursed with insecurity of governance. In contrast, the rest of the Arab world suffers from restriction of personal freedoms but enjoys security of the ruling regimes.
Lebanon, like its Arab and non-Arab neighbors, is experimenting with modern state building. But this republic falters every decade or so. Power sharing among its communities is what makes Lebanon a "democracy" of some sort. A relatively sophisticated middle class, an open economy and a culture of personal freedoms contribute positively to the special character of this country. But the sectarian nature of power sharing makes Lebanon an insecure and weak democracy. Moreover, a feeble national army, poor leadership and corruption make Lebanon volatile.

It is difficult to know if the worsening conflict in Lebanon will escalate into a civil war. An optimistic assessment would point out that the Lebanese have learned a few lessons from the past civil war. Sectarianism is not as fierce as in the past. Political alliances extend across the religious divide. Despite disguised sectarian tensions within the Muslim and Christian communities, no single politician dares in public to voice his platform in religious terms. Ironically, all the Lebanese see the danger of sectarian politics but they hold on to the system for not knowing how to get out of it. Moreover, no political side is sufficiently comfortable with its external partners of support. The government's attachment to the U.S. and France is driven by money and insecurity. Similarly, Hizbullah and Aounism are not blindly attached to Iran and Syria.

Alternatively, some observers see a political "tsunami" coming to the Lebanese shores in the near future. Those observers argue that the conflict seems to have established a momentum of its own. They state that the opposition is too comfortable with an open ended sit-in strike: unemployed protesters enjoy group living in the center of the capital with music, story telling, water pipe smoking and public rhetoric filling the air. Critics of the opposition wonder if the contagious, communal and "interfaith" strike has turned into an extended but senseless carnival for too many young people who are dislocated or alienated in the wake of the Israeli summer war and a worsening economy.

Regardless of their internal differences, the Lebanese feel that their country's future morally impacts the entire region. For in Lebanon Islam meets Christianity on equal terms, tradition is matched by modernity and the open market ideology is challenged by populist ideals. Lebanon is a vital laboratory of social change.

Lebanon has only a short period to find a solution to this standoff between the opposition groups and the government. The economy alone cannot stand delay, not to mention explosive pent-up emotions. It is likely that the leaders will soon reach a face-saving compromise. The recent street fighting and the public's reaction have sobered the opposition. The government in turn has been under pressure to restore normality since the outbreak of civil disorder. Recent Saudi-Iranian contacts which sounded positive may bring a breakthrough. Soon, the General Secretary of the Arab League will make his third visit of conflict resolution to Beirut. A plan of compromises has already been drawn up. What is expected is a face-saving and short term solution. Regrettably, long term solutions for Lebanon do not have a chance today.

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