The Middle East with a Washington view

LEBANON is ‘pregnant with incredible danger’. It would appear that Lebanon’s political parties suffer from collective amnesia electing to forget the consequences of a devastating civil war rather than electing a new president. And amid a lingering political crisis accentuated by the country’s leaders’ inability to agree on replacing the vacant presidency, Lebanon’s rival political and religious parties have started to re-arm.

By Claude Salhani (View from Washington)

Published: Fri 14 Mar 2008, 9:18 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:25 PM

Since Emile Lahoud’s departure in late November and after 16 attempts at staging an election Lebanon remains without a president. It would be an understatement to say the situation is precarious. This is “a moment that is pregnant with incredible danger,” said Augustus Richard Norton, a faculty member of both international relations and anthropology at Boston University during a discussion held this week at Georgetown University addressing the current political impasse in Lebanon.

Norton’s is an old Middle East hand with over three decades of experience in the region’s politics. His fears of seeing the conflict spread were shared by two other scholars with similar knowledge of the area. “Things are falling apart. The Lebanese system has lost — that is if it really had it — a rudder or steering wheel,” said Michael C. Hudson, Saif Ghobash professor of Arab studies and international relations at Georgetown, as well as the author of numerous books on the Middle East.

Hudson sees “new axes of conflict” emerging in what he calls “the post Taif period,” referring to the city in Saudi Arabia where the terms putting an end to the 1975-1990 civil war were negotiated amid attempts to redistribute Lebanon’s political cards to fall more in line with the country’s changing demographics. In grossly oversimplified terms, the 15-year conflict had pitted principally the country’s Muslims, backed by the Palestinians, who at that time were still based in Lebanon, against the Christian militias. “Now, the main axes appear to be Sunni vs Shias, rather than Muslims vs Christians,” said Hudson.

The political cleavage amplified since the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, as Hudson pointed out, gives the impression that there “now appears to be two Lebanons; a Lebanon of the March 14 group and a Lebanon of the March 8 group.” As a reminder for those not familiar with the inner workings of Lebanese politics, the March 14 Movement comprises the current government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who along with Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated former prime minister, is the political heir to Hariri’s legacy; the Christian Lebanese Forces headed by Samir Geagea — who is currently in Washington at the invitation of the Bush administration, and is expected to meet with the president this week; and Walid Jumblatt, who commands the loyalty of the majority of the country’s Druze community.

On the other side of the political barricades is primarily the Shia Hezbollah organisation, backed by Iran and Syria; the less influential Druze rivals of the Jumblatt clan, and the followers of former Lebanese Army Commander General Michel Aoun. “Both are very different and we wonder which one is the real Lebanon,” pondered Hudson. But one of the virtues of the Lebanese has always been their ability to look at the bright side of very negative situations. The divide in the Lebanese political landscape, explained Bassam Haddad, “clearly is not purely sectarian and definitely not purely religious.”

For Haddad, the director of the Middle East studies programme at George Mason University and a visiting professor at Georgetown University, for the most part the conflict is not sectarian, “and so far this is one positive development in Lebanon.” If the prior civil war had divided the country along religious groups — again this is over simplification –the current crisis is seen more as the flexing of political — and military — muscle between the United States and France on one side with Syria and Iran on the other. As Haddad elucidated, “it is difficult to talk about Lebanon without involving Syria.”

No doubt, Geagea’s visit to Washington — and particularly his meeting with President Bush — was orchestrated, at least in part, intent to send a message to Damascus. As the crisis gathers momentum both sides have taken to accusing each other of placing the interests of foreign powers ahead of Lebanon’s own national interest. The March 14 movement has been branded as being too pro-American, while the March 8 group on the other hand, is accused of fighting Damascus and Teheran’s battles.

As Ghassan Tueni, a prominent Lebanese journalist and publisher of the country’s major newspaper noted of a previous conflict, “Lebanon is always the proxy battleground for forces from the outside.” So what comes next in the Lebanon political impasse? Most likely more of the same; more paralysis, more waiting for miracle solutions and more blaming “the other side.” A situation guaranteed to continue unabated at least until Lebanon’s political and religious leaders learn to think as a nation rather than as sects, clans or allowing themselves to be moved around as pieces on the Middle East’s chess board.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington DC

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