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Chris Ritchie: Power Shifts Rattle Lebanon

Regional power shifts rattle Lebanon

By Chris Ritchie, Photos Jeremy Rose

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Roman ruins in the Bekaa Valley

"Welcome home,” the Beirut airport official said to me as he stamped the passport that betrays my birthplace.

It has been quarter of a century since I was last in Lebanon.

Driving into the capital on the smart new highway, my mind finds it difficult to tally with the pot-holed pathway I’d traversed out on as an 18 year-old in such a rush back on the very last day of 1980.

Back then the country was five years into what turned out to be a monstrously cruel 16 year period of civil warring.

Lebanon in 2005 is, in fact, a far tidier and orderly version of the pre-civil war nation that also lurks somewhere in my memory from my childhood.

I’ve come back to introduce my family to now middle-aged childhood friends and their children, pay respect to their now elderly parents, to catch up on the gossip and to be a sight-seeing tourist.

For Tourists, Lebanon Is Rich Pickings

Classy beach resorts do a roaring trade over the hot and sunny four-month summer season. The most delicious remix of Mediterranean and Arab food is served at the cafes and restaurants that appear to be open all hours and there are all of the retail therapy attractions of Singapore or Dubai, only in much more dramatic geographic settings.

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Beautiful mosques and monastries set in steep mountain scenes overlooking the sea, or in river valleys, and an abundance of ancient monuments, are testimony to former great civilizations that at one time or another dominated here - Phonecian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Mamluk and Ottoman. And if you are interested in international current affairs and the much exaggerated “clash of civilizations” we are told afflicts the Middle East, then dynamic Lebanon is like a thermometer for a quick diagnosis of the political temperature in the authoritarian neighbourhood.

Lebanon Has Been Reborn

At first I find it hard to look anew at Lebanon, my natural impulse is to filter everything through what I thought I knew about the place from before the war, and from my memories of the earliest phase of the war.

But it is clear Lebanon has been physically re-born.

The post-war reconstruction of building and public spaces is impressive.

The network of efficient super highways is a significant advancement on anything that existed before the war and it has physically brought the various communities that make up Lebanon closer together than they have ever been.

But some things haven’t changed.

Obeying traffic signals appears to remain a purely voluntary affair, with more than one Lebanese telling me the red, orange and green light displays must surely have been erected for night-time decorative purposes, adding a more festive atmosphere to evening drivers.

The regular electricity outages, and the antiquated landline telephone network, moreover, are testimony to either the need for State asset privatization and more private sector competition, or a rallying call for central government infrastructure investment to undo a public-sector essential services-investment-deficit dating back over half a century.

As always, traffic volumes are very heavy but these days it is the Lebanese Army alone that maintains the roadside checkpoints that are strategically located around the major towns and cities, a psychological as well as a physical manifestation of the central government’s commitment to public safety these days.

It couldn’t be a bigger or more pleasant contrast to the days when a multitude of armed militia checkpoints dotted the country administering the rough justice of the 1975-1991 period when there was no effective central government, only the rule of the jungle and a Hobbesian state of constant warfare.

The Makeup Of Lebanon

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In Lebanon, four million people are packed into a tiny piece of earth that, at its widest point, stretches 85 kilometres from the border with Syria in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.

Driving along the north-south coastline of 200-odd kilometers, it now takes about an hour and a half to pass through the tidy, Sunni-dominated city of Tripoli in the north down to the picturesque city of Tyre in the Shiia- dominated south.

In between are the predominantly Sunni cities of Sidon and the capital of Beirut, where every community is represented.

Minority religious-ethnic communities can be found in all of the major towns, but in significantly diminished numbers compared with before the war.

The Ministry of Tourism’s pre-war spin, that this is a State where “17 communities are officially recognized,” remains unchanged as part of the local rhetorical patter trotted out to passing foreign tourists, though in two weeks of searching I found just one soul game enough to attempt to name each and every official sect.

But it is true that all the significantly-sized communities are guaranteed representation in the unicameral Parliament.

In the five-member constituency of Alley, for example, one seat is guaranteed for a member of the Greek Orthodox community, while two seats apiece are reserved for the Druze and Maronite Catholics.

All other electoral districts are similarly arranged.

Since the 1990s, half of the seats have been reserved for Moslems and the other half for Christians, removing the six-to-five seat ratio bias in favour of Christians that had been one of the aggravating political factors that led to civil war although the current compromise is open to controversy as Moslems these days may make up as much as 70% of the national population.

There are seats reserved for Sunni, Shiia and Alawite Moslems, Armenian Orthodox, Evangelical, Armenian Catholic and Greek Catholic Christians.

And in Beirut 2 District, there is even a seat for “minorities”, which means, I think, that candidates contesting the seat must belong to one of the really small officially recognized sects of Lebanon such as the Roman Catholics (called “Latins”), those belonging to the Syriac Churches or affiliated to the Assyrian church.

Lebanon is unique in the Arabic-speaking world because it has never had a strong central government. It has never had an authoritarian monarch or a one- party state or official State ideology.

Not a parliamentary system that could ever tolerate anti waka-jumping legislation, the main Parliamentary bloc is in fact a very loose coalition of electoral convenience linking the most eye-popping collection of parties – from Maronite Phalangists to Sunni conservatives, and everything in between. Other parliamentary blocs are similarly loose coalitions that no one expects to stick together till the next elections due in four years’ time.

Lebanese media is bubbling with political and social commentary which is transmitted by TV, radio, the Internet and in four main print languages, including of course Arabic and Armenian.

Within a stretch of hardly a kilometre I counted, on four different lamp posts:
-Photos to a recently-murdered Communist Party leader; the banner of the Syrian Social National Party (its manifesto advocates for a non-sectarian, unitary State inclusive of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestine Authority and Jordan); the banner of the Phalangist Party (which has some common roots in early European fascist parties); as well as the banners of the Hizbullah, or Party of God, one of the more successful parties to win seats in the June general elections, but more famous outside the country for being on the United States government’s official list of terrorist organisations.

Some things about Lebanese politics immediately strike me as significant for the future.

The first relates to the Shiia community and their place in the country.

Many Shiia areas of the country appear distinctly poorer than the tidy, Sunni coastal cities or the Christian strongholds in Mount Lebanon with their better public roads and wealthier private homes and businesses.

The Shiia have always been poorer on average, but unlike before the civil war the Shiia today strike me as far more politically visible, confident and outspoken about where the country should be heading.

The very first sight driving into Beirut on the airport road are the large, colourful flags of the Party of God which, on a combined ticket with the older more secular A.M.A.L. Party, did exceptionally well in the south and east of the country in the June general election, not only consolidating a strong presence in Parliament but securing also representation at the Cabinet table.

Traditionally, the Shiia in Lebanon look to the non-Arab, Persian nation of Iran for financial, political and military support because Iran is predominantly Shiia while the Arab world is overwhelmingly Sunni.

The prospect of a Shiia-dominated, federal Iraq emerging from the ashes of Saddam Hussien’s minority Sunni dictatorship may be unsettling to the Sunni establishment in the Arabian Peninsula, but the way events unfold in Iraq may also have big long-term implications for Lebanon’s parliamentary system.

Just like in Iraq, Lebanon's largest single community is the Shiia.

And just like Iraq, Lebanon's Shiia have traditionally been short-changed in the distribution of political and economic clout.

Despite being the biggest single group in Lebanon, the Shiia don't get the post of President or Prime Minister, those are reserved for the numerically smaller Maronite Catholic and Sunni communities respectively.

U.N. Report Fingers Syrian Regime In Former PM's Death

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The big political news stories during my visit were the release of a United Nations' report into the February murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri and the ongoing drive by France and the U.S. at the Security Council to disarm Palestinian and Shiia militias in the country, with a gunfight at a Sidon Palestinian refugee camp between refugees and armed Lebanese perhaps a precursor to more serious future action by the Lebanese army.

