Friday, November 24, 2006

Lebanon Update

There really isn't much to update at the moment. We are at yet another in a series of historically fragile moments when political power hangs in the balance. No one has any clear idea how it will turn out, but this most recent assassination of prime minister Pierre Gemayel has the government again at the brink of collapse.

Blake Hounshell recommends reading two reporters, one from the Washington Post, the other at the New York Times. Both have good background information. Neither ventures to say much about what might happen next.

Anthony Shadid's report includes this...

In a city whose segregated diversity can sometimes feel claustrophobic, checkpoints went up Wednesday in Ain Rummaneh and other Christian areas to deter vendettas. News broadcasts blared from passing cars, one delivering remarks by a Gemayel ally, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. "We are the legitimate ones, and they are the outlaws," he said.

People huddled around televisions airing the condolences in Bikfaya. There, hundreds walked behind Gemayel's coffin, waving the white-and-green flags of his Phalangist Party.Across the street from Ain Rummaneh, in the largely Shiite neighborhood of Shiyah, where Gemayel was reviled, it was business as usual -- traffic coursing past open shops as residents ignored a three-day period of mourning.

"Homegrown bananas!" one vendor shouted.

"These are the worst days the country has gone through," said Yusuf Raad, a 23-year-old shopkeeper, who as a Shiite was a distinct minority in Ain Rummaneh. "Everything is possible in a country that is so divided."

Raad ran through the conflicts that have left Lebanon divided into two camps -- one coalescing around Hezbollah, with its allies Iran and Syria, the other around Siniora's government and his allies, backed by the United States and France. That division dates to Hariri's assassination and has left the country in a cold war of sorts for nearly two years.

Raad was glum about the future: If the problem isn't foreigners, it's the Lebanese themselves, too willing to follow their communal leaders. He pointed again and again across the street, at the site of the bus attack in 1975. It was a spark then that ignited a war already simmering. Lebanon is too fragile, too volatile, he said; it can take only so many

"Too willing to follow communal leaders" is an important part of the problem. Lebanon's hybrid version of representative democracy has "consociational" features, insuring that minorities are protected from annihilation by law. No matter how off to the edge leaders venture, they can always know that they will have willing followers. This may be the downside of protecting minorities from the political consequences of extremism.
Michael Slackman writes...
The so-called Cedar Revolution after Mr. Hariri’s murder was hailed as a chance for Lebanon’s notoriously fractured religious communities to unite. While that has revealed itself as a false promise, Mr. Gemayel’s funeral served as an opposing bookend to the optimism of March 14th. The Cedar Revolution led Syria to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon, and at the same time the United Nation Security Council ordered an investigation into Mr. Hariri’s murder. On Wednesday, the Security Council moved with uncommon speed and expanded the investigation to include Mr. Gemayel’s death.

The March 14th forces insist that Hezbollah and its allies have tried to block formation of a tribunal to hear evidence in order to serve their Syrian allies. Hezbollah and Syria have denied that, but the charge was raised again and again today.

“On March 14th, you held an uprising against the tutelage system for the sake of independence and freedom and now you are doing it again for the sake of sovereignty, freedom and justice and the international tribunal,” said Saad Hariri, son of the former prime minister and leader of the Sunni party called the Future Movement.

Outside, when the funeral-turned-political rally was ending, security forces directed the departing crowds away from one particular street because — they said — Hezbollah supporters were hurling stones at people. They pointed to a yellow Hezbollah flag waving in the distance.

All around town, the streets of the capital were lined with Lebanese Army forces, and state security. There were armored vehicles and lots of men with automatic weapons. Military forces closed all the roads leading to President Lahoud’s residence, in Baabda, east of Beirut. Riot police were in position in case any part of the crowd downtown tried to march toward the residence. The day began in Bikfaya, the Gemayel family village, 20 miles from downtown Beirut. The village itself is a symbol of the divisions that challenge Lebanese unity. At the gateway to Bikfaya stands a Soviet-Style statue of the Phalange Party founder. During the civil war, the Phalange armed the largest militia, fought to oust Palestinians from Lebanon and was reviled by Muslims.

There are as many opinions about what might happen next in Lebanon as there are commentators. In retrospect it is hard to imagine that anything that Israel did to Lebanon made any important difference one way or the other. Infrastructure damage was horrendous, of course, but from a public relations standpoint they had nothing to lose. If Lebanon can be brought this close to a return to a Pax Syriana by a few strategically effective killings, the Cedar Revolution is close to being stillborn.

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