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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 June 2005, 08:41 GMT 09:41 UK
Lebanon's search for 'irrelevance'
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Beirut

Saad Hariri, the son of slain ex-premier Rafik Hariri (background picture)
Saad Hariri has pledged to reform Lebanon
With horn blaring and red-circled cedar flags fluttering from the windows, a carload of supporters of the Lebanese Forces - a hard-line Christian militia disarmed in the early 1990s - drove into the Maronite town of Zgharta, in the hills above the teeming north Lebanese city of Tripoli.

A mundane enough sight nowadays, perhaps. But not so long ago, such an intrusion would have been an invitation to massacre.

In 1978, the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, was involved in an attack on nearby Ehden in which Tony Franjieh, son of former President Sulaiman Franjieh and scion of one of the most powerful northern Maronite clans, and his immediate family were killed in their home.

Such things are not easily forgotten in the mountains and valleys of a country where in the past, fierce clan feuds have often continued for generations.

Fifteen years of bitter civil strife which began in 1975 left countless similar grudges. At different times, the conflict pitched practically every combination of the main communities against one another.

There were even fierce battles within some of them, as when the mainstream Shia militia Amal clashed with the more radical Hezbollah, and General Michel Aoun's Christian army faction collided violently with the Lebanese Forces.

But now, the battles are taking place at the polling stations. There seems to be a consensus among the Lebanese, at least for the moment, that a war which nobody can win, must not be allowed to happen again.

Syrian peace

For those who witnessed the internecine bloodletting of the 1970s and 1980s, it was moving to see supporters of the different factions, wearing bright distinctive T-shirts, mingling good-humouredly outside the voting centres.

The peace which the country enjoyed for the past 15 years was largely a Syrian peace.

It was Syrian forces who ensured the disarming of the Lebanese militias - all except Hezbollah, which led the "resistance" to Israel's occupation of the South.

Directly and indirectly, Syria controlled Lebanon's security, and used that grip to manipulate and orchestrate the country's political life too.

Now, the Syrians are gone, forced out peacefully in April by a combination of huge Lebanese demonstrations and international pressures in the wake of the huge car bomb explosion on 14 February which killed the Sunni former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.

So these were the first elections for three decades without the Syrians around.

It was the first important test for the new Lebanon, and it passed. But where is the country heading now?

Counter revolution

Many of those who took part in the massive demonstrations which followed Hariri's assassination - the so-called "Cedar Revolution" - were hoping for a new future of unity and transparent, competitive democracy.

Supporters of Saad Hariri
The euphoria of electoral success is no guarantee of stability
But that "revolution" has largely come to pieces against the reality of Lebanon's highly sectarian political system and mentality.

The first blow was dealt after the feisty former general, Michel Aoun, returned on 7 May from 14 years in exile.

His supporters, many but by no means all of them Christians, were a major component in the huge demonstrations.

But he was unable to agree on an electoral alliance with the other main opposition factions; the Future movement now headed by Hariri's son and political heir Saad, the mainly Druze party of Walid Jumblatt, and the Christian Lebanese Forces.

The election saw the split develop into a bitter rift between the two sides. Michel Aoun attacked the legacy of Saad Hariri's now-revered father, who, he said, during his five stints as Prime Minister presided over a period of unprecedented corruption and left a huge public debt ($35bn).

He also accused Walid Jumblatt and his allies of supporting Syria when it suited and profited them, and dumping Damascus when the international winds changed.

Sectarian deadlock

Mr Aoun's new opponents retorted that by forging election alliances with some of Syria's closest and staunchest friends, he was acting as a cat's paw for the Syrians by breaking up the opposition front.

The spirit of the "Cedar Revolution" was also dealt a huge blow by the sectarianism that is absolutely built in to the Lebanese electoral system.

Both voters and candidates are classified by sect. Seats are allocated on a strictly sectarian basis, with parliament equally divided between Christians and Muslims, and all 18 sects within those broad divisions given a proportionate share.

