Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The gentle art of making enemies

As a third round of national unity talks kicks off, there is still no show of compromise from any of the participants, Serene Assir reports

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Lebanese Hizbullah Secretary- General Hassan Nasrallah (seated right) listens to Saad Hariri next to Lebanese Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, Hizbullah MP Mohamed Raad (back right) and Amal Movement MP Ali Hassan Khalil, inside the Lebanese Parliament

Apparently trying to end a deadlock and going into a new round of national unity talks, Lebanese leaders showed no sign of intending to give up on any of their faction-specific demands, with each claiming that their own policy is the best suited to the Lebanese nation as a whole. While there was much hope in the air as talks were launched more than three weeks ago, the fact that there is still no agreement on any but the more peripheral issues cannot be but strongly indicative of the National Dialogue spiralling into a condition more comparable to a power game than to a genuine effort at diplomacy.

The sheer significance and controversy of the issues at hand, however, must be taken into account, to avoid the risk of exercising innocence in observation that most Lebanese politicians lost long ago in practice. After all, no gathering with ex-convicts, war criminals, savvy businessmen, militia heads and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt dragging in the weight of the United States behind him, would be complete without its own share of power-mongering. Perhaps the most crucial, historically portentous question raised by the whole charade is -- who, indeed, is most fit to rule Lebanon? Which political formula fits the Lebanese landscape best? And, most importantly, how will the Lebanese people find positive expression for their rich multi-ethnic assets, as opposed to remain stagnated by factional demands, whose benefits they seldom reap?

The first, most straight-forward issue that dialogue participants have managed to resolve was that of the disarmament of the Palestinians, in line with stipulations made in United Nations Resolution 1559. Needless to say, no representative of the approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees was present at the talks -- given that it was, after all, a Lebanese conference and one whose partial goal was to unify and consolidate state sovereignty across the country. Fatah said Sunday that it would lead efforts to round up all weapons within the camp, and store them "in secure places", according to group chief in Lebanon Sultan Abul-Einein. And although his authority does not extend to include the pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command -- which has been more prone to violence over recent months -- the call is indeed indicative of a weariness of weapons that has affected not only the refugees but also the Lebanese themselves.

Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah provided the key to initial agreement on this issue a fortnight ago, when he announced his party would be instrumental in brokering Palestinian disarmament beyond the borders of the camps. However, there has been no let up of pressure on his group to disarm, and it is this that will form one of the key issues to be debated by factional leaders through the third round. Nasrallah has so far held on to his argument that, should Hizbullah disarm, the South would become exposed to new dangers from heavily-armed neighbour Israel, and the Shebaa Farms would remain occupied. After all, the Israeli army remains deployed across the Lebanese border, as Hizbullah's chief was quick to point out during a speech Monday. Meanwhile, the anti-Syrian camp, led by Saad Al-Hariri -- son of slain former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri -- and Jumblatt, feel Hizbullah's armaments provide the group with an unwarranted political and physical prowess independent from the state machine and say that there is no need, given the liberation of the South in May 2000, to remain armed. Jumblatt went as far through recent weeks as to say the Shebaa Farms are not, in fact, historically Lebanese but rather Syrian, and the Shia group's efforts to regain it only give cause for extended Syrian power in Lebanon.

The anti-Syrian factions, whose leaders have made all too much use of US and UN support in recent weeks while consolidating their dream rhetoric for a sovereign Lebanon, have provided public debate with few promises of sovereignty of their own from Western control. True, on the surface, US support could provide Lebanon with some security, given that it is the world's only superpower. However, US policy and promises of solidarity in the region and elsewhere have been too historically treacherous to be taken seriously, let alone in a country whose political structure is as fragile and changeable as Lebanon's -- never mind the continually prioritised "special relationship" with Israel.

Meanwhile, days before the resumption of talks, President Emile Lahoud, who has been under mounting pressure to resign, repeated his intent to stay put. "If I quit now, it might be thought that I was a traitor, or that I had violated the constitution," he was quoted as saying. Instead he proposed that new parliamentary elections be held, on the grounds that, from his perspective, should his presidency be considered unconstitutional, then so too should the current Saad Al-Hariri-led parliament.

The stakes were rendered particularly high as UN Special Envoy to the Middle East Terje Roed Larsen launched a tour around the region, starting in Egypt and covering Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to broker support for the National Dialogue as well as to discuss other crucial issues such as Iraq and Iran. Set to arrive in Lebanon Thursday, Larsen has regularly emphasised support for calls to disarm Hizbullah and to implement remaining demands stipulated by Resolution 1559. Describing the dialogue as "highly positive" in a Cairo press conference following a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak, he urged Lebanese leaders not to succumb to external pressures. For "external", read Syria.

For the international game of power, which has repeatedly found expression in Lebanese political territory and mostly to the long-term detriment of the Lebanese, has again taken root in the capital, Beirut. Other issues, such as the drastic rich- poor divide, unrelenting corruption, unemployment and the general marginalisation of independent voices, remain in the shadows of dragging questions about high politics, which sadly find fuel even in the grassroots of Lebanese society. But Lebanon, as does much of the Middle East, suffers from an urgency which renders such questions trivial until the more basic issues are resolved. Perhaps it is time that the countries' leaders learn to look into another, more distant future, in which their personal power as factional chiefs can be translated into a form of law defined by anything other than sect. A formula based precisely on such a basis is perhaps the only prospect that can bring the country to the state of sovereignty, independence and prosperity that leaders so regularly, so falsely and so exclusively claim to hold the key to. Let's not forget the idea to split Lebanon's ruling system down according to sect never came from Beirut to start with, but from a very imperially interested French capital. And they -- not unlike other imperial powers of old and today alike -- knew that factionalism fares best in prompting weakness.

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