Narrowing the chasm
Lebanon's leaders have gathered for dialogue -- again. But with war having deepened divisions, few see much hope for success. Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
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Clockwise from top left: Lebanese leaders meet in Parliament House; Saad Al-Hariri, left, head of Lebanon's parliamentary majority, shakes hands with Mohamed Raad, representative of Hizbullah; Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, shakes hands with leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia Samir Geagea; Christian opposition leader General Michel Aoun, left, and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Saniora; Druze political leader Walid Jumblat enters Parliament House; Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah
This summer's war between Israel and Hizbullah tore Lebanon asunder along age-old fault lines. Tensions between Hizbullah, its allies and the anti-Syrian-dominated government, simmering over the past year, have threatened to boil over. At their heart lie fundamentals such as Lebanon's role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, sectarian political rule and the issue of Hizbullah's arms and how to defend the nation. Some differ even over whether their arch-enemy lies to their east or south.
Hizbullah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah warned at a "Divine Victory" rally in September of a concerted campaign to change the government of Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora. After his promised Ramadan truce came to an end, he fired the warning shots last week, stirring fears of some Christians, Sunnis and Druze that Lebanon was descending towards civil war.
"We can instigate civil disobedience, topple the government, and bring about early elections," he said in a taped interview with Hizbullah's Al-Manar channel on 31 October. "But we are not threatening to do this, so don't scare us with talk of civil strife or civil war."
Nasrallah warned his group could "take to the streets" unless the cabinet was reshuffled by mid- November. Hizbullah and its allies -- the most influential of which is Christian leader Michel Aoun -- should command a third of cabinet seats, he said, which would give it a veto over government decisions. Hizbullah and its Shia ally Amal currently have five seats in the 24-member cabinet. Aoun scored highly in Christian heartlands in last year's elections, but power has eluded him.
In a statement that did not play well with the part of Lebanese opinion that accuses the anti- Syrian leadership of pulling their country away from Damascus's orbit and into a US one, Washington warned of a plot by Iran, Syria and Hizbullah to topple the government.
"We're making it clear to everybody in the region that we think there ought to be hands off the Siniora government; let them go about and do their business," White House spokesman Tony Snow said in a statement.
"And if you have the example of a stable democracy that's able to fend off terror -- in the case of Lebanon, from Hizbullah -- then you have an opportunity to create an entirely different set of circumstances in the Middle East."
"National consultations" that started this week in Beirut are then a baby-step at best. All leaders attended except Nasrallah, who for security reasons sent the head of his parliamentary bloc, Mohamed Raad. Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, who presided over a drawn-out and ultimately inconclusive "national dialogue" earlier this year, convened the talks. Those earlier meetings were hailed as the first time the main sectarian and political leaders of Lebanon had gathered round the table to discuss the issues dividing the country of 17 religious sects since the ruinous 1975-90 Civil War.
But talks lapsed before they got to Hizbullah's controversial arms. Shortly afterwards, on 12 July, Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers and Israel unleashed its military machine on Lebanon's South, southern suburbs of the capital and countrywide infrastructure, killing 1,200 people, nearly all of them civilians. Nasrallah said in last week's interview that "serious negotiations" were underway to exchange the soldiers with Lebanese prisoners in Israel, mediated by a UN delegate. Israel declined to comment.
Hizbullah and its allies say an expanded government would reflect a shifted balance of power in the country. It accuses the anti-Syrian ruling bloc of hoping Israel would sort out its Hizbullah problem -- the government distanced itself from the seizure of the soldiers and failed to persuade its allies in Washington to push for a ceasefire -- and backing US-Israeli calls for its disarmament.
The anti-Syrian parliamentary majority is led by Saad Al-Hariri, son of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri whose assassination last year many Lebanese blamed on Syria. He has accused pro-Syrian Hizbullah of seeking to hamper efforts to form an international court to try Al-Hariri's killers. Lebanon's council of ministers would have to pass a law to establish the tribunal. The leadership says it would consider allowing Aoun representatives to the cabinet, but not enough to grant the opposition a blocking third.
Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, said the talks were unlikely to bridge the gaps. "Short of a miracle, we're not expecting much. Most of the issues in hand to discuss are greater than the participants; they're regional issues to be dealt with by regional powers such as the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran. But the fact that they are talking at least keeps the streets calm."
He doubted Hizbullah would carry out its threat to take to stage demonstrations. "That option is costly and that option might not achieve much. I don't think it fits in with Hizbullah's pragmatism." Safa predicted instead a drawn-out political tug of war.
Fawwaz Traboulsi, a historian who helped lead resistance to Israel's 1982 invasion, wrote an opinion piece in the left-wing daily As-Safir last week agreeing with the call for early elections but differing with Nasrallah's methods.
"When the secretary-general of Hizbullah threatens to use the street if the dialogue stops or if the other side does not approve the national unity government, and this threat comes from a side that has the weapons and fighters that Hizbullah has, it does not comfort most Lebanese concerning the peacefulness of that approach because they have been through civil fighting many times."
"The fear of civil war could itself become a factor in sparking such strife."
Both sides in Lebanon say they command majority popular support. A key demand of the opposition is reforming the electoral law -- long seen as unfair -- then having early elections. A poll by the Beirut Centre for Research and Information released on Monday found that the opposition (Hizbullah, Christian leader Michel Aoun and allied smaller parties) would win early elections, whichever proposed electoral law they were conducted under.
Under the qada law of small electoral districts to reflect the sectarian mosaic, the opposition would win 69 of the 128 parliamentary seats, the anti-Syrians 59. Under the two proposed modes of proportional representation, the opposition would win 79 to 53 to the anti-Syrians, or 71 to 57. There were 1,300 respondents, split across regions and sects, in the poll conducted in late October.
"What I find important is that Hizbullah, the Aounists and the Future movement to some extent have support across all the sects," said Abdu Saad, the centre's director. "We hope to see these changes lead to a transformation from sectarian to national parties because this is the most important ingredient in a civil society. And without civil society, we cannot have democracy."