The Hariri-Jumblatt anti-Syrian alliance won a majority in the new parliament - 72 seats out of 128. Michel Aoun and his allies took 21, and the Shia parties, Hezbollah and Amal - both deemed close to Damascus - won 35.

But commanding a majority does not mean the opposition alliance will find it easy to achieve their goals, or to meet the demands of the outside powers - the US, the UN, and Europe - who encouraged the Syrian withdrawal and democratic change in Lebanon.

The sectarian system is likely to make it very hard going.

Hot seats

For many oppositionists, purging public life of the major symbols of Syrian control is a key requirement.

These include President of the Republic Emile Lahoud and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.

Under the Lebanese system, the president is always a Maronite Christian, and the speaker a Shia Muslim. They are seen as the senior political representatives of their communities.

The idea of ousting President Lahoud is currently opposed by the Maronite Patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, who wields enormous political influence, and also by Michel Aoun (who would be the obvious replacement, but unacceptable to his new opposition rivals).

Nabih Berri has the support of his own Shia movement Amal and of Hezbollah, with whom he forged a joint ticket for the elections.

Together, they swept the board in the Shia areas.

So a move against either man would be seen as an attack on their whole communities.

Disarmament

But if the two men stay on, as both are determined to do, it would be a major setback for the opposition.

"There is already much disillusionment surrounding the split in the opposition," wrote Lebanese commentator Chibli Mallat.

"But unless Lahoud and Berri make room for new leadership, this disillusionment will increase. Reform in Lebanon will be as difficult if Berri remains in power as it will be if Lahoud stays on in [the presidential palace at] Baabda."

"The Cedar Revolution may become a political watershed as important for the Middle East as was the fall of the Berlin Wall for Eastern Europe, but only if change occurs at the top," he added.

If Lebanon is to win international support and aid, it must meet a list of requirements, some set out last year in UN Security Council resolution 1559, which called for a Syrian withdrawal.

One of the key demands is for the disarming of Hezbollah. That will prove difficult, partly for the same reasons as removing Nabih Berri would be difficult, and partly because its role in ending the Israeli occupation earned Hezbollah widespread admiration across the board in Lebanon.

Fragile security

Many Lebanese are also aware that slavishly accepting western diktats originating largely in Washington might attract hostile attention from the Syrians, already smarting from their humiliating forced retreat and the electoral defeat of some of their closest Lebanese allies, especially in the north.

Syria sees Lebanon as its back yard, a vulnerable flank which cannot be left open to its many enemies.

This is the context in which many Lebanese have seen a series of assassinations, including that of Hariri in February, the outspoken anti-Syrian columnist Samir Qasir on 2 June, and now George Hawi, a close ally of Walid Jumblatt, advocate of reconciliation, and fierce critic of Syrian meddling in Lebanon.

Just 12 hours before the death of Mr Hawi in a car bomb apparently identical to that which killed Mr Qasir, a well-placed Lebanese observer predicted that just such an assassination of an anti-Syrian symbol was imminent.

"It would be a message from the Syrians to say, there can be no security in Lebanon without us," he said.

Syrian officials condemned the killing of Mr Hawi, saying it was the work of those who wanted to harm Lebanon.

While one of Mr Hawi's successors as leader of the Lebanese Communist Party blamed the Lebanese security cells set up by the Syrians, the current party leader, Khaled Hdeydi, accused Israeli intelligence.

Whatever the case, the message was also that Lebanon remains liable to be caught up in the wider regional and international struggles, as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, vulnerable to interference by its powerful neighbours.

Its best line of survival may be to make itself as irrelevant as possible, so that the regional and international powers see no point in fighting proxy battles here.

To achieve that, the Lebanese will have to keep a strong degree of unity, and avoid the temptation to turn to outside powers in order to strengthen their own position against one another or against other outside powers.


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