Talisman Gate

Monday, October 15, 2007

Lebanese Malaise

October 15, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Lebanese Malaise


October 15, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/64568

Lebanon is undergoing a crisis, so what's new?

The latest upswing in tension involves choosing a new president for the country, a constitutional act that has to be done through a parliamentary vote by November 24, the date on which outgoing President Lahoud must vacate the presidential palace in Ba'abda nestling high above Beirut.

This should be an easy enough task, but Lebanon is mired in political gridlock, and whoever is chosen as a compromise candidate between the various factions is likely to anger one side or the other within his or her first week in office.

The March 14 coalition, which brings together most of Lebanon's Sunnis and Druze, as well as a significant portion of the country's Christians, and is generically labeled as anti-Syrian, holds on to a slight majority in parliament and would like to see one of its own as president.

The position is to be filled by a Maronite Christian according to an unwritten understanding between Lebanon's primary sects that goes back to the early days of the republic. The March 14 coalition wants its candidate to safeguard the United Nations' mandated investigation and tribunal into the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri.

The opposition, speaking for most of the country's Shiites and claiming to speak for most of the Maronites, wants its own candidate to safeguard Hezbollah's weaponry. They are stigmatized as pro-Syrian. One of the opposition's main leaders is the former general and interim president, Michel Aoun. He makes a somewhat convincing case for his own candidacy by claiming the mantle of Maronite representation — he earned the most direct votes from this community in the 2005 elections.

A new president would have the wherewithal to pick a new head for the Lebanese Army and a new head of military intelligence. This could potentially disrupt the security arrangement that still is in place from the time when the Syrians ran the show in Beirut. Hezbollah is comfortable with the current arrangement, but is fearful that all this may change at the stroke of a pen. Yet the March 14 coalition cannot go on living with Hezbollah's menace and military prowess, which could be unleashed at any moment to take over the state.

Further complicating matters is that any compromise candidate would have to be weak and insipid. That's something the Maronites, Lebanon's third major demographic component, already antsy over watching their power erode and their divided ranks, are not likely to stomach for the longer term. Thus, such a "compromise candidate," tailored to all these conflicting agendas, is a mythical person. But what if the deadline comes and goes, and no president is picked? Would that be so terrible?

The Ta'if Accord of 1989 that brokered an end to the civil war by redistributing power among the various sects can be reinterpreted to deal with the situation if the presidency is left temporarily vacant. In such an eventuality, the powers of the president would devolve unto the Sunni prime minister, who is a March 14 coalition nominee.

This constitutional impasse would simply extend the current situation. Ever since the lines were drawn in the sand two years ago, President Lahoud, an ally of the opposition, has been treated by the March 14 coalition and much of the international community as if he weren't really there.

While the government of Prime Minister Siniora manages day-to-day affairs in the interim, the parliament can be tasked with drawing-up a new electoral law to better suit the Maronites who felt robbed of self-representation in the last elections. Early elections could be held, or everyone can hold their breaths until the next constitutional election cycle kicks in by mid-2009. A clearer picture would then emerge of who is the most popular Maronite politician after the results are tallied, and this person could nominate himself or an ally for the presidency.

A two year lull would also be sufficient time for the U.N. tribunal to pass judgment on Hariri's killers, thus allaying the sting that his murder had left in place and giving the country a chance to heal.

But wouldn't such a short-term solution keep Lebanon in a state of perpetual crises? Yes, it will and that's a good thing. Lebanon can handle crisis, just take a look at its history. Political bickering and gridlock is the norm in a country as complicated and troubled as it is. But what it can't handle is blood on the streets — everyone should be working to navigate around yet another civil war.

What's new in Lebanon is Sunni militancy, something that should be familiar to anyone taking the sectarian temperature of that country. It should be noted that this militancy is not jihadist in nature. Rather the opposite is true. But that could change too if matters spiral out of control.

The Shiites are held back for the time being by Hezbollah's uncharacteristic sobriety in approaching the thorny issue of sectarianism. They can't afford to start a Sunni-Shiite war without hurting the regional prospects of their backers in Shiite-ruled Syria and Iran. But given a fair amount of provocation, the Shiites will lash out, with or without Hezbollah taking the lead. It would start with car bombs and assassinations, then ethnic cleansing, and would move on to barricading urban ghettos — something that Lebanon often has seen before.

The Maronites would be bystanders in such a war, but are likely to be targeted along the way as the worst of the Islamists on both the Sunni and Shiites sides start killing each other. Disrupting the even equilibrium between the March 14 coalition and the opposition by picking a partisan president would trigger the mayhem. Leaving the presidency vacant, however, would at worst annoy the Maronites but won't drive them to begin a shoot out.

While traveling around Lebanon this summer visiting friends and acquaintances, and speaking to politicians from all sides, I was always taken back when I'd get asked, as an outsider, in all earnestness, "What do you think is going to happen?" One senses the levels of frustration and fatigue. The Lebanese are worn out by uncertainty and the periodic killings. Many are packing up and leaving while others are paralyzed by despair.

The Lebanese are quick to pass off their troubles on meddling outsiders — Saudis, Americans, the French, Syrians, and Iranians — but are reluctant to own up to the reality that foreign intervention only amplifies existing internal problems. Unraveling the sectarian nature of their state is the only solution forward, but it's nothing more than a pipe dream at this point. Most Lebanese are not ready to let go of their subdued yet festering sectarian prejudices.

The least worse option is to keep things as they are: the government in deadlock and the population depressed, but no grand-scale bloodshedding. Depressed people don't fight, angry people do. Giving Sunnis and Shiites a reason to deck it out, which is the likely case if a president is chosen in such a delicate circumstance, is in nobody's interest, especially among the Maronite community.

Mr. Kazimi, a contributing editor of The New York Sun, can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

October 15, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >