Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 September 2004
Issue No. 707
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The limits of loyalty

Amending Lebanon's constitution by Syrian dictate has thrown the country into political turmoil, writes Mohalhel Fakih

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A Lebanese soldier standing guard in front of a portrait of Lebanese President Lahoud hanging outside the Parliament building in downtown Beirut

Lebanon's government is in crisis after four ministers tendered their resignation in protest over a vote in parliament that amended the constitution to extend President Emile Lahoud's mandate for another three years. The legislative move changed Lebanon's political landscape and intensified domestic and international pressure on Syria, putting both Beirut and Damascus on a collision course with the United Nations Security Council, the United States and Europe. But Syria's allies, especially President Lahoud, made clear they will only deepen ties with Damascus and warned that the Lebanese face the choice of either supporting Syria at this "dangerous" period or backing US plans in the Middle East.

"I tendered my resignation," Environment Minister Fares Boueiz told reporters after a Monday meeting with Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He had voted on Friday against a bill in parliament to amend the constitution and extend the former Lebanese Army commander's mandate, a poll that the US charged was a result of a campaign of "threats" and intimidation by Syria and "its agents", drawing immediate denials from Syria's Information Minister Ahmed Al-Hassan. He told a news conference in Damascus that "the most important thing of all is that brotherly Syrian and Lebanese relations take the path of more cooperation, coordination and congruity."

Hariri, a long time rival of Lahoud, had sent clear signals that he would not stay in office if the president remained. But after a meeting with senior Syrian officials, Hariri himself proposed an amendment of the constitution to annul elections, citing Middle East tensions. Now, the fate of Hariri's government looks uncertain.

"We are quitting the government," Economy and Trade Minister Marwan Hamadeh told a gathering. Hamadeh and two of his colleagues, representing Druze leader MP Walid Jumblatt, had voiced vocal dissatisfaction with the parliamentary vote. Jumblatt, an ally of Syria, had rejected the decision to extend Lahoud's term, claiming the country was moving closer to military rule.

Hariri, an ally of Jumblatt, who conceived and implemented plans to reconstruct Lebanon following the 1975-1990 Civil War, confirmed on Monday that consultations will soon be held "on the fate of Boueiz's resignation and other resignations that could occur, as well as the general situation of the government after returning from a series of visits that will end on the 17th of this month." Hariri is scheduled to visit Cairo, Madrid and Brussels, but has reportedly cancelled a trip to New York.

His bloc in parliament voted in favour of amending the constitution, despite earlier condemnations. One of the deputies, Ghattas Khoury, cast a ballot against electing Lahoud. His colleague MP Nabil de Freij supported the amendment but said Khoury did not want to give in to threats that he had been allegedly receiving. De Freij described the parliamentary session as a "sad masquerade" but justified his vote as a sign that he would not "give up on [Hariri]".

Fresh from a resounding victory, Lahoud promised to launch new development programmes across the country and give an added push to the agriculture sector, clearly sending a signal as to who is in charge. Beirut is rife with reports that Lahoud is planning to form a mixed government of technocrats and politicians. The post-war constitution, which distributed power on confessional basis, gave the prime minister executive authority, but Hariri has on several occasions complained that Lahoud was blocking his policies including internationally backed privatisation plans.

The president should expect tough opposition not only from a fragmented Christian community that opposes Syria's military presence in Lebanon, but also from some Muslim politicians and Druze leader Jumblatt, whose 16 allies in parliament, along with the Christian opposition Qornet Shehwan gathering, voted against amending the constitution. Nevertheless, Lahoud told hundreds of visitors at the Baabda Palace, congratulating him on staying in office, that: "this sort of arrangement [ties with Syria] will continue with the aim of achieving just and complete and lasting peace, which spreads the stability which Lebanon and Syria enjoy over other countries in the region."

The head of state received unequivocal support from Hizbullah. Casting ballots for Lahoud in the 96-20 vote, with three not attending the parliamentary session, were a large array of deputies and legislators belonging to Hizbullah. The Shia group warned the Lebanese that the next 30 days set out by a UN Security Council's resolution, which was passed hours before parliament voted to keep the president, were fraught with "danger". Hizbullah Secretary- General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, a top ally of Syria, said Syrian troops, who entered Lebanon at the onset of the Civil War, should remain, crediting Damascus for stability and unity in the country.

