Monday, October 08, 2007

The impasse in Lebanon

The premise here is that with a united international front, it will be possible for the sitting government to elect a new president, one who will work to undermine the strength of Hezbollah and maintain preferential ties to the West.

It is certainly crucial for the Lebanese to succeed in electing a president to replace Emile Lahoud. While the Lebanese constitution specifies that a parliamentary quorum is a simply majority, the consistent practice ('urfi) in Lebanon has been to require a quorum of two thirds of members. Thus, it is impossible to comprise a quorum without opposition participation. This means that there must a serious dialogue between government and opposition. In practical terms this is all the more important because the opposition arguably accounts for more than fifty percent of the population (the vast majority of Shi'a, a minority of Druze and Sunna, at least half of all Arab Christians, and a big chunk of Armenians).
The problem is that the selection of a president who cannot bridge the political divide raises the risk of fracturing the country.

To date, the U.S. government has been unable to swallow the unpalatable answer of a solution to the impasse in Lebanon that addresses the demands of the opposition, which include both the foreign policy orientation of Lebanon and domestic governance issues. It is certainly true that the opposition embraces a relationship with Syria rather than advocating ostracising Syria, but that does not mean the opposition is a puppet of Syria. My hunch (and I have not been in Lebanon since April, so any observation about opinion must be qualified) is that most Lebanese believe that Syria is behind the assassinations and attempted assassinations that that been carried out since 2004. Even so, anxiety about malevolent Syrians games is matched by anxiety about the U.S. and Israeli agenda in Lebanon.

It needs also to be emphasized that for the citizens of predominantly Shi'i southern Lebanon, there is a real-life security problem, one that is addressed by Hezbollah not created by Hezbollah. Other Lebanese disagree, obviously, but significantly the structural opposition alliance, which includes many Christians, has endured in part because the narrative being promoted by Saad Hariri (and his allies, including Maronite militia-chieftain Samir Ja'ja) is not their narrative.

A finally observation on Jackson Diehl's column: the notion that positive change in Lebanon may then reverberate in the broader Middle East requires careful consideration of what constitutes positive change. An effort to elect a president in Lebanon who represents less than half the population certainly does not qualify as positive change in my view.

Jackson Diehl - Forsaking the Egyptian Free Press -

"If the same coalition were to unite in demanding that Damascus stop interfering in the Lebanese presidential election, [Saad] Hariri reasons, the Lebanese could strike a deal that would allow the choice of a president committed to the country's independence, to strengthening its government and its armed forces, and to creating a state that would eventually crowd out militias such as Hezbollah. "If we succeed as a moderate democracy, it will have an enormous impact on the region, and on Syria," Hariri says. "If we fail, terrorism and extremism will flourish." In other words, the Middle East can paralyze Lebanon -- or, just maybe, Lebanon can start to change the Middle East."

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