With the Doha deal bringing peace to Lebanon, for now, the country's politicians have set their sights on the next battle -- the elections, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
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Freed prisoner Nessim Nisr (centre) walks with Sheikh Nabil Qawuq (right), Hizbullah's military chief in South Lebanon
Lebanon's drawn-out political crisis appeared this week to have re-emerged on a smaller scale, as the goodwill engendered by the Doha agreement gave way to haggling over seats in a national unity cabinet. Despite the delay, signs of a growing regional thaw kept many analysts hopeful a deal was possible by the weekend, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to touch down in Beirut.
The unity cabinet was agreed under the Doha deal, which ended a year-and-a-half-long stalemate that saw the presidential election delayed 19 times and descended last month into violence. But ministers from the pro-Western 14 March faction and Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah and its allies will be cheek-by-jowl, and the cabinet will last only until parliamentary elections expected next May.
That raises the prospect that despite the heated competition for ministries, the cabinet will be rather a lame duck, mainly appointed to oversee the passing of a new electoral law, also agreed in Doha, and other preparations for the new elections.
Those preparations may have little to do with democracy, and much to do with exchanging services for votes, analysts say. Sami Baroudi, political analyst at the Lebanese American University, said squabbling was intense over the service-related ministries such as health, labour and public works. "Each political grouping wants as many ministers as possible in the cabinet in the hope that will help in the run-up to the election, with the provision of services to followers."
Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, agreed. "From now on, the headline will be electoral politics," he said. He expected a government by either Saturday or early next week.
Popular Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun told reporters he wanted five ministries this week, in line with his promises of boosting Christian representation. Hizbullah has said it only wants one ministry and is happy for its allies to take the other 10 awarded under Doha. Those 11 seats grant the opposition their long-standing demand for a veto-wielding third of seats, particularly important to Hizbullah given an international drive to disarm it.
Critics accused Aoun of blocking the formation of the cabinet with unrealistic demands. There were also reports that Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Phalangist leader and former president Amin Gemayel would hold ministries themselves. "To some extent, this is now a squabble between Christians on both sides who want to be able to tell the Christian street they've redressed the balance," Baroudi said.
Many Christians felt underrepresented in the last cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora, mainly because Aoun had no ministers and some Christian ministers were seen as Sunni appointees.
Al-Siniora's re-appointment last week caused friction with the Hizbullah-led opposition, which associated him with the 18-month political crisis that began shortly following the July 2006 war and was punctuated by calls for the premier's resignation. President Michel Suleiman, who was elected after the Doha deal as a consensus candidate who could bring both sides together, has urged Al-Siniora to speed up the cabinet formation, citing security fears. Suleiman gets to appoint three ministers and is widely expected to take the Interior Ministry.
Two security incidents raised those fears this week. The army shot a man leaving Ain Al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp last weekend wearing a suicide belt, Lebanese newspapers reported, while an explosion at the Al-Abdeh northern crossing with Syria killed one soldier. As-Safir also reported that Sunni militants could be preparing to attack the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in the south.
France is a main contributor to the force and Sarkozy is expected to meet officers on Saturday. His visit to Lebanon will be the first of a Western head of state and Baroudi said it was symbolic of a change in the French attitude after they vocally supported Al-Siniora's government against the opposition and at first opposed a unity cabinet.
"I think the French want to make a major comeback in Lebanon and want to shake this image that they support one side over another," he said. "They are distancing themselves from the Americans and making a gesture to Syria."
That could herald a broader thaw, with many analysts suggesting the George W Bush administration has given up on achieving a Lebanese "success story" for its Middle Eastern policy before US elections in November. "I think it's very important for the international community to stop portraying Lebanon as a stage for the defeat of Syria and Iran", which both back Hizbullah, Baroudi said.
Safa said there were several regional diplomatic initiatives to try to heal the Syrian-Saudi rift that opened after the July 2006 war, in which the Saudis referred to Hizbullah's "adventures" and Assad called Arab leaders who did not back Hizbullah's resistance "half-men". "But I don't think these initiatives will clear away the essential misunderstandings," he said. Syria was trying to capitalise on the goodwill and praise towards it following the Doha deal, he said.
As-Safir reported this week that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad may use a stop in Lebanon at the end of his Arab tour later this month to announce a decision to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon for the first time. Syria has always said the two neighbours were too close to need them, but Suleiman, who is on friendly terms with Syria, called for formal diplomatic links during his inaugural speech.
Hizbullah received one prisoner from Israel this week, in what appeared to herald an imminent wider swap. Nassim Nisr was jailed for six years in 2002 for spying for Hizbullah from Israel, to which he had emigrated by virtue of his Lebanese Jewish mother. Nisr had finished his sentence earlier this year, but Israel had not yet released him, perhaps hoping to use him as a bargaining chip.
Unannounced, Hizbullah returned the body parts of five Israeli soldiers killed during the July 2006 war on the same day. About nine Lebanese prisoners remain in Israeli jails, the most high-profile of whom is Samir Qantar, the longest-serving Arab prisoner in Israel.
Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah told his followers last week Qantar and the other prisoners "will be among you soon" and Qantar's family have said they expect him home within the month. Hizbullah would give back two soldiers it captured in the cross-border raid of 12 July 2006, whether alive or dead, in return, but analysts say a full exchange would represent a major victory for the Shia group. Israel bombarded Lebanon for 33 days after that raid to secure their release, but Nasrallah stated repeatedly that the Jewish state would ultimately have to resort to a negotiated swap.