Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 April 2005
Issue No. 739
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Divided we fall

At the crossroads of a profound and complex political crisis, a new cabinet is finally formed under the auspices of Najib Miqati. But, is longer-term national unity really possible? Serene Assir investigates

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Lebanon's newly appointed prime minister Najib Miqati shakes hands with his predecessor Omar Karami in his home town of Tripoli. The interim government promises to hold "free and honest" elections by June

Maybe it was something in the air. Three young Venezuelan tourists sat watching the sunset at a café of the Beiruti coast, just three days before Lebanon celebrated a day of "national unity" in commemoration of the start of the Lebanese civil war. Basking in the deceptive beauty of the East Mediterranean, they discussed how much they disdained Peruvians, and agreed that "the worst are the Puerto Ricans."

Following former prime minister Omar Karami's final resignation, Najib Miqati was appointed last week to fill his post. After a six-week impasse, Miqati succeeded in forming a long-awaited cabinet on Tuesday. Now, it seems, there are no obstacles to the staging of full legislative elections, which all major players in the Lebanese political arena claim as the key to a consensus between the pro-Syrian and opposition forces.

A look at Miqati's path to power is telling in itself. One Lebanese émigré told Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity that "until the news broke of his ascension to power, I had never heard of him." But, at the outset, former minister of public works Miqati seems to combine two elements which, at this point in Lebanese history, could work together like magic. He is both a personal friend of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and a long-time supporter of the Syrian regime. Despite these associations, Miqati came to power as the opposition's candidate of choice, following negotiations with France and the United States.

Emphasising the staging of elections as one of his cabinet's main goals, Miqati has also said that members of the new 14-member government will not be running for official posts. "It is a cabinet of non- candidates," Al-Jazeera quoted him as saying. Instead, the implication is that the government will act only insofar as overseeing the much-awaited elections and ensuring stability in the country, which has experienced a significant surge in inter-sectarian tension over the country's future.

Much to the delight of the opposition, Miqati is also pushing for the resignation of Lebanon's top security officials, who have been blamed by anti- Syrian force for collaborating with what they hold to be the Syrian-executed assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri in February. He is also emphasising the need to work towards greater national unity at this key moment in Lebanon's political history.

Shortly after Miqati had been appointed to run the interim Lebanese government, some members of the opposition, including Botrous Harb, MP, turned against him and were vocal in their rejection of his parliamentary elections, according to a report published in Al-Hayat daily, over his alliance with the Syrian regime. It remains too early to determine his political future, but the imminent dangers in the very balance that Miqati is seeking to play out must be reckoned with.

A look beyond the immediate parameters of state politics is necessary in attempting to understand the Lebanese dilemma over just how to unite. While the phrase "national unity" has been hijacked by just about all players in the Lebanese political game over recent years -- and even more so during this period of commemoration, mourning and anticipation -- few actually agree on a long-term strategy to actually attain it.

Joseph Smaha, editor-in-chief at the Lebanese political daily As-Safir, told the Weekly that, as far as he could see, "there is nothing today that inspires real hope for Lebanon's attainment of true national unity. At the outset, everyone talks about it, but in the privacy of their own homes, very few Lebanese people actually believe in inter-sectarian equality and cooperation.

"What you always find is different sectors allying over a particular cause, then splitting over another. The scenario simply repeats itself every time a new debate emerges," he went on.

Perhaps one of the clearest indicators of this took shape at the gatherings at Martyrs' Square following the assassination of Al-Hariri. Youth members of a vast array of opposition parties had set up tents to stage a permanent sit-in, with the aim of protesting against the assassination, pushing publicly and collectively for the Syrian pullout and to exercise a form of Lebanese national unity without actual precedent.

"Look around you," Alaa, a young member of the Progressive Socialist Party in his early 20s told the Weekly in Beirut. "No one would ever have thought we would be sharing our space with Michel Aoun's supporters. But as it turns out, their tent is right next to ours, and we share everything, including food and conversation."

"We are all here for the same cause. We are here to liberate Lebanon, to declare our independence," Emile, a long-time supporter of Aoun, concurred. Asked whether they felt that once the common aim of expelling the Syrians had been achieved this unity would continue to blossom, he replied: "Let's get that out of the way first, then see what happens. That is our priority."

Therein, perhaps, lies Lebanon's most crucial problem. As each issue is dealt with one at a time, no grassroots changes appear to have taken place since the Taif Accords were signed. "Schools are still segregated and thus politicised," Samaha told the Weekly, "and there is still a severe lack in the development of all-encompassing, effective government institutions."

"But you see, we have become so accustomed to being divided amongst ourselves that it doesn't take one step to actually become united," Alaa added. "It takes a decision, followed by a very, very long process. It's like when you decide, as an individual, to improve yourself. It takes work."

For now, the balance of power seems to have been somewhat redressed with the formation of Miqati's government. At the very least, a void has been filled. But the question remains as to just when the Lebanese will decide to work for the whole, to permanently stamp out corruption, and to revise the political and social foundations which prevent the development of transparent, strong relations between Lebanese people of different sects.

"It's odd, isn't it, how when you go abroad, no Lebanese asks another what his family name is upon first meeting in order to figure out what sect he belongs to. Priority goes to his nationality," Alaa told the Weekly. "Here, it's different. It seems we need to figure someone out before we strike up a conversation. Definitely, this is where we need to start work, and I think that it is in the hands of the youth to challenge their parents' generation and take the plunge."

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