Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2005
Issue No. 732
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

What next, Lebanon?

By toppling Omar Karami's government, the defiant Lebanese opposition has scored one major victory but is it capable of providing a consensual vision for change in the country? In Beirut Omayma Abdel-Latif seeks some answers

The life-size picture of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri posted on the walls of Mohamed Al-Amin Mosque has almost disappeared under a sea of scrawled comments written by the thousands of visitors who have been flocking to Al-Hariri's burial ground in Sahet Al-Shuhadaa (Martyrs' square). While harsh anti-Syrian comments, some of them bordering on racism, took up a relatively big space, it was, nonetheless, anti-government slogans that were the most dominant feature. "Please stupid government save us," scrawled one, "Lebanon is for us, Lahoud and Karami [the Lebanese president and premiere] get out," added a second. The comments reflect a growing sense of anger and frustration amongst the Lebanese with a government which, they believe, has miserably failed to handle a volatile situation or save the country from disarray. This popular sentiment was manifest in the form of mass anti-government rallies which have transformed Al-Hariri's burial ground into a springboard from which Lebanese opposition launched what they dubbed Intifadat Al-Istiqlal (the independence Intifada).

Click to view caption
Outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami bids supporters farewell (right) even as protesters wave Lebanese flags at the Martyr's Monument in the Lebanese capital Beirut

On Monday, people power bore fruition when Karami's four-month-old government was forced out of office. A stormy parliamentary session intended to be a vote on no-confidence motion, left the Lebanese premiere with hardly any option but to cave in to the growing popular discontent that has been gathering momentum following Al-Hariri's assassination some two weeks ago.

"Because I don't want the Cabinet to be an obstacle before what some view as the country's best interests, I announce the resignation of the Cabinet," Karami said. To the Lebanese opposition, which was by now confident of the strong momentum it had worked hard to build in the Lebanese street, this was a moment of victory. But as the euphoria which swept the Lebanese street fades, the most pressing question remains: Where to go from here?

While it is true that the Lebanese opposition, by capitalising on the emotional outpour unleashed by Al-Hariri's death, managed to make successful breakthroughs in the Lebanese street, there remain, however, serious doubts about its ability to build a national consensus on their demands and agenda.

Lebanese analysts believe that larger sections of the population are increasingly alienated by the opposition's discourse -- and sometimes its use of sectarian symbols -- which sets the bar too high for any possibility of dialogue with those whom the opposition consider pro-Syria allies.

There is also growing popular scepticism over the way Al-Hariri's death has been hijacked by members of the opposition to serve purely political purposes. This was reflected in remarks made by Lebanese commentators who described the opposition as "slogan traders" who "hijacked Al-Hariri's death to justify demands for an international intervention in Lebanese affairs". "Some want to use his death as a catalyst to create sectarian strife to complete the schemes of the Israeli occupation in Palestine and the American occupation of Iraq," wrote prominent commentator Talal Salman in the independent newspaper As-Safir.

"Those forces which have been claiming to defend Al-Hariri's legacy, have always worked against his national project for Lebanon as part of the Arab world," Salman added. Echoing the same sentiments, Tammam Salam, a former MP and leading figure among Lebanon's Sunnis says the opposition's political rhetoric invoking Al-Hariri's death was a betrayal to his legacy. "There is a crisis," he acknowledged, "which is reflected in the absence of a strong Lebanese state and an opposition who is raising the bar too high," Salam told the Weekly at his house in Beirut. Playing with emotions, he continued, was a very dangerous game in Lebanon, a game which Al-Hariri himself never subscribed to.

The opposition bloc, credited for bringing down Karami's government is mainly comprised of former civil war rivals unusually bringing together Christian opposition represented by members of Qornet Shehwan Gathering, an alliance of Christian groups, and the Druz led by the head of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt. Moved by the tragic death of their leader, the members of Al- Hariri's Beirut bloc, mostly Sunni Muslims, decided to join ranks with the opposition in a break with Al-Hariri's own tradition of keeping what is commonly referred to as the Bristol Gathering at arm's length. Some analysts believe that what brings those forces together is less significant than what previously separated them and that it was purely a marriage of convenience.

