Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 April 2008
Issue No. 891
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Status quo ante?

With the Arab summit over, Lebanon appears faced with a choice between stifling political inaction and open street conflict, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut

As expected, the Arab summit in Damascus came and went with no progress made on Lebanon. Prior to the summit, an unusual calm reigned in Beirut's streets, which was put down to Syria's determination not to stir up trouble that might harm the meeting, or to a goodwill gesture from Syria's adversaries, depending on which side of the Lebanese political divide one happened to stand. So the passing of the summit, which highlighted the rift between the Western-backed Arab states and Syria, prompted many analysts to predict a return to the sporadic sectarian skirmishes and regular assassinations that have punctured the past three years of Lebanon's political crisis.

Only half of Arab leaders attended in the end following US pressure on its allies to boycott the summit and the subsequent decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and others to send only low-level delegates. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora sent no delegate, citing the nearly five-month-old presidential vacuum and objections to what the 14 March anti- Syrian ruling movement considers Syrian meddling in Lebanese internal affairs. Lebanon, then, shifted from a leading item on the summit's agenda to a side issue, with the final declaration merely stating adherence to the Arab initiative.

Ahmed Moussalli, political science professor at the American University in Beirut, said the Arab summit had intended to breathe life into a three-part Arab League initiative to resolve the presidential standoff in Lebanon between the Western-backed government and opposition led by Syrian and Iranian-backed Hizbullah. "Most likely what we're seeing now is the end of the Arab initiative," he said. "Now what we will be seeing is the stagnation of the Lebanese situation and this could deteriorate into further negative interactions between the two groups in Lebanon." Neither side appeared any closer to compromise, he argued, on the crucial issues dividing them.

Both sides have agreed on Michel Suleiman as the consensus candidate to fill the presidential seat left empty by Emile Lahoud at the end of November last year. But power sharing in a cabinet that would be formed after the new president is sworn in remains a crucial bone of contention. The opposition demands a veto-wielding third of cabinet seats, with an eye to preventing strategic decisions being taken such as attempts to disarm Hizbullah or naturalising the Palestinians, or anything else smacking to Hizbullah of US hegemonic plans, and also to giving Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun more representation. The government points out that it holds the parliamentary majority, and accuses the opposition of trying to neuter Lebanese democracy at Syria's bidding.

The third part of the Arab initiative concerns reforming a controversial electoral law, which needs to be done before parliamentary elections are due in 2009. With no progress in sight on any of these issues, many analysts now believe Lebanon may have no president until that time. With the two movements diametrically opposed and heavily influenced by US- Iranian tensions, many observers believe the Arab initiative may be too timid to bridge Lebanon's gaps.

"I expect more riots and clashes -- the whole area is going through a very troubled time, not only Lebanon, but Iraq, Palestine, and with US-Iranian and Syrian-Saudi tensions," Moussalli said. "Somewhere it's going to explode and Lebanon is a very likely place for things to erupt and push the players either to go to war or reach a settlement. As things seem now, there is likely to be no settlement."

With the summit in Damascus, attention refocussed on the general state of Lebanese-Syrian relations this week. Syria dominated Lebanon for three decades but was forced to pull out in 2005 after former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri was assassinated, a killing blamed by many in Lebanon and the West on Syria. Damascus's relations with the anti-Syrian movement that came to power have been strained since.

Al-Siniora made a speech on the eve of the Arab conference listing demands for Syria to implement in order to improve ties with Lebanon. Key among them was establishing diplomatic ties -- Syria has always argued that the two countries are too close for embassies to be required -- and demarcation of the border. The latter step would, he argued, help Lebanon to "liberate" the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, recognised as Syrian by the United Nations, but considered Lebanese by both Lebanon and Syria.

The fate of the Arab initiative, if it survives, will as always be tethered to external events, including Arab relations. With the summit shining a merciless spotlight on the Arab rift, Moussalli believes that regional alliances will now be crystallised, reducing the chances of compromise in Lebanon. US pressure on Syria is likely to push it further into Iran's fold, he added.

Attempts to heal the divide may yet be in the offing, however. Al-Akhbar reported this week that Syria had approached Egypt with an offer for dialogue to improve bilateral ties, to which Cairo reportedly responded positively, but on condition that a similar approach be made to Riyadh.

Although the rift in the region concerns ties with the US and Tehran, and is ultimately bound by tensions between those two main players, some analysts believe even a cosmetic thaw might help keep tensions in Lebanon from boiling over.

"Inter-Arab relations are at least not heading for further collision, which is very good for Lebanon," said Sami Baroudi of the Lebanese American University. "I think we'll see a return to quiet diplomacy; it appears the French are prepared to provide some support. Regional players as well as local ones know there can only be a diplomatic solution."

Baroudi does not expect a major explosion of violence in Lebanon, rather a return to the status quo ante -- political stagnation and attempts to resolve the crisis. He expected any sectarian and political clashes, such as those that broke out last month between supporters of the Sunni Future Movement and the Shia Amal and Hizbullah groups, to be controlled and low- level.

However, Hizbullah's promise of vengeance for the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, a leading military commander in the movement, still hangs in the air. Any retaliation against Israel, which Hizbullah accuses of the killing, could alter the balance in Lebanon. Similarly, a resumption of the chain of assassinations that have rocked Lebanon since Al-Hariri's killing would also create turmoil, or provide a pretext for the UN to add to its already heavy investment in Lebanon, where it keeps about 12,000 peacekeeping troops.

"Most likely we'll see the internationalisation of the problem in Lebanon, taking it to the UN, and certainly one side in Lebanon will try to stop that," said Moussalli, predicting opposition demonstrations if that happened.

The latest report of a UN investigation into Al-Hariri's assassination and others revealed this week that a "criminal gang" appeared to have perpetrated the killing of Al-Hariri. However, it did not say whether there might be a state or other party behind the gang. Washington and its allies in Lebanon accuse Syria of the assassinations, which it denies.

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