Page last updated at 17:31 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 18:31 UK

Lebanon deal holds prospect of peace

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Beirut

Lebanese opposition supporters dismantle a camp in central Beirut (21/05/08)
The removal of the Hezbollah camp could encourage tourism again
The agreement announced in Qatar has already begun easing tensions on the ground in Lebanon, after 18 months of increasingly tense political deadlock.

Within hours of the announcement, Hezbollah and its allies in the opposition, which is backed by Syria and Iran, began dismantling the tented camp with which they have besieged the headquarters of the Western-backed government in Beirut's city centre since December 2006.

At the announcement in Doha, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said that the traditional Lebanese compromise slogan of "no victor, no vanquished" had prevailed.

But Hezbollah and its allies in the opposition clearly feel they have scored a success.

Their followers had always said they would keep up their sit-in until the government of Fouad Siniora - from which the Shia members walked out in November 2006 - left office.

That will now be only a matter of time, following agreement on the balance of power within a new national unity government in which the opposition will have 11 of the 30 seats - enough to give it the veto power the other side was reluctant to concede.

Pledges won

The opposition had also insisted on a package-deal solution of all the outstanding issues, which is what has happened.

The government side would have preferred to see the consensus candidate, army commander General Michel Suleiman, first elected president, before tackling the other issues.

Lebanese celebrate in central Beirut on May 21, 2008
For many Lebanese the agreement holds out hope of a period of peace

The new arrangement should see the opposition end up with a stronger share in government - and its Syrian and Iranian backers with increased influence, although such things are often hard to measure.

In a sense, the redressing of the power balance is a natural development.

After the opposition walk-out in November 2006, it was an unbalanced, Western-backed administration.

The government was also formed at a time when US influence in the region was riding high, following the invasion of Iraq and the humiliating withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon under international pressure in 2005.

Lebanon being as weak and vulnerable to regional and international cross-currents as it is, that balance was reflected in the government at that time.

Now things have changed, with the US position in the region being seen as generally in disarray, and the balance in Lebanon has followed suit, painfully.

But the "no victor, no vanquished" slogan may not be as hollow as it seems.

The government won pledges - though no cast-iron guarantees - that Hezbollah and others would never again resort to arms to press their domestic case, even if differences emerge.

The whole issue of Hezbollah's power and arms - meant for use against Israel, not fellow-Lebanese - is also now caught in the harsh beam of the political spotlight, with the new president expected to chair negotiations to define the relationship between the "resistance" (Hezbollah) and the state.

Regional struggles

For many anxious Lebanese, who two weeks ago were staring into the abyss of a collapse into civil war and sectarian carnage, the agreement holds out hope of, at the very least, a period of peace, possibly until general elections scheduled for May next year.

School children carry pictures of Gen Michel Suleiman as they celebrate in his hometown of Aamchit, north of Beirut
Lebanon has not had a president since November
Their hope will be that the summer can still be salvaged.

Last year, rich Arabs from the Gulf and elsewhere, who often spend months and a good deal of money to while away the hot summer months here, began coming back after being frightened off by the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

The latest fighting got this season off to a disastrous start.

But the removal of the Hezbollah camp, which paralysed much of the central Beirut with its smart shops, restaurants and street cafes, could encourage a profitable surge.

But most Lebanese are acutely aware that many regional and international rivalries are bound up in their own complex conflict.

Those intrusive contradictions - the US and Israel on one side, Iran and Syria on the other - are strongly felt here.

Until they see a visible detente in those struggles, and with Hezbollah's military power untamed, many Lebanese will not feel their country faces a stable long-term future.

But they may be heartened by news of the Turkish-mediated peace contacts between Syria and Israel. That is the kind of development that could help neutralise Lebanon as a cockpit for regional struggles.

When the Beirut fighting broke out two weeks ago, one speculative theory was that it might reflect a desire on the part of Iran to strengthen the domestic position of its Hezbollah allies in advance of a Syrian-Israeli peace deal.

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