Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 December 2007 - 2 January 2008
Issue No. 877
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cast to the wind

Lebanon drifted like a rudderless ship for much of the year, lacking unity in government, parliament and even a president, Lucy Fielder reports

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From top: a Lebanese worker sweeps the street in front of the parliament in Beirut's downtown; a Lebanese boat patrols the waters behind damaged buildings of the besieged Palestinian camp of Nahr Al-Bared in northern Lebanon; Michel Suleiman; Saad Al-Hariri, head of Lebanon's anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, shaking hands with outgoing French president Jacques Chirac and his elected successor Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris

Lebanon ended the year much as it had begun, in political limbo. In November 2006, six ministers' resignations paralysed the government and crystallised the two-year-old split between government loyalists and the opposition. A year later, president Emile Lahoud's term ended without a successor, leaving a dangerous vacuum at the top. As the year drew to a close, it looked as though Lebanon would drift rudderless until either fractious politicians resolved their power struggle, or frustrations spread to the streets.

As the year played out, it became ever clearer that Lebanon is as much a theatre for foreign struggles as for parochial sectarianism. In the tug-of-war for influence, the US backed remnants of Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora's government against Hizbullah, backed by Iran and Syria. The Shia political and military group and its allies charged that Israel's US- backed July 2006 war ostensibly to destroy it had simply continued by other, political means. Hizbullah's "weapons of resistance", and its determination to block what it sees as US hegemonic plans for the region, were at the heart of the year's political struggles, crowned with squabbling over the presidency. Fears of a full-blown conflict between Washington and Tehran, with a deadly knock-on effect on fragile Lebanon, were ever present.

An opposition protest camp that took over two main downtown squares in Beirut on 1 December 2006 was still in place, though diminished, a year later. A wave of protests at the start of 2007 pressed the opposition's demand for a veto-wielding third of the seats in cabinet. Accusations of government incompetence in rebuilding the south following Israel's bombardment added fuel to the fire. The Grand Serail and Washington slammed the campaign as a coup attempt and accused Hizbullah and its allies of trying, at the behest of Damascus, to block an international tribunal on the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

An opposition strike descended into chaos when protesters blocked roads and loyalists attempted to clear them. The first of several days of sectarian street fights brought from memory the civil war for many. Black tyres sent up a pall of smoke reminiscent of that other, recent war.

Christian areas saw some of the worst violence, with pro- government Lebanese Forces supporters facing off against opposition followers of Michel Aoun. Simmering Sunni-Shia tensions burst to the surface, with the Sunni Future Movement dominating government and Shia Hizbullah the opposition. An argument the following week at the Beirut Arab University turned nasty. Future Movement supporters, many from the surrounding area, ringed the university forbidding Shias from leaving. Busloads of Shia Amal supporters arrived. Snipers picked off members of the crowd below. Two days of clashes left seven people dead.

Beirut slept under its first curfew since the civil war. Leaders from all sides called their supporters off the streets and the army moved in. Armoured personnel carriers and temporary checkpoints have become ordinary once again in the capital.

Unclaimed bomb attacks and assassinations continued their deadly course this year, beginning on the eve of the anniversary of Al-Hariri's assassination on 14 February. A twin bus bombing north of Beirut that claimed three lives was the first since the war that seemed aimed at civilians. Several hundred thousand demonstrators poured into half of Martyrs Square to commemorate Al-Hariri, while opposition camp- dwellers watched warily through barbed wire fencing. The government blamed those twin bombings on a little-known group, Fatah Al-Islam, based in the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian camp near the northern city of Tripoli.

The shock of late January's sectarian clashes galvanised political efforts, brokered by parliament speaker and key opposition figure Nabih Berri, to heal the political crisis. The crisis escalated in March when Berri refused to convene parliament for the spring session, saying sectarian splits would spill over into the legislature. "14 March" loyalist ministers, who take their name from a huge anti-Syrian protest in 2005, filed down to parliament in protest. For the second year running, two Lebanese leaders attended the Arab summit -- pro-Syrian president Lahoud, and Prime Minister Al-Siniora, each disputing the other's legitimacy.

Months of political battles over the international court ended on 30 May when the UN Security Council voted with five abstentions to ratify the international court treaty, controversially invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter that allows for the use of force. Al-Siniora had repeatedly requested that the Security Council take such a step, arguing that the closure of parliament prevented ratification by ordinary means. The six ministers who went into opposition in November did so partly because of 14 March efforts to push through the draft treaty, which they said rode roughshod over the constitution.

