Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 December 2006
Issue No. 823
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Sectarian issues

By Salama A Salama

Over the past few days, things flared up in three countries all at once: Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. The power struggle among the ruling elites and the weakness of the current regimes were to blame in each case. And there is steady evidence that outsiders are stepping in to fill the political vacuum in the region.

Iraq and Palestine are no longer breaking news, but Lebanon is. As sectarian tensions worsened in Lebanon, the government of Fouad Al-Siniora found itself locked in a confrontation with the opposition, especially Hizbullah. Now many across the region fear the outcome of that confrontation.

Some people had pinned hopes on President George Bush's meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in Amman. Others saw a glimmer of hope in the encouraging remarks Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said about Palestine. And generally speaking, the public was hoping for a breakthrough in both Iraq and Lebanon. Why not? The Baker-Hamilton Commission is said to be about to advise President Bush to move forward with the peace process and start talking to Syria and Iran. But Bush is not listening yet. The US administration has given Al-Maliki's government until next June to sort out the security situation. President Bush has just met Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, a man widely seen as Tehran's ally, and perhaps something will come out of that. But for the time being, the region is still teetering on the abyss of sectarian tensions.

In Lebanon, Hizbullah and General Michel Aoun sent their supporters to the street to challenge Al-Siniora's government. Now both sides -- the parliamentary majority government and the minority opposition -- are accusing each other of being a pawn for foreign powers. Some say that Syria and Iran are backing Hizbullah to foment sectarian strife in Lebanon. Others say that the Sunni and Christian majority, who support Al-Siniora's government, are taking orders from France and the US. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have both cautioned of the dire consequences the current showdown may lead to.

The conflict in Lebanon is just as straightforward as perilous. It is not about finding compromises, for speaker Nabih Berri has already tried that and failed. The conflict is one of a power struggle, most of which from across borders. The conflict is between those who want to trim Iran's influence and still Syria's hand, and those who don't want to see that happening. This is at least how the US, French, Egyptian and Saudi officials see it.

Although many in the region are pushing for renewed dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, Secretary Rice didn't go past the usual encouraging noises. Egyptian and non- Egyptian mediators have been trying to arrange a prisoners' exchange in preparation for a meeting between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas. But so far, their efforts have not been fruitful.

Fatah and Hamas have been talking about a government of national unity, a government that is led by a non-Hamas figure and that doesn't include any of the Hamas officials Israel objects to. Hamas has shown flexibility, but insisted on keeping the interior and finance ministries. Cairo wasn't very happy with that, and Ismail Haniyeh's visit to Egypt was less than a success as a result. Egyptian officials were hoping to broker a prisoners' exchange and the lifting of the siege. But Hamas wasn't in a mood for further concessions. Hamas thinks it did all it can. Israel is not interested in talking to the Palestinians. The ceasefire in Gaza may collapse at any minute. And sectarian strife seems to be winning across the board.

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