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Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 11:30 UK

Sadness, anger, but peace in Beirut

Angry men hold Zeina Miri's coffin, wrapped in a green flag, aloft
Hundreds turned out for Zeina Miri's funeral procession through Beirut

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

A seven-month-old baby leans towards a photograph of a young woman, trying to grab it. Holding the baby back, her grandmother breaks into quiet tears.

"It is so unfair," the woman sobs. "What did she have to do with all their political games?"

Until two weeks ago, the baby's name was Yasmin. But she was renamed Zeina after her mother, who was shot dead on the balcony of her house in West Beirut.

Two of Zeina Miri's young daughters
Zeina Miri's five children now live with their father

Zeina Miri died the day following the nomination of Saad Hariri as Lebanon's new prime minister. That evening, Mr Hariri's Sunni supporters clashed with their Shia neighbours.

As fighting raged in the street, the 30-year-old walked out on to her balcony. Her son saw her fall, wounded by a random bullet.

Because of the shooting outside, the family could not get Zeina to hospital in time.

But away from the small West Beirut flat, where Zeina's five children now live with their father, their tragedy is lost in the greater sense of relief that in Beirut, this time, the trouble did not spread.

Across Beirut, cafes and restaurants are full, the country's famous trendy beach clubs are packed and the Ministry of Tourism says this summer the Lebanon is expecting more visitors than ever.

It is hard to believe that only a few weeks ago, many Lebanese were stocking up on food and talking about potential unrest. But the parliamentary election in June passed peacefully, and it brought neither violence nor change.

We are clearly in a position of strength and we are entering a new period of reconciliation
Bassem Shab, MP

The incumbent bloc led by Saad Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia and the US, won the vote by a narrow margin. The opposition, led by Hezbollah and backed by Syria and Iran, came second.

The question now is whether the two sides can work out an arrangement that would cement this relative calm and turn it into a lasting peace.

Backfired

"We are clearly in a position of strength and we are entering a new period of reconciliation," says Bassem Shab, a newly re-elected government MP. "Hezbollah will have no choice but to follow suit."

Mr Shab is convinced that Hezbollah is weaker, not only because of its defeat but also because of the aftermath of another election - in Iran.

People who thought we would fight and take to the streets were wrong. This is democracy, we signed up to this game, and we will play it
Nawar al-Sahili, Hezbollah MP

"What happened in Iran has had an impact here," he says. "As a pro-Iranian party, Hezbollah really publicized the Iranian elections as an example of democracy and it has backfired.

"This, along with the fact that there is a new president in the US with a very strong moral authority, puts pro-Iranian factions here in a moral dilemma and in a much weaker position."

But a couple floors down from Bassem Shab's office, his political opponent from Hezbollah laughs at these assumptions.

Nawar al-Sahili says it is still impossible to predict what will happen next in Iran, that it is too early to judge President Barack Obama, and that neither factor has had an effect on Hezbollah.

As for Hezbollah's commitment to democracy, Mr Sahili says it should be judged by its performance in Lebanon's election and not by what happened in Iran.

"We lost. Our defeat was not fatal. It did not change anything and we accepted it. People who thought we would fight and take to the streets were wrong. This is democracy, we signed up to this game, and we will play it," he says.

'Resistance' to Israel

The Beirut-based analyst Timur Goksel says he believes that in many ways Hezbollah was relieved to lose the election.

His theory, which many in Beirut share, is that the parliamentary defeat means that Hezbollah does not have to worry about the mundane business of running the country.

Instead, says Mr Goksel, it can concentrate on its main goal - resistance to Israel.

Hezbollah's military might is superior to that of the Lebanese army. US allies in the Lebanese parliament want to pass legislation to force it to disarm.

To stop that happening, Hezbollah wants a veto, an ability to block major government decisions - which it had in the previous government.

Saad Hariri (left) meets Hassan Nazrallah
Saad Hariri (left) and Hassan Nazrallah may have reached an agreement

In the past, refusal to accommodate Hezbollah politically has resulted in a long stalemate, confrontation and violence.

Following this latest election, Saad Hariri met the Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and - although Mr Hariri has been reluctant to promise Hezbollah the political power it is asking for - many believe some sort of arrangement has been made.

"The Lebanese reality requires that you listen to the opposition, which can be a formidable force here," says Timur Goksel.

"So both parties have to find a way to save face. They will work out some sort of a mechanism, which may not be called a veto, but which will give Hezbollah the guarantees it wants."

But the success of Lebanese reconciliation depends largely on what happens outside the country.

In the last few months, the old regional foes Saudi Arabia and Syria have moved closer together. Their rapprochement, many believe, is the reason why the politicians in Lebanon managed to avoid major confrontation.

But with differences so vast, external influences so strong and with so many armed men still out in the streets, calm in Lebanon remains fragile.



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