Nasrallah was a target of the US-French backed resolution calling for the withdrawal of "foreign troops", in reference to Syria, disarming "militias" and sending Lebanese Army soldiers to the south. He rejected the Security Council decision, as did Lebanon and Syria, and accused the UN body of "lying" about wanting to protect Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, citing Israel's almost daily breaches of Lebanese airspace and its previous military invasions. Nasrallah told a rally in Beirut's southern suburbs that army garrisons were sent to the south following Israel's May 2000 pullout, but the aim of the resolution was to protect US and Israeli interests, and to permanently settle Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Hizbullah remains the only armed group following the end of the Lebanon war on grounds that it continues to fight Israel's occupation of the Shebaa Farms region, a region the UN ruled was Syrian, but Beirut and Damascus insist is Lebanese. Hizbullah has been branded a terrorist group by Washington, which blames Syria for the influence it holds. The organisation is hailed throughout the Arab world as a resistance force to Israeli aggression.

This regional angle of Hizbullah and a Syrian struggle with the US and France, and eventually the United Nations, turned the extension of the former Army General's mandate into a regional power tussle, with Syria declaring victory. Syrian officials have said the fact that Washington and Paris had to water down the Security Council resolution that they drafted, not mentioning Syria by name, and a nine-vote minimum possible approval at the world body, showed that the US "failed". But the resolution warning against intervention in Lebanon's presidential election also gave UN chief Kofi Annan 30 days to ensure implementation and warns of "additional measures".

Hizbullah's leader urged the Lebanese to rally behind Lahoud. Meanwhile, Syria's strong ally and Maronite political heavyweight, Health Minister Sleiman Franjieh, said Lebanon was now "either with Syria or against Syria". Franjieh had initially opposed extending Lahoud's mandate but told a news conference he agreed with the official justification that regional tensions and Israeli "threats" were behind amending the constitution, a decision that the US dubbed "crude mockery" by Syria.

Hizbullah Deputy Mohamed Raad, who leads the nine-member bloc of Hizbullah in parliament, said they voted to amend the constitution "to support Lahoud and to reject the policies of the American administration in the region".

There were many who disagreed with Raad and Franjieh, including the Maronite Church, to which the health minister and the president belong. And the head of the Progressive Socialist Party, MP Jumblatt, backed the Church's condemnation of the amendment although he was cautious not to publicly attack Syria.

"Syria gives orders, appoints leaders, organises parliamentary and other elections, brings in whoever it wants and drops whoever it wants and interferes in all aspects of life: in the administration, the judiciary, the economy and particularly politics, through its representatives here and its aides," Maronite bishops, led by Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, said. They added that Damascus "compromises Lebanese interests in international forums and protects the corrupt and the corrupters, while some of its nationals and some Lebanese share the spoils and trade in power."

The amendment provoked several campaigns to oppose an extension of Lahoud's mandate and Syria's role in Lebanon, including from a multi-confessional gathering of some 200 leading intellectuals and opposition groups participating in what they called the "Petition to Defend the Republic and the Constitution". They lashed out at Damascus for "imposing" its will on Lebanon and "endangering" both countries.

At the same time, representatives of some 25 political factions and parties, including Hizbullah, the Baath Party, Armenian Tashnak Party, and House Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal Movement, converged on the United Nations headquarters and protested against an alleged French-US effort "to separate the Syrian- Lebanese attachment" which they said "is impossible". They warned that international pressure only "endangers civil peace".

The current divisions were described as menacing by the highest authority of Shia Muslims in Lebanon Sheikh Abdul-Amir Qabalan and were blamed by top Sunni religious leaders, headed by the Mufti of the Republic Sheikh Mohamed Rashid Qabbani, on the US, while attributing stability in Lebanon to Damascus. Both clerics had reportedly earlier rejected an amendment of the constitution though their statements were withdrawn. They have now said in one statement that they support the amendment, "to stand up against Israeli threats and the American diktat".

US moves had put those opposing Syria in a corner. They insist that they do not support foreign intervention in Lebanon but that Lahoud should have gone. Sunni Muslim MP Mosbah Ahdab declared allegiance to strong strategic ties with Syria but said he opposed an extension of the president's mandate, which would in his words "extend the crisis for another three years". Furthermore, he raised charges of threats made against him to modify his position.

Ahdab appeared to be referring to a power struggle between Lahoud and Hariri that virtually paralysed the state due to their economic policy differences. Hariri refused to form a government when Lahoud first came to office in 1998, and stayed in the opposition ranks until he and his allies scored an unprecedented parliamentary victory in 2000.

"There is no winner and no loser," Lahoud declared. He said the differences of opinion that emerged following the constitution's amendment were at the core of Lebanon's democracy. He called for opening a new page. Yet although Lebanon is accustomed to rancorous politics, and despite calling US and French condemnations of amending the constitution "interference in internal affairs", Lahoud and the Lebanese have to face up to the fact that Washington appears to have its eyes focussed on the country.

"We are gravely concerned that the will of the people has been circumvented by Syrian actions that led to this vote," Tom Casey, State Department spokesman told reporters.

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