Thousands of opposition protesters remain camped outside Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s office, demanding the resignation of his U.S.-backed government. Leaders of the militant Shi’a group Hezbollah have vowed that the demonstration, which began last Friday, will not end until he steps down. Street battles have already erupted between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims in Beirut. Political and sectarian tensions have reached their highest point since the end of Lebanon’s civil war more than 15 years ago, and some analysts are warning that the country might slide back into conflict.
Six pro-Syrian ministers from the Hezbollah and Amal parties quit the government last month in a bid for more power and because they opposed the government’s decision to create an international tribunal to bring the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to justice. A U.N. investigation into his murder implicated Syrian officials, a charge which Damascus denies.
When Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel was assassinated in November, he became the sixth anti-Syrian politician in Lebanon to be killed in the past two years. If the cabinet loses one more minister, Lebanon’s pro-western government will collapse. Such a prospect raises suspicions that Syria and its Lebanese allies may be behind Gemayel’s murder.
Despite the escalating political crisis, Rami Khouri, editor of Beirut’s Daily Star, rates the chances of civil war in Lebanon as “slim.” Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Khouri says that’s because the Lebanese people realize that the war of 1975-90 “didn’t solve anything” and was “tremendously destructive.”
However, Lebanon’s neighbors are nervous. Jordan’s King Abdullah II says the region may face the prospect of “three simultaneous civil wars” erupting – in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. George Hawatmeh, a former editor of the Jordan Times, says most people in Jordan agree with their King’s sober assessment. But Rami Khouri describes the situation as not just a local power struggle but as a “regional and even global confrontation” played out by Lebanese actors.
Rami Khouri says he thinks the United States can play a constructive role in this crisis if it does so in a “low-key” manner. Both he and Jordan’s King Abdullah believe that, if the Arab-Israeli conflict were to be resolved peacefully “to the satisfaction of all sides,” it would remove a major reason for the emergence of militant groups in the region that are “hostile to U.S. policies in the Middle East.” Both Rami Khouri and George Hawatmeh say that, because Lebanon’s problems are interwoven with unresolved conflicts in the “greater” Middle East, they cannot be addressed in isolation.
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