But this analysis brings to the fore important questions, in particular, whether or not the opposition has a clear vision for change in the country, what goals it is working towards, and if it is able to fill the leadership vacuum left by Al-Hariri's death. One important question has to do with the extent to which the Lebanese opposition can sustain its unity in the face of possible internal divisions and outside pressures.

An incident which took place last week underlined the fragility of the alliance, where members of Al-Hariri bloc protested against the use of phalange flags and the portrait of Al-Hariri next to that of former president Basheer Jmayel, whom Lebanese Muslims consider a traitor for agreeing to sign a deal with Israel shortly before he was assassinated in May 1982. Jumblatt was quick to save the situation by calling on all demonstrators to raise the Lebanese flag, endeavouring to prevent any attempts to break the opposition unity.

But according to observers, the differences within opposition ranks extend far beyond the symbolic issue of flags, as it were, to the more important issues of the relationship with Syria, and their position on disarming Hizbullah and the Palestinian camps. Al-Taif agreement, signed under an Arab sponsorship or Resolution 1559 which Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom once described as "inspired by Israel" and whose two most important demands is a full withdrawal of Syrian troops and the disarming of Hizbullah, apparently sets the ceiling for opposition demands.

Soon after Karami's resignation and in an attempt to assure the Lebanese people that the opposition was ready to take responsibility, Jumblatt surprisingly made reconciliatory remarks towards Syria. "We don't want to be enemies with Syria or the Syrian people. We want friendship with Syria," he said urging the protesters to cease from chanting anti-Syria slogans. "We should not forget the sacrifices made by the Syrian soldiers in fighting the Israeli occupation and keeping Lebanon united," he added.

On Hizbullah, Jumblatt was adamant that the party was "a key partner in the political process and in the country. We should open a new page, he added, for dialogue and cooperation with Hizbullah." Such a remark implicitly suggests that the opposition was willing to include Hizbullah in any consultations regarding the formation of the new government.

Opposition figures speaking to the Weekly acknowledged that there are major challenges facing the Lebanese opposition movement. But they played down any talk of a rift within opposition ranks and instead claimed there exists a wide range of common views on the issues. "There are main guidelines on which there is an overwhelming consensus within the opposition," insisted Bassem Al-Sabaa, a former information minister and a key opposition figure. Al-Sabaa pointed out that the main priority for the Lebanese opposition is to restore the democratic system in Lebanon, dismantle the joint Lebanese-Syrian intelligence services and to ensure the full withdrawal of the Syrian army according to Al-Taif agreement. A rift on those particular issues is not possible, he said.

Al-Sabaa considers the opposition to be by and large victorious in the first battle in a long war. This is the first time, he pointed out, when different Lebanese forces are taking a unified stand towards a number of issues. "This is a victory for Lebanon because for the first time the Lebanese politicians have been able to organise themselves politically and not along sectarian lines (as was the case in the past) but along purely political lines," he said.

Al-Sabaa rejected accusations made by pro- government figures that the opposition was abusing Al-Hariri's death to serve their own ends particularly as the parliamentary election nears. The endgame of the opposition, he explained, was to preserve the national project in Lebanon. "Syrian interests in Lebanon will be secured when there is a democratic system in the country rather than a military dictatorship which rules the country via the secret services," he said.

But one of the questions repeatedly posed was whether Al-Taif agreement or Resolution 1559 was the ceiling for the opposition demands. Al- Sabaa believes that Al-Taif agreement and Resolution 1559 both include several common points. There are items, he explained, mentioned in Al-Taif agreement that could be also found in Resolution 1559. "There is actually no separation between what Al-Taif calls for and what 1559 demands," he said.

But some in the opposition circles beg to differ. While Resolution 1559 speaks about a full withdrawal of "foreign" forces from Lebanon, Al-Taif agreement calls for a redeployment of the Syrian troops to the Bekaa valley. It also outlines specific military tasks and the duration the troops are expected to stay in the valley. The opposition argued that the Syrians have failed to commit to Al-Taif, and redeployment should have taken place two years after the agreement was signed in 1990 but was put on hold. Instead, efforts were made to gradually establish a dictatorial military system in the country.

