Lebanon's version of Russian roulette

IT’S coming down to the wire with just a few days left before President Emile Lahoud’s already extended mandate runs out. The cut-off date is November 21 and Lebanon’s pro-independence members of parliament are playing a Lebanese version of Russian roulette.

By Claude Salhani

Published: Thu 15 Nov 2007, 9:00 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:29 AM

But instead of a revolver loaded with a single bullet, this game is played with car bombs and professional assassins. Gathered in a Beirut hotel under heavy guard a number of parliamentarians, members of the pro-democracy March 14 Movement turned to the US Congress for help. In a November 7 letter addressed to both the US House and Senate the Lebanese lawmakers wrote: "When we signed up for grass-roots democracy our names were added to a list of those marked for death. We don't seek your sympathy. We merely seek your support in ensuring that the Lebanese can ultimately share in the simple but precious values that you dearly cherish and we are still struggling to achieve.”

Six of the March 14 legislators have already been murdered in recent months and understandably the others fear for their lives. "It is from our enforced imprisonment in a Beirut hotel (to avoid our number dwindling even further), that we draft and send this letter to the democratic representatives of the free world," write the Lebanese parliamentarians. The Nov 21 deadline set by the constitution to elect a new president is rapidly approaching and the two opposing camps, the pro-independence, anti-Syrian, March 14 Movement who enjoys the backing of the United States and France, and on the other side General Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, with Syrian and Iranian support, are unable to agree on a single candidate. Complicating the matter further is the speaker of the House, Nabih Berri, who needs to keep the parliament open so that its members can convene and vote. This has not been the case. France, the former colonial master of Syria and Lebanon, has been trying to negotiate a settlement to the crisis. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had promised upon his election to stand by Lebanon, has dispatched two high-ranking diplomats to Damascus to ask Syria to lay off Lebanon. But at the best of times the Middle East’s politics are Machiavellian to say the least. Syria’s President Bashar Assad promised the French envoys he would stay out of Lebanese internal affairs if Lebanon's Maronite Patriarch would select a list of names to send to the parliament. And so the waiting game goes on.

"Let's say that's why we're waiting for the magic word from the patriarch," Walid Joumblatt, a member of parliament, leader of the Druze community and one of the main figures of the March 14 Movement told me during a telephone conversation. The patriarch, however, under pressure from both camps, seems hesitant to play the role of King Solomon. Some names have already been put forward only to be dismissed; they are seen as either too pro-Syrian by the March 14 Movement, or too much anti-Syrian by Hezbollah and their allies. "Nothing called an independent Lebanon seems acceptable to Syria," said a Lebanese member of parliament who spoke on condition his name not be revealed. One name being thrown about is that of the president of the Maronite League, a banker called Joseph Tarrabay.

In the meantime tension between the two camps has reached a new climax when in a speech last Sunday Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah asked of President Lahoud, who is very much in the pro-Syrian camp, to do anything he can to prevent "the killers and the thieves (of the March 14 Movement) to achieve a quorum of 50 plus one," the number that would give them the majority in the House to elect a new president.

"This time it was a direct threat," said a member of the anti-Syrian movement who requested not to be identified.

Druze leader Walid Joumblatt qualified what is going on in Lebanon today as the "last battle of the Maronites.” It could also be the last battle of a free Lebanon.

In their plea for help to the US Congress the Lebanese parliamentarians warn that the 2005 Cedar Revolution "is in danger of becoming a historical footnote."

Any democratic gains they say "are being slowly eroded by Iran and Syria, who are determined to snuff out the new democratic ideal.

"If they are successful, Lebanon, the only bastion of democracy in the Arab world, will cease to exist and the consequences for a region, where you are fighting to fight back the tide of religious and radical extremism, will be catastrophic." Preoccupied with the Middle East peace conference due to be held in Annapolis sometime this month — and there are less than about 15 days left — the Bush administration already has its hands full. The one bright light at the end of this long dark tunnel would be if Damascus was invited to the peace conference — and accepted the invitation — to discuss the outstanding issues plaguing the region today. That would include Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights and Syria’s interference in Lebanon. But this is a tall order on a rather short notice. It will take more than 15 days to put together an agenda of that magnitude.

Claude Salhani is Editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington, DC. He may be contacted at claude@metimes.com.

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