Interest Foundation study tour of the Middle East from 10/28 to
11/12/2007. He has followed developments and reported on the Middle East
for 40 years.]
/From the Los Angeles Times/
A powder keg in Lebanon
Deadlock over a new leader could set off a civil war and fuel Mideast
By Milton Viorst
November 21, 2007
While the eyes of the world are focused on the fading prospects of
ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the upcoming meeting in
Annapolis, Md., an electoral deadlock in Lebanon grinds inexorably to a
climax, threatening to upset an 18-year factional truce and ignite a new
civil war that will add one more explosive ingredient to Middle East
Lebanon's problems are not new. They are rooted in the 1920s, when
France's colonial regime created the country out of Syrian territory and
squeezed Christians, Druze and Muslims -- Sunni and Shiite -- into it.
At that time, the Maronite Christians, whose close ties to France dated
to the Middle Ages, were the colonial power's political allies, so the
constitution that France imparted required that Lebanon's president, its
most powerful official, be a Maronite. The prime minister, under the
constitution, would be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament
would be a Shiite. The system, a peculiar form of democracy, is called
For most of the ensuing years, confessionalism enabled the sects to
coexist in a fragile balance. The enormous exception was the horrible
civil war that raged from 1975 to 1989, killing 100,000 and leaving much
of the country in ruins. None of the sects wants a repetition.
The current president is Emile Lahoud, an ex-general whose term expires
Friday. For weeks, the country's political and sectarian leaders have
been meeting in secret to agree on a replacement, who will have to be
confirmed by the parliament in order to take office. So far, they have
Basic to the deadlock is the steady growth of the Shiite community,
which is now acknowledged to be the largest of the country's major
sects. Its principal voice is Hezbollah, an organization that is, all at
once, political, social, religious and military. A year ago, Hezbollah's
militia single-handedly stopped an incursion of the Israeli army into
south Lebanon, significantly enhancing its prestige across the country.
But when it demanded more political power as a reward, it was rebuffed,
and its ministers quit the Cabinet. Hezbollah's parliamentary
representation, however, remains strong.
It is no secret that Hezbollah's arms and money come chiefly from Shiite
Iran, with help from Syria. Hezbollah denies that it is beholden to
either country. It is motivated, Hezbollah says, purely by Lebanese
nationalism. But the U.S. -- insisting that Hezbollah is an
Iranian-Syrian pawn and a collaborator in global terrorism -- strongly
backs its rivals.
-- mostly because of its role in Israel's invasion last year, when
American officials did little or nothing to stop the incursion.
Few Lebanese -- no matter what their sectarian loyalty -- can forgive
the U.S. role. They are reminded of it every day, by the rubble strewn
across south Lebanon from repeated bombings. Lebanon's prime minister
told me in an interview that a million cluster bombs and 380,000 mines
lie unexploded in the area, bringing almost daily casualties. I myself
saw a 10-foot crater among the shabby apartment buildings of a Shiite
quarter of Beirut. Bombed bridges and roads, far from the battlefields,
still impair normal traffic. Even now, Israeli jets violate Lebanese
airspace daily, overflying Beirut.
Though most Lebanese have grown used to America's pro-Israel policy,
they are now watching with anxiety as the U.S. emphasizes Hezbollah's
role as a surrogate for Iran and Syria. Lebanese have little sympathy
for Iran and even less for Syria, not just because of Syria's
three-decade occupation of Lebanon but also because of the recent
assassinations widely attributed to Syria, notably of the popular
Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Still, the Lebanese are outraged
at America's use of their soil, in war and politics, as the playing
field for its ongoing feuds with Iran and Syria.
On Nov. 8, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch made clear to
Congress that the U.S. opposed the election of a president by any
consensus that included Hezbollah. Under Lebanese law, a presidential
candidate needs to win the support of two-thirds of the parliament to be
elected on the first ballot, but after that, a simple majority suffices.
Welch suggested that the U.S. would use its economic and political
muscle to back a candidate that it considered favorable to U.S.
interests. The U.S. strategy, as the Lebanese see it, is to promote a
narrow, anti-Hezbollah majority on the second ballot.
Most Lebanese seem to be holding their breath, denying that civil war
looms. The many private militias that were primed for battle in 1975 no
longer exist, they point out. Even though Hezbollah has the strongest
armed force in the country -- stronger than the Lebanese army, which
mirrors the society's schisms -- it shows no sign of preparing for a
putsch. Most Lebanese tell themselves the factions will remain stubborn
until the last minute, then make a deal.
But if they don't, what then? The most common prediction is that
Hezbollah will reject the legitimacy of a narrowly based president
supported by the United States and form a rival government, eroding the
integrity of the state. Where Lebanon goes from there -- where the
Middle East goes from there -- is anyone's guess.
A Lebanese explosion scares the Arab world, which is already in turmoil;
it should also scare Washington. At the very least, it would aggravate
the Shiite-Sunni conflict in Iraq. But it also would add kindling to the
Israeli-Palestinian struggle, especially if the Annapolis meeting flops.
A consensus president would restore a measure of equilibrium to a very
fragile country. Failure by all the factions to come together on a
candidate would leave the entire region more dangerous, placing in
jeopardy everyone's interests, including our own.
Milton Viorst has covered the Middle East for 40 years. His most recent
book is "Storm from the East: The Struggle between the Arab World and
the Christian West."