But even among opposition circles, there is no clear-cut consensus on whether there should be a full withdrawal of Syrian troops or just a redeployment to the Bekaa valley. While the Bristol Gathering said it will only settle for a full withdrawal of the Syrian army and secret services, others disagree. Charles Ayoub, editor in chief of the independent newspaper Al-Dyiar and a staunch opponent of President Emil Lahoud believes that the opposition set the bar too high in demanding full withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon. "While I think there should be redeployment of the troops according to Al-Taif agreement, I still believe that units of the Syrian army should remain in Lebanon in strategic locations until the Arab-Israeli conflict is over. This should be implemented through a military agreement between the Syrian and Lebanese military establishment," he said.

Ayoub believes the full withdrawal of the Syrian troops is a decision to be made by a national government and that there should be a national consensus on the issue rather than the demand of a few.

Talk of the rapid withdrawal of the troops have raised fears within government circles of a possible security vacuum. One opposition figure told the Weekly that if Syria did not commit itself to a full withdrawal from Lebanon, the opposition would consider itself to have lost the battle to end the Syrian presence in Lebanon.

When David Satterfield, US deputy undersecretary of state, was asked during a visit to Beirut this week whether or not there should be full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon before elections, he said that a redeployment of the troops to Bekaa valley before elections would be considered a gesture of good will on the part of Syrians.

Ziyad Baroud a human rights activist and member of the opposition, acknowledged that the bulk of the problem might not even relate to the Syrian role in Lebanon. "The real problem is the rule of the country through secret services, yet there are also serious concerns within the opposition about the availability of any alternative. The opposition does have an internal crisis," Baroud explained.

This crisis is most apparent in the problematic relationship with what he described as the "Shia question." If the opposition, according to Baroud, failed to co-opt the parties representing Lebanese Shia including Hizbullah and People's Assembly speaker Nabih Berry's Amal movement, then any talk about a national consensus or a national opposition is simply rhetoric. "As long as the Shia parties remain in alliance with Syria, the opposition will remain incomplete. Only when the Shias decide to close ranks with us, will it be considered a major victory for the opposition," he said.

Until now, for the majority of Lebanese, disarming Hizbullah would be thinking the unthinkable. But some members of the Lebanese opposition -- particularly in Christian circles -- have openly called for the party to give up arms or at least cease its operations without first obtaining a national consensus. Hizbullah, which has proved itself to be the winning card in the equation, has maintained a neutral stand. This neutrality was, nonetheless, abandoned when Hizbullah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah participated in the Ain Al-Teena meeting which brought together pro-government forces last week.

The opposition, however, made it clear that it has no intention of going into confrontation with Hizbullah on the issue of disarming. According to Al-Sabaa disarming Hizbullah will not be a priority for the opposition, neither did it appear to be a priority for the Americans, in the words of Satterfield himself who has said that this was a decision left to the Lebanese people.

"The issue of disarming the resistance will be handled with kid gloves but the opposition is not going to be dragged into a fight against Hizbullah," Al-Sabaa said. "We have a strategic role in safeguarding the resistance."

Ayoub is also of the view that Hizbullah should not be pressured into disarming because as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict continues, Hizbullah will remain the only deterrent force against Israeli aggression. What was remarkable in Monday's parliamentary session was the amount of praise heaped on both Hizbullah and "the Syrian people". After weeks of anti-Syria campaigning, which resulted in several racist attacks and killings of Syrian workers in Lebanon, Lebanese opposition insisted that Syria was not the target of the blame.

What then is next for Lebanon? Members of the opposition were quick to dismiss any talk of a constitutional or political vacuum caused by the government's resignation. The top priority, they insisted, would be the formation of a caretaker government, which would take the country to the forthcoming parliamentary elections due next May. A national unity government is most likely, but such a step is faced with a crucial obstacle, which is the total collapse of communication between members of the opposition and the country's president.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera satellite TV on Tuesday, Jumblat was adamant that Lahoud should resign. Jumblat's call is likely to raise the level of political tension between the opposition and the Lebanese president and will further complicate the situation. Consultations over the new government will prove a hard test both for the opposition's unity and the Lebanese state, which has shown itself incapable and uninterested in introducing change.

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