Rival Lebanese leaders reached a deal on Wednesday to end 18 months of political conflict that had pushed