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Rami Khouri on Lebanon

*Lebanon’s Moment of Reckoning
*by Rami G. Khouri
Released: 26 Jan 2007


BOSTON -- Just as it was half a century ago, Lebanon is once again a
pioneer and pacesetter in the Arab World, though this time the direction
of movement may be towards destruction and incomprehensible violence.
For years, Beirut and Lebanon prided themselves on being called the
Paris and Switzerland of the Middle East, reflecting their dynamic,
freewheeling leisure activities, liberal culture, human talent in
banking, education and engineering, and their open, welcoming capital
that accommodated exiled politicians from all parts of this very
ideological region.

This week, those who rule Lebanon and Beirut seem to be saying that they
are also capable of being the Mogadishu and Afghanistan of the Middle
East, characterized by inter-communal warfare and collapse of law and
order, brought on by the irresponsibility that all sides have practiced
in bringing the country back to the brink of inter-communal clashes.

The street clashes in Beirut and other parts of the country Tuesday and
Thursday have left over half a dozen dead and several hundred injured, a
night curfew in Beirut, and heightened fears that the situation could
spiral out of control into full-fledged sectarian warfare. This occurs,
paradoxically or deliberately, during the week that many countries in
the world met at the Paris 3 gathering, and pledged over $7 billion to
assist Lebanon in its economic recovery program.

The tragedy of the current clashes throughout the country among groups
of angry politicized youth and spontaneous neighborhood and sectarian
gangs is that neither side is totally right or wrong. The opposition led
by Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement has already been widely
blamed for escalating tensions to their current dangerous level, and is
more likely than the government side to lose politically if things
persist in the current direction of tension and clashes.

Hizbullah has already elicited criticisms by many Lebanese that it
recklessly triggered the Israeli war that destroyed much in Lebanon last
summer and set back its economy many years. It is now also widely
accused of pushing its legitimate demands beyond reasonable limits, and
acting more like a tyrant on a rampage than a respected and powerful
opposition that operates through the existing political and
constitutional system.

Hizbullah and its smaller partners in the opposition are correct to
point out that the ruling political elite that has dominated Lebanon for
the past two decades has irresponsibly raised the national debt to some
$41 billion, and is taking on more debt through the Paris 3 mechanism.
They are correct to demand more integrity, efficiency and rationality in
state policies, less corruption and nepotism, and a more effective
defense system. They also raise some reasonable concerns about aspects
of the tribunal being established to try those who will be accused of
killing the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

These are relevant issues that require serious political debate and
resolution, which Hizbullah and its junior partners should have forced
through the political structures that exist, such as the parliament, the
cabinet, the judicial system or the national dialogue. Instead, they
detracted from the validity of many of their grievances and concerns by
pushing their street protests to the point of widespread disruption of
life and weakening of the economy. Their tactics, and the response they
triggered from pro-government groups, also stoked the flames of
sectarianism, unleashing the hazard of groups of young men with guns and
sticks roaming the streets of the capital looking to fight or destroy
cars and property.

There is nothing special about Lebanon’s current predicament in terms of
the wider Arab region. It is just another Arab state that has suffered
the tensions inherent in a situation where the central government and
institutions of statehood are weak and inefficient, and most citizens
turn instead to their religious, tribal or ethnic identities. The
problem is compounded by support from external forces -- Iran and Syria
behind Hizbullah, and the United States and France behind the Fouad
Siniora-Saad Hariri government -- which creates deep suspicions among
the Lebanese themselves.

Lebanon’s strong external support, as demonstrated in the Paris 3
pledges, should be a blessing for the country, and the structural
reforms in state finances that will be enacted as part of this process
should also benefit all Lebanese. There is a chance that this will not
happen now, which could plunge the country into years of low-intensity
conflict and simmering tensions -- well below the level of the 1975-1990
civil war, but enough to keep Lebanon mired in perpetual mediocrity and
stagnation.

The stakes are very high, and very clear. Lebanon is at an ominous
moment of reckoning, and sadly its fate might be determined by the
vagaries of gangs of angry and fearful young men with sticks and guns.
The modern Arab state is tested once again, and is not doing very well.


/Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director
of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut,
editor-at-large of the Beirut-based/ Daily Star/, and co-laureate of the
2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award./

Copyright ©2007 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global

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Released: 26 January 2007
Word Count: 796
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For rights and permissions, contact:

rights@agenceglobal.com, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.212.731.0757
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