Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2006
Issue No. 778
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Falling fig leaf

Politicians' claims of goodwill and faith in a united Lebanon are increasingly ringing hollow, writes Hicham Safieddine

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Lebanese supporters of the Shia Party Hizbullah chant anti-US slogans during a protest in Beirut ahead of US Middle East envoy David Welch's visit

Simmering tension between the different Lebanese factions turned into a scathing war of words and spilled out on the streets of Beirut this week. The worrying developments were in coincidence with the visit of the United States special envoy to Lebanon David Welsh.

On Saturday, several people were injured when Lebanese security forces clashed with anti- American demonstrators protesting American policy in Lebanon and the visit of Welsh. Protestors gathered near the house of government and were dispersed with tear gas shortly before Welsh's meeting with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

In a press conference, Welsh took the opportunity of his short trip to berate Syria for what the US claims is continued influence in its neighbouring country. "Syria must change its policies," Welsh said. The American envoy added no deal is in the works between Washington and Damascus that in his words would jeopardise the sovereignty of Lebanon.

The statements of Welsh came on the heels of spiraling verbal attacks between Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Hizbullah. Jumblatt launched a harsh campaign against the Shia group calling into question its patriotic stand and implying that its possession of weapons may be employed against the interests of Lebanon. For its part, Hizbullah accused Jumblatt of backstabbing. "If deceit in this time and age was personified in someone, it would be Walid Jumblatt," a statement issued by Hizbullah said.

The fraying of relations between the Druze leadership and the Shia bloc coincided with a warming up between the former and Christian leader Michael Aoun, who commands the largest Christian opposition bloc in parliament. The constant shuffling of positions by Jumblatt and the shifting dynamics between all Lebanese factions have continued to weaken any semblance of cohesion among these groups over what they insist are internal differences that don't touch on major issues of national security.

Further doubt over preventing the current status quo from spinning out of control was cast by the arrest of 13 Al-Qaeda suspects of different Arab nationalities inside Lebanon. The Lebanese authorities have remained tightlipped about the circumstances surrounding the alleged operations of these individuals, which include Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Saudi members. Earlier this month, rocket attacks launched from Lebanon into Israel proper were credited to Al-Qaeda. The incident sparked a debate over the ability of Hizbullah to control the southern region and the arrest of the suspected Al-Qaeda ring is certain to intensify the debate over Hizbullah's status in the south.

The current escalation had dashed the hopes of resolving the government crisis in Lebanon during the Eid Al-Adha holiday.

The end of the Muslim holiday was billed by some pundits as a possible beginning to an end of a government crisis that has plunged the country into severe political stagnation and insecurity.

For the two heads of the executive and legislative branches of government, Siniora and Parliamentary House Speaker Nabih Berri, were performing the pilgrimage to Mecca. They held bilateral talks involving majority house leader Saad Al-Hariri in Saudi Arabia to find an exit strategy from the current deadlock. But all signs coming from Lebanon and abroad suggest that it is going to take a much more complicated political pilgrimage by all sides to reconcile the differences among the stakeholders in the current conflict.

The standoff came to a head when the coalition government decided to call for the establishment of a tribunal with an international character to prosecute suspects identified by the UN investigative commission into the 14 February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri. Cabinet members representing Shia groups Amal and Hizbullah suspended their membership in the government to protest the decision, and stipulated that they would not return unless guarantees were given that decision of a national interest character would be taken by consensus, not majority voting. The majority bloc representing the Hariri bloc has yet to refuse or accept that stipulation. But local and international developments in the past week have all reduced hopes of achieving a long lasting deal. The defection of former Syrian President Abdel Halim Khaddam and his implicit accusation of the Syrian regime of masterminding the assassination of Hariri served to escalate the tension between the two countries and prevent pro and anti-Syrian camps from reconciling their differences and building trust. Paris has distanced itself from Khaddam's remarks and the former Syrian vice president is now under pressure to leave France and seek refuge in another country, possibly somewhere in the Gulf. Shortly after speaking out against Damascus, Khaddam had met with the UN investigation commission and gave information in relation to the probe. The UN investigative team, which has resumed its low key interrogation sessions in Vienna, has formally requested to interview Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa. So far Damascus has shown little willingness to fulfil this request. Khaddam's efforts to undermine the Baath regime through influencing the investigation into the death of Al-Hariri is expected to further tie the fate of the Syrian regime with the future of political stability in Lebanon. Back in Lebanon, Jumblatt's attack against Damascus and its allies in the region including Tehran and Hizbullah seem to fall under the same strategy.

"We are for the resistance but only for liberating the Shebaa farms after delineating the border...and if the Syrian government does not agree to delineating the border and confirming its Lebanese ownership, then [the farms] remain not Lebanese," he charged.

He also said that Hizbullah does not want to restrict the resistance to a specific role but to turn it into "an open conflict so Lebanon may stay hostage to the Syrian regime forever."

Adding fuel to the fire, rumours of military camps being set up by different factions and weapons smuggled into the country began to circulate and brought back eerie memories of the civil war. The situation is still far from turning into a violent confrontation by any stretch of the imagination. But the regional realities and the prolonged stalemate inside Lebanon continue to worry many Lebanese. The eid is over now and a new round of political maneuvering is unfolding. And unless some genuine progress is achieved soon, the political pilgrimage to full recovery may be as fleeting as ever.

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