Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lebanon's unity before its justice

This week’s two bloody explosions in Beirut and the sudden eruption of deadly fighting between the Lebanese army and the little known Fateh-al-Islam militia are indications that extreme opportunists are on the scene to exploit the political vacuum resulting from the deadlock between the government and the opposition. Since the July war of 2006, Lebanon has polarized into two main political camps: a pro-Western government and a populist opposition.

Last week, after four years of absence from Lebanon, I spent six days visiting my home country. The modern airport and its easy formalities were reassuring. I found Beirut streets cleaner than even before the civil war. The renovated downtown overlooking the Mediterranean sea makes a perfect postcard scene. The majesty of the many mountain resorts is arresting. In this country preparing and enjoying food is almost a national sport. Restaurants are relatively busy; hotels are active; tourists’ reservations for this summer are normal and planning for the annual Bait-el-Din music festival is in progress. The Lebanese are thirsty for tourists, especially Western visitors. Their passion for life is incredible and their memory for political pain is short, a phenomenon which serves their positive thinking.

The Lebanese love the West and Americans in particular. I asked Sa’eed, my cousin’s six-year old son, what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A General!” “In the Lebanese army?” “No! The American!”

In the Lebanon I visited, the only American product in question is US politics. Even those opposing the policies of Syria and Iran in Lebanese affairs are weary of the US Middle East foreign policy.

Seize-the-day mentality is pragmatic, but it has made the Lebanese blind to the future and deaf to the past. My long absence from Beirut reflects my growing doubt about the political future of a nation that is divided in identity and too dependant on external powers. There are two political communities in Lebanon: one obsessed with modernity and Western consumerism and the other (the opposition) delusional about its role in political reform and territorial liberation.

In a region which values authority over freedom, the excessive tolerance for political dissent makes this tiny country a perpetually insecure democracy. Consider how dissent is expressed in this Lebanon. The Republic has a pro-Syrian, weak, president and a pro-Iranian parliament speaker. Both of these leaders are on the side of the opposition that has ties with Hezbollah, the center of challenge to the government. There is a strong pro-Western prime minister whose cabinet has six withdrawn ministers and one minister assassinated six months ago. The cabinet represents a parliamentary majority, but it lacks the support of the Shiite community, about a third (or more?) of the Christians and a sizable minority of Sunnites.

The tight balance of tension between the government and its opposition was evident after Harriri’s death. On March 8, 2005, mobilizing a million people, the Hezbollah-led opposition demonstrated defensively to show its popularity. A week later, on March 14, another million people angrily demonstrated asking for accountability for the assassination of Prime Minister Harriri. Dates of political demonstrations have become labels of ideology. The “March 14” political camp commands one half of the Lebanese; the “March 8” community is the opposition. The Harriri legacy now stands larger than life in Lebanon.

The country is heading to a new crisis this summer as its politicians fail to agree on the process of election for the new president, an election that is due in September 07.
Had there been no opposition, the current parliament would elect a pro-Western leader. This president would be critical of Hezbollah’s militarization and distant from Syria and Iran. He would also be eager to see the United Nations investigate the murder of the former Prime Minister Rafic Harriri. He would follow the signs that point to Syrian involvement in the Harriri affair. However, he would be cautions, patient and diplomatic since, after two years of search, there is no concrete evidence.

An alienated opposition community views the world differently. This community challenges “domestic injustice and Western interference”. The opposition is composed of the Shiite-oriented Hezbollah and the secular, Christian Reform and Change party that accuse the government of severe and crippling corruption. The opposition defends the existence of paramilitary resistance in response to American and Israeli “hegemony”. Moreover, the opposition expects the Lebanese state to investigate the Harriri assassination domestically, but not through the United Nations. And finally, the opposition considers the incomplete cabinet defunct, and unauthorized to facilitate the election of the next president.

Both sides of the domestic conflict lack sensitivity to the nation’s drift toward chaos in the absence of national consensus. The government is too dependent on foreign aid that comes with tight strings attached; whereas, the opposition is an artificial alliance of two major insecure movements.

Neither the “March 8” nor the “March 14” political community is able to distance itself far enough from foreign powers in order to negotiate the future of an independent, neutral and unified nation. The Lebanese opposition speaks for Tehran and Damascus and the pro-government speaks for Washington and Europe.

Three days after my departure from the country a battle between the national army and an extreme Islamic militia, known as Fateh-al-Islam, took the lives of over 50 people- soldiers and rebels. The extreme rebels are not connected to Hezbollah or to Syria, but they contribute to the insecurity of the country along side the opposition. In Lebanon there are 350,000 Palestinians living in camps ridden with squalor and deprivation. The war in Iraq has brought Al- Qaeda culture to Lebanon through the camps of Palestinian refugees, where there is room for underground activities for all sorts of marginalized groups. Ironically, the Lebanese army may soon discover that it needs Hezbollah to assist in controlling a brewing sectarian revolution, Iraq style. The culture of civil war allows all a myriad of reconfigurations to restore security or to undermine it.

Sooner rather than later, the Lebanese government will have to sober up and sort out its priorities. To bring back the country to normality, the Lebanese will have to realize that unity precedes security, and security precedes justice. The international discussion this week of a proposal to launch the UN investigation for the murder of Harriri is very poorly timed. As the country is today extremely unstable, focusing on the murder of a politician that died two years ago in a society that is dripping with injustice is peculiar.

As one astute local commentator opined in a recent article, the worst compromise solution between the March 8 and the March 14 camps would be better than a continuation of the existing stalemate. A reconciliatory president is badly needed this summer. But if one side is to compromise painfully, it should be the government, given the fact that time is on the side of the opposition. Why?

Today the Lebanese national army is already at the center of attention of the entire country. While the Shiite community is the largest constituency of the opposition and of the Hezbollah movement, it is also the largest demographic contributor to the national army. If Lebanon approaches the September elections without finding a compromise of power sharing among the two sides of the domestic conflict, the balance of power is likely to tilt toward the side of the stable. Considering the backing of Syria and Iran to the opposition and the natural affinity of the Lebanese army to Hezbollah, the government would have to yield and offer substantial compromises. Should Hezbollah come out of this crisis with some political gain, it should reciprocate by reassuring the Lebanese society that its militarization is temporary.

A neutral reconciliatory leader would go a long way in calming Lebanon this summer. He would pave the way for a new government that would allow sufficient room for the opposition. The UN investigation of the Harriri crime is a diplomatic stumbling block that needs to be shelved for a better day, if Lebanon is to survive a new hot crisis this summer.

I left the country with the same degree of concern that I had before the visit. For the last three decades I have been convinced that Lebanon is not expected to arrive at a full political solution until two important conditions are met. The region which surrounds it must first join the rest of the world in understanding how the modern state functions. These same neighbors must also begin to appreciate how economic and social reforms are pre requisite for democracy building.

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