High on the heels of a withdrawal of some 3,000 Syrian soldiers, the Lebanese opposition, no longer restricted to Christian Maronites, is playing hardball, reports Mohalhel Fakih from Beirut
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Syrian army soldiers evacuate their military post in Damour south of Beirut, Lebanon
An emboldened opposition may join Lebanon's government, set to be formed after United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan publishes a report on compliance with a UN Security Council resolution demanding a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of Hizbullah.
The Qornet Shehwan Gathering, an umbrella group of Christian legislators and political figures, vowed not to enter a new government if it aims at "containing" the opposition, said MP Fares Saed, a member of the coalition. He argued that the authorities are now seeking to include the opposition in a national unity government to "conceal their blunder in extending President Emile Lahoud's mandate", citing heavy UN, US, and European pressure on Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. The Gathering was expected to meet Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al- Hariri early this week, but delayed the talks until all its members reach an agreement at a Thursday conclave.
"Opposition groups toned down their anti- Syrian rhetoric and are reaffirming strategic ties with Syria, but at the same time they want it to stop interfering in Lebanese affairs. They believe the Security Council is now taking care of that. However, the opposition continues to reject Lahoud's extended mandate and does not want to give it cover if that is the goal of forming a national unity government," Ahmed Ayash, a prominent political analyst in Beirut, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Winds of change hit Lebanon when the Security Council adopted a US-French draft resolution last month calling for a Syrian military pullout from Lebanon and warning against intervention in the presidential election, which was promptly annulled in what is widely believed to be a Syrian-inspired amendment to the Lebanese constitution, despite widespread domestic and foreign opposition.
But under unprecedented outside pressure and a widening opposition front, that for the first time in post-Civil War Lebanon includes both Muslims and Christians, efforts are underway to form a national unity cabinet, presumably under the current prime minister, who lost a long-standing political battle with his rival, Lahoud, when the president's term was extended for three more years.
Al-Hariri, responsible for Lebanon's reconstruction and development drive, reportedly met Syrian President Bashar Al- Assad last week, and agreed to form a new government, after four ministers quit in protest over Lahoud's extended term. Three of them are allies of Progressive Socialist Party chief and Druze leader MP Walid Jumblatt, who is a pillar of the opposition.
"Our battle is to preserve a democratic Lebanon," Jumblatt told thousands of supporters who converged on his Chouf Mountain home in Al-Mukhtara village in a sign of solidarity with the political heavyweight who accused the intelligence services of running an intimidation and detention campaign against his followers.
He is demanding President Lahoud's resignation and has categorically rejected any portfolios in the next government. Jumblatt's traditionally strong ties with Syria quickly deteriorated, but premier Al-Hariri and Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah are trying to mediate between them. Nevertheless, the Druze leader's ties with Lahoud remain strained. He brushed aside calls for a "national conciliation government" on grounds it would "dissolve the opposition".
Instead, Jumblatt said the next government should commit to implementing the post-war constitution, rectify ties with Syria, and bolster respect for the country's constitution "without the various security interventions". Jumblatt claims a military rule is looming and the Lebanese have to join ranks to resist turning Lebanon into "another Arab regime". In an apparent rejection of warnings by Lahoud's allies that his opposition risks drawing the Lebanese into another civil war, Jumblatt told his supporters on Sunday, "The war has ended forever."
His ally MP Marwan Hamadeh, who recently stepped down as economy minister, blamed the UN's adoption of Security Council Resolution 1550 on the extension of Lahoud's term, and said the crisis will continue as long as the current head of state remains in power. "The school that extended its own mandate does not want Rafiq Al-Hariri as prime minister, and does not want a national conciliation government," Hamadeh said.
Jumblatt's opposition has found support from Christians and Muslims alike. He has been closely coordinating with the Christian Qornet Shehwan opposition, supported by Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. Jumblatt's defiance was initially received with hostile rhetoric from pro-Lahoud politicians, but they then urged dialogue.
Prime Minister Al-Hariri met Patriarch Sfeir over the weekend in a bid to convince Qornet Shehwan members to enter a new government. In a move that could mollify the Patriarch, press reports in Beirut said imprisoned Christian Lebanese Forces militia leader Samir Geagea, whose group is banned and has spent some ten years three floors down in a Defence Ministry prison, will be moved to a ground level cell and receive treatment that is usually granted only to imprisoned army officers. His followers represent stalwart opposition to Syria's troops presence.
But top officials have made it clear that followers of exiled former Lebanese Army Commander-General Michel Aoun, will not be included in any new government. Towards the end of Lebanon's war, Aoun launched a "war of liberation" against Syrian troops in Beirut that resulted in his Paris exile.
MP Mohamed Yaghi of Hizbullah, a target of Security Council Resolution 1559, welcomed the formation of a national conciliation government. He said the group's participation in the next government is "being examined", and backed the inclusion of opposition figures under the restraint of a "political ceiling" in the context of a "healthy and correct national line". However, MP Mohamed Raad, also of Hizbullah, preferred that the opposition remain outside the government, which he said should be a government that would face down US-Israeli designs "against Lebanon and Syria".
Domestic political turmoil coincided with intense efforts in New York to convince the United Nations that Beirut and Damascus are not flouting international law. Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares, leading a Lebanese delegation to UN General Assembly meetings, pointed to the fifth redeployment of Syrian troops, which was completed on Monday as evidence of coordination between both countries in line with bilateral agreements. Syria withdrew troops from areas south of Beirut and just above the capital. But Fares told Secretary-General Annan, who is drafting a report on compliance with Resolution 1559, that Syrian soldiers are still necessary for "regional stability and security". Diplomatic sources in New York were quoted as saying that Annan demanded a timetable for a Syrian pullout.
In New York, Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa denied his country was involved in the extension of Lahoud's mandate, and apparently hammered an agreement with his US counterpart Colin Powell on border patrols along the volatile Syrian-Iraqi border.
"The Lebanese people and the Lebanese parliament are the ones to choose. The Lebanese parliament elected [President Lahoud] with 96 votes. Do you believe that a country can control another country like that?" Al- Sharaa asked Al-Hayat LBC. He contended that Syria does not "want to control Lebanon", and said Resolution 1559 served Israel.
Al-Sharaa had met Powell on the sidelines of UN meetings. The US official said there is dialogue over Iraq and told reporters that Syria's attitude on Iraq and Lebanon is "helpful". Syria will still have to court Paris, once a strong ally, before October when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declares a verdict on Syrian-Lebanese compliance with UN demands. Needless to say, the Lebanese opposition will be watching closely.