The U.N. report, as expected, concluded that the murder of Hariri could not have happened without the approval of top-ranking Syrian and Lebanese security and political officials.

On cue after the U.N. report, demonstrators in the central district of Beirut that had been meticulously reconstructed by Hariri in the 1990s, gathered immediately for a peaceful rally to demand the resignation of both the Lebanese and Syrian presidents.

Many in Lebanon anticipate the Syrian regime will fail to withstand the economic, political and perhaps military pressure that the United States and allies are expected to exert in the months ahead and that the Lebanese Christian president they support will step down as well.

As the power equations within the Arabic-speaking world shift, Lebanon adapts and adjusts because within its borders is a mirror montage of the wider regional makeup.

Any “regime change” in Syria, to the benefit of the Sunni majority in that country, may buoy the Sunnis in Lebanon, for example.

And because all of the major communities of the Middle East are represented in Lebanon in a delicate balance, it is inevitable that the coming months of upheaval in Iraq, and perhaps Syria will partly flow through to effect power relationships within Lebanon.

For friends in Lebanon in business, that means that, for now, investment decisions and even family holiday and extension plans are on hold “until things settle” in the wider region.

In the case of the ancient Christian communities in the north and east of the country, 2005 has already been a time of stress with a series of terrorist bombings: Three bombs in March, one in April, one in May, two in June, two in July, one in August and three in September.

These have caused injurty to a cabinet minister, death to a well-respected journalist, a communist party leader and bystanders have been hurt or killed.

But the overwhelming hope and expectation among almost everyone I spoke to over two weeks both before and after the U.N. report was released, is that Lebanon will avoid the catastrophes which have befallen its neighbours, Cyprus and Israel.

Cyprus is now a partitioned island, one Greek Orthodox and on Turkish, separated by a U.N.-manned border fence. The Israelis and Palestinians, meanwhile, who have claims to the same piece of land just south of Lebanon, are stuck in an endless cycle of terror and retaliation that began in earnest nearly a century ago and shows every sign of being permanent in the absence of any serious attempt at power-sharing accommodation.

I spoke with rich and poor Maronites, rich Sunnis, middle class Shiia, politically active Druze and well-heeled Orthodox Christians, and Palestinians, amongst others.

No one doubts a trying political time domestically as things take their course in Iraq and in Syria and as that flows through into Lebanese politics.

Should Iraq falter and splinter into three distinct, religious-based ethnic states, that could bring bad tidings for Lebanon’s inherently complicated experiment in power-sharing in a nation of minorities.

But more often than not, the expectation I heard again and again was that Lebanon will come through the process in one piece, and won’t fall for the partition option of Cyprus or the endless conflict between Israel and Palestine.

I of course hope that they are right, but can’t help also noticing that any number of the region’s troubles could overwhelm Lebanon’s fragile internal political balancing act.

Not least, I note, is the restlessness of the Palestine refugees in Lebanon and their descendants who have no Lebanese citizenship or voting rights and continue to face restricted labour rights nearly sixty years since the creation of Israel and the Palestinians’ arrival here.

The failure to resolve the Palestine/Israel conflict acts as a constant source of friction and tension within Lebanon.

This is not only because the Palestinians, with limited civil rights in the country, have few reasons to pledge undying loyalty to it, but also because the very emotive issue of Palestine tends to evenly split Lebanese politics down sectarian lines.

The Christian parties of the right hold little or no sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians in Lebanon or anywhere else, and have no interest in Lebanon being dragged into the Palestinians’ struggle with the mighty Israeli armed forces.

Sunni Lebanese politicians, who share a religion with the Palestinian refugees in the country, tend to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians’ national aspirations while the Lebanese Shiia, although not sharing the Palestinians’ branch of Islam, nevertheless express strong political empathy with the rallying call for national justice made by the nation of refugees in their midst.

Chris Ritchie is a former AP Dow Jones reporter


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