Syria, which backed Hizbullah, said it would not cooperate with the tribunal, which it sees as a political tool to be used against Damascus. Some Lebanese legal analysts voiced fears about national sovereignty and more foreign meddling. But the establishment of the court met with muted reaction in the end, perhaps because the investigation continues, with no end in sight.

As that battle drew to a close, another, literal one had begun. A dawn police raid on a flat in Tripoli connected with suspected bank robbers linked to Fatah Al-Islam prompted a bloody revenge. Later that day, 20 May, militants overran an army checkpoint outside the Nahr Al-Bared camp and massacred off-duty soldiers. The resulting battle was expected to be short -- Lebanon's army may be ill equipped, but Fatah Al-Islam appeared to number just a few hundred. But the siege lasted 16 weeks and cost the lives of 168 soldiers, about 230 militants, and 47 civilians.

Analysts vied with theories over who stocked the group and turned it from a little-known offshoot of Syrian-backed Fatah Al-Intifada into a force that held its own in the warren of the camp. Governing forces discerned the hand of Damascus. Its critics accused the Future Movement of arming militants to create a Sunni counterbalance to Hizbullah's might. Three late-night bombs in and around Beirut appeared aimed at sowing alarm more than injury.

Although the army overran the camp in September, the fall- out of Nahr Al-Bared remains to be seen. One visible result is the total destruction of the homes of some 40,000 people. The camp rises like a ghastly, mangled wreck by the sea, and while about 5,000-6,000 people have returned to a life of hardship, cold and deprivation inside Nahr Al-Bared, most shelter in nearby camps. Row after row of ruined, stripped and apparently torched homes appears to confirm claims of an army rampage of looting and burning. Xenophobic insults are scrawled on many walls across the camp.

The Nahr Al-Bared conflict stoked smouldering anti- Palestinian sentiment, never in scarce supply in Lebanon. Some analysts fear the other 11 official camps may receive the same treatment; with most Lebanese feeling the camps' autonomous status is ripe for change. Others say the destruction was part of a US-backed attempt to wrest Palestinian weapons, as called for by Security Council Resolution 1559, which also demands Hizbullah disarm. One indisputable outcome is that the battle cast a spotlight on militant Sunni groups in the north of Lebanon and their potential for mobilisation.

The army rode a wave of patriotism, stoked by billboards and television advertisements that have become de rigueur for Lebanon's internal disputes. Army Commander Michel Suleiman drew 14 March's ire when he said Fatah Al-Islam was linked to Al-Qaeda, not Syria, and praised Syria for its help supplying the army, while implicitly criticising US support as more vocal than material. That knocked his presidential prospects for many months, despite, or perhaps because of, Hizbullah's clear acceptance of his candidacy.

Playing a less high profile but nonetheless pivotal role was François Al-Hajj, army director of operations. His assassination in early December may have been a result of his leadership of the Nahr Al-Bared campaign, among several theories. Car bombs also killed two MPs from 14 March, Future's Walid Eido and Christian Antoine Ghanem, this year. No suspect has been apprehended for any of the nine assassinations of high profile figures, and other attempts that have occurred in the past three years. The international probe into Al-Hariri's killing has added these crimes to its caseload.

Lebanese leaders spent the final months of 2007 haggling over the presidency and seats in the subsequent new government, over the heads of a public rendered apathetic by a year of political paralysis. The anti-Syrian 14 March at first insisted on a president from its ranks, based on its slim majority in parliament. Some members threatened a vote by simple majority, although the constitution stipulates a two-thirds quorum, which they lack. Hizbullah rallied behind Aoun's long- standing presidential ambitions, repaying his support for the resistance group while under Israeli fire last summer.

For Hizbullah, the main issue is preventing agreement on any leader committed to disarming it. For months, Washington seemed dedicated to ensuring exactly that. The opposition call for a blocking third appears aimed at ensuring no such decision is taken, as well as giving ally Aoun, the most popular Christian leader in Lebanon, greater representation.

Parliament's vote to choose the president has been delayed for the ninth time. Lahoud left on 23 November, and Baabda Palace stands empty for the first time in the republic's history. An easing of US pressure, as part of a thaw in US relations with Damascus, appears to have paved the way for agreement on swearing in Suleiman, once dismissed as "pro-Syrian", as a consensus president. With Washington unusually quiet on Lebanon, France has stepped in as kingmaker in recent weeks, only for Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to return empty handed and exasperated to Paris after each visit. How to change the constitution when the opposition disputes the government's legitimacy is another stumbling block.

At the time of writing, it was unclear whether Lebanon would see in the New Year with a president and a government and the dawn of a happier era on the way. The alternative is more debilitating paralysis, in which case 2008 may begin in much the same way as 2007 did, with tension, street-fights and fears of war.

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