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Can the Lebanese stalemate be resolved in February 2008? 2/17/2008

The year 2007 was really tough on Lebanon. The first government formed after the exit of the Syrian forces struggled to survive despite the resignation of six members that included all the Shiite ministers. However its accomplishments were severely curtailed by the lack of support from the partially de-legitimized President and various levels of opposition from nearly half the Lebanese population. Parliament was practically closed for the whole year except for an occasional limited one day session. Terrorism continued throughout the year in the form of bombings and assassinations and culminated with the Fatah Al Islam flare up which resulted in a protracted battle with the Lebanese army. A heavy price in blood and treasure had to be paid before the proud and patriotic army could achieve victory.

Throughout 2007 Lebanon was for all practical purposes almost equally divided between supporters of the struggling government and those of the opposition which comprised slightly less than half the members of parliament, but benefited from having the speaker within its ranks. The chronic polarization, the excessive lack of confidence between the two political camps and the conflicting personal concerns and interests produced a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about the election of a successor to President Lahoud whose extended term ended in November. This resulted in major difficulty to secure a quorum in parliament in order to proceed constitutionally with the presidential election. The situation was further complicated by a strong perception of an alignment of one group with the USA, Europe and most of the Arab countries and the other with Syria and Iran. Thus the internal polarization and conflicting personal interests and agendas were complicated by a difficult and dangerous geopolitical atmosphere resulting from the external confrontations. Syria is accused of all kinds of efforts to block the International Tribunal, which it claims will be politicized by its enemies to destabilize its current regime. Iran appears determined to acquire nuclear capabilities which are alarming many Arab neighbors as well as the United States and Europe not to mention Israel. The Israelis, known to be prevention hyperconscious could trigger a new war at any time by attacking the Iranian nuclear sites and/or Hezbollah which they see as an extension of the Iranian danger immediately at their borders. The Syrian & Iranian influence in Lebanon is enhanced by the help and support provided to Hezbollah.

The complicated internal and external situation and the deficiency in visionary and patriotic leadership resulted in failure to elect a successor to President Lahoud. Nevertheless, after a somewhat short period of Presidential vacuum a remarkable development occurred when the two political groups reached an agreement on a consensus candidate who is believed to be most suited to reunify the country. However, unfortunate and to a certain extent unknown factors resulted in delay of the final vote and the presidential vacuum continued into 2008. The year 2007 did not end before the occurrence of the additional terrorist assassination of General Francois Hage whose name was strongly associated with the victory over the Fatah Al Islam in Nahr El Bared. This reprehensive crime not only perturbed the relief that resulted from the agreement on a high caliber consensus candidate, but also raised concerns about sinister forces aiming at destabilizing the Lebanese army.

The year 2008 is seeing much of the same. The presidential election continues to be scheduled and postponed, despite the consensus reached on General Michel Suleiman, due supposedly to controversial disagreements on governance after the election. A bomb which exploded near a US Embassy vehicle resulted in new fears of scaring away foreign diplomats and visitors. The assassination of Wisam Eid a key police intelligence leader added concern about some evil conspiracy determined to further rattle the security of the country. The Mar Mikhael clash of opposition street rioters with the Lebanese army and the resulting deaths produced further anxiety about possible evil elements determined to destabilize the army or start a new civil war. The economy continues to teeter on shaky grounds and some funds pledged for Lebanon may be withheld by the some donor States until a semblance of normalcy and stability can be achieved. The exodus of youth and intellect continues and accelerates. Pessimism is dominant among the Lebanese population as well as the expatriate community.

Each terrorist incident results in a flood of condemnations from every direction. Yet not a single significant culprit or perpetrator has been identified and punished. The International Tribunal, though approved, has not yet been fully formed and God only knows when it will start functioning and whether or not it will be able to convincingly identify real culprits and secure that justice is achieved.

In the midst of this doom and gloom atmosphere there are some positive signs that should not be overlooked. Despite sinister & evil forces constantly trying to ignite a new civil war, violence has remained rather contained. The unfortunate loss of life on black Sunday (January 27) constituted a serious & dangerous close call. All indications seem to suggest the work of a "fifth column" executed by enemies of the Lebanese people. It is hoped that the ongoing investigation will reveal who was responsible & aggressive action can be taken to bring the culprits to justice, contain the incident & appropriately compensate the families of the martyrs & victims. Tighter precautions should be taken during any future demonstrations, which we hope should be kept to the absolute minimum possible. We are gratified that both the Hariri assassination commemoration by the March 14 group & the Mughnieh funeral by Hezbollah on February 14 remained peaceful & uneventful.

