Lebanon's Descent into Chaos(Extract)

The current political conflict in Lebanon boils down to one factor - the amount of influence former occupier Syria will have in the Cedar State

18lebs (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 18, December 24, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. University student Roger Moukarzel headed out, coiffed and keyed-up for his Friday night pub and partying routine in Beirut's chic Hamra district in late November. But instead of knocking back a few beers with a raucous crowd as usual, Moukarzel headed home, depressed, shortly after going out. His favorite watering hole, like many other night spots around the city, was empty. "I've never seen anything like it," he said. "This town is usually so carefree. I didn't think the situation would keep so many people in." The situation that left the locals shuttered in arose after news broke that President Emile Lahoud was leaving office, when his term of office ended at midnight, November 23, without a successor. With uncertainty and fear in the air about what the power vacuum would bring, some 20 percent of the city took the next day off from work and highways were clear compared to the usually frenzied end-of-week traffic jams. Schools closed, and though many shops, cafÖ¸s and clubs remained open, business slowed dramatically. A week later people are back out, but the atmosphere remains tense. Parliament was slated to meet on November 30 to choose a president, but the session was postponed for the sixth time when a compromise candidate was proffered. People here are worried about the possibility of an outbreak of violence. The last time there was a lack of consensus on the Lebanese leadership, there were two governments, which further aggravated internecine fighting. The prevalent fear is that if the majority selects a president the opposition is unhappy with, either two governments could emerge, or violent protests could break out, or both. Ostensibly, the political vacuum was the result of the inability of various factions to agree on a new president to replace Lahoud, but its roots lie in political intrigues and religious denominations jockeying for power. Above all though, the conflict boils down to one factor - the amount of influence former occupier Syria will have in the Cedar State. Lebanon's confessional system divides power between the three major factions in the country - Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and their Shi'ite coreligionists. The president must be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shi'ite. When the Syrians - who had been occupying the country since called in to douse a burgeoning civil war in 1976 - persuaded a majority in parliament to amend the constitution so that Lahoud, who backed their presence in Lebanon, could stay on for an extra three years, some of the parties balked. Among them was then-prime minister Rafik Hariri. He protested the move by resigning his post in October 2004. Five months later he was dead, a victim of a lethal car bomb. All indications point to Syria as the culprit, including the reports of a UN tribunal set up to investigate his assassination. The incident led to the "Cedar Revolution" - embodied in the anti-Syrian March 14 rally - in which an estimated 1.5 million Lebanese called for Syria to leave Lebanon. The last Syrian soldier left on April 27, 2005. Since then, two rival camps have emerged. The March 14 movement is pro-West and anti-Syrian and is made up mostly of Sunnis and Druse. The March 8 movement is pro-Syrian, composed of Christians and Shi'ites, including Hizballah, the fundamentalist movement beholden to Iran. There has also been a longstanding issue of Shi'ite representation in the government. Shi'ites are expected to be 50 percent of the population within 10 years. Unwilling to even sit together in parliament, they have created a political jam. At the same time, a campaign of violence has riveted the country with bombs set under the cars of several outspoken anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. Seven politicians and journalists have been assassinated since Hariri and others have been injured. Politicians have taken advantage of the current void to strengthen their positions. Prime Minister Fuad Siniora took over the president's executive powers. Though many Lebanese are indifferent to his expanded authority, some Christians feel marginalized, believing the gambit to be a first step in a Muslim move to seize complete control of the country. "A Muslim should not have control of the presidency," says Tony, a middle-aged Maronite jewelry vendor. Other Christians are more blunt about their fears. "This is another way for the Muslims to siphon power from us and we will become second-class citizens," said Michel, a Greek Orthodox restaurateur. Muslims, however, are as optimistic as Christians are pessimistic about the transfer of power. "Now that [Christian] Lahoud has stepped down, it's like a huge weight off our chests," says Tanya Azzam, eating a kebab with friends. "Now that we see a peaceful transition we feel perhaps we should just let the constitutional process play out." It has been more than 30 years since Lebanon has managed its political affairs without its Syrian neighbor meddling in every decision. Now without Damascus' heavy yoke, the country is trying to independently elect a president. One political analyst, who does not wish to be named in an Israeli publication, argues that the transition period may yield positive results. "This is the first division we have experienced where we feel it's not sectarian," he notes. "The split is not on religious terms. Although the Shi'ites and the Christians are the main parties battling it out in the present crisis, it is split along political interests. We need time," he says. For the opposition to Siniora - composed chiefly of Christians and Shi'ites - the prime minister's seizure of power is unconstitutional. They claim that when five Shi'ite ministers resigned from the cabinet in November 2006, Siniora and his government lost their legitimacy. When the Shi'ite Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri from the secular Amal party decided to prevent parliament from convening - thus preventing a vote for president - the opposition only further clamored that the government and its Western allies - the US and France - are engaging in political scheming. "The government should have been dissolved in favor of new elections," claims Ali, a 35-year-old electrician and supporter of Amal. "Siniora and his friends shouldn't be in office, so they don't have the right to elect a new president to their standards." Extract from an article in Issue 18, December 24, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. 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