Cementing the status quo
Lebanese ministers have agreed on a ministerial statement after much horse-trading. As expected, it solidifies Hizbullah's domestic power, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
Lebanon's cabinet adopted a much-debated policy statement this week, leaving only a parliamentary vote in the way of the new national unity government starting work. As many analysts had expected, the wording of the statement was in line with Hizbullah's demands, enshrining its right to resist Israel.
That reflects the Shia resistance and political group's greater internal clout after the dramatic developments of the past few months. With President Michel Suleiman expected to visit Damascus this week to discuss establishing formal diplomatic ties for the first time in the two countries' histories, a new era appears on the way.
Syria's international isolation, which intensified after many in Lebanon and abroad blamed it for the killing of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005, is receding. Lebanon's anti-Syrian movement has quietened, with its mainstream acceding to its larger neighbour's growing influence as that of the United States wanes, for now, analysts say.
Excerpts of the statement, which was adopted by a ministerial committee that had haggled over since the government was appointed 11 July, were not yet available at the time of writing. But it is known to contain a clause enshrining the "right of the Lebanese people, army and resistance to liberate the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, Kfarshouba Highlands, and the Lebanese section of Ghajar as well as to defend Lebanon by all legal means".
Four Christian ministers from the "14 March" anti-Syrian movement registered reservations to the clause, asking that it include the phrase "under the wing of the state" in response to repeated criticisms that Hizbullah operates as a "state within a state" and holds the "decision of war and peace" that should be exclusively in the state's hands. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea also expressed reservations, but made it clear he would not block the statement. Few analysts from either side of the political divide that simmers beneath Lebanon's newfound accord expected changes to the statement once it had been agreed upon.
"This was mainly about saving face and may help these figures in the upcoming elections, but it was largely symbolic," said Sami Baroudi, political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "I think the current ministerial statement reflects the balance of power on the ground that was made clear after May," he added.
Hizbullah and its allies briefly seized parts of western Beirut and the Chouf mountain stronghold of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in May, after the government issued two decisions that the group saw as the start of a clampdown. The former opposition now holds a third of cabinet seats, enabling it to veto any such future attempts.
Baroudi believes such attempts are now unlikely, expecting more 14 March leaders to move to ever more neutral stances, as Jumblatt has in the past two weeks. "No side is going to be willing to press hard on the issue of Hizbullah's arms," he said.
Parliament's vote of confidence on Friday 8 August is expected to be little more than a rubber stamp, even if more reservations are expressed. After that, the national unity government -- for a year and a half the key demand of the Hizbullah- led opposition -- can finally start work in the divided country where politics often plays second fiddle to sectarian and feudal interests.
Analysts warn that campaigning for elections scheduled for next May will dominate the government's short-term agenda, leaving key issues that divide the Lebanese unaddressed as various leaders jockey for position and try to provide services to their local constituents to boost their standing. Discussion of Hizbullah's weapons is nonetheless expected to be on the agenda of national dialogue talks that Suleiman is expected to convene once the statement is formally adopted.
Because the balance of power is in favour of Hizbullah, and because all eyes are on the upcoming election, the various religious and political leaders are unlikely to agree on anything substantive at the dialogue table. A statement stressing the need for a defence strategy while leaving the status of Hizbullah's weapons as it is at present is seen as the most likely outcome.
Baroudi said the polarisation between the pro- US, anti-Syrian camp and their opponents, led by Syrian and Iranian-backed Hizbullah over the past three years, had taken its toll at the street level, and sectarian strife could never be ruled out. "There has been no reconciliation at the grassroots level, but then previous agreements have had no more popular support," he said. "People have developed the skill of walking through a minefield."
Clashes that have killed at least 22 people in the past couple of months renewed last week between the Alawi minority and the Sunni majority in the northern city of Tripoli. They have divided the two communities and shown that what is agreed in Beirut does not always filter down to everyday life.