Remarkably, in spite of severe inter-confessional and intra-confessional tensions, there is no significant fighting between Sunni and Shiite groups or between Christians and Moslems, thus demonstrating up to this time remarkable Lebanese maturity and reluctance to be dragged into internal wars again. In fact the majority of Lebanese does not want any war at all and would much prefer to solve remaining problems with Israel through indirect diplomacy. The choice between diplomatic efforts to recuperate the Shebaa farms versus armed resistance constitutes a major divide underlying the current political polarization between the parliamentary majority & the opposition. Let us hope that "black Sunday" will serve as a warning against all forms of violence that can only bring death and destruction to no avail.

Another major positive factor on the Lebanese scene is the fact that consensus was achieved around a candidate most suited to reunite the Lebanese population and bridge the gap between the March 14 parliamentary majority and the opposition. General Michel Suleiman has been credited with wisely and skillfully protecting and strengthening the unity of the Lebanese army, the most respected institution that remained immune to the cancerous or paralytic divisions which threaten or have started destroying so many other Lebanese institutions. We are relieved that the "black Sunday" disaster did not tarnish, damage or destabilize Lebanon's most important defense line and that all concerned will do their utmost to limit the damage and consequences of this unfortunate catastrophe. We are gratified to hear of good progress in such direction and that General Suleiman is playing a key role in protecting the army while working diligently to see that justice is achieved and civil peace is secured.

More than two years ago a friend in the US State Department said that the Lebanese should take advantage of the world attention their country was receiving to reach consensus and unity in order to solve the pressing problems and secure a path to real independence and full sovereignty. Many politicians failed to seize the opportunity and kept fighting for petty or shortsighted interests and/or mortgaged themselves to outside influences and goals. Important knowledgeable and sincere authorities agree with Patriarch Sfeir's recent statement that undue number of politicians are so focused on selfish or narrow concerns that they are completely distracted from national or community interests.

World attention now is focused on other areas with Pakistan and Gaza's problems moving up in priority. The European initiative to help Lebanon secure the presidential election demonstrated more naiveté and goodwill than substance and effectiveness. The United States' attention is now distracted to a certain extent by its own presidential election process. Yet the dangers threatening Lebanon and the whole Middle East continue to increase and worsen. Nobody seems to know how many extremist terror groups other than Fatah Al Islam have established bases in Lebanon particularly inside the Palestinian camps. These do not constitute danger just for Lebanon, but also for the whole Arab World and the broader Middle East.

In the US the neoconservative hawks may be somewhat down but definitely not completely out. Many salivate about a strike at Iran and any incident such as the Iranian speed boat harassment of US Navy ships could accidentally trigger an unwanted and undesirable war. One should also never forget the Israeli element and the anxieties produced there by President AhmadiNijad's rhetoric. There are also still rumors of neoconservative talk about regime change in Syria. We sincerely hope that Lebanon will not be used to trigger any of the above, nor be dragged into such adventurism. We realize, nonetheless that there are differences of opinion among the various expatriate groups. Some now feel that the real solution for Lebanon's problems necessitates an international intervention under UN chapter 7, despite the risks of such a move. Thus allowing the current Lebanese crisis to simmer indefinitely presents significant risks to all concerned. And the best, fastest & safest solution remains the prompt election of the consensus candidate for the Presidency.

The most reassuring element in the midst of this difficult environment is the wisdom and apparent steadfastness of a united and unifying Arab initiative working for the election of General Suleiman without further delay. A person with his track record and credibility certainly has the potential to unify the country and restore optimal relations with Syria without sacrificing Lebanese dignity or sovereignty. We salute the highly qualified previous presidential candidates who have selflessly urged and worked for his prompt election. Those who are throwing around other names to reconsider for consensus may create counterproductive doubts and delays and may possibly be either misguided or ill intentioned. General Suleiman who apparently continues to have the support of all well intentioned internal and external elements has the best shot at returning to all Lebanese the sorely lacking confidence. The rescheduling of the election to February 26 allows ample time to solve and reach agreement on the post election governance issues. The proposal of a government of 10 ministers for the parliamentary majority, 10 for the opposition and 10 for the president is reasonable and appealing. However if minor touch ups are required, such may be considered based on the confidence & trust provided by the truly independent & patriotic consensus candidate. The issue of veto power for either political camp should be shelved for now due to its negative connotation. During this challenging episode in Lebanon's history the independent president should be given the necessary power and flexibility to restore confidence and focus on the positive and constructive work needed to unify and save the country. Yes there are outside influences, enemy distractions, risky street behavior and continued evil and sinister interventions to derail Lebanon from progressing towards sanity, stability and prosperity. Nevertheless, as we stated before, the final results for Lebanon will depend on the wisdom, courage and patriotism of its politicians, particularly the individual members of parliament and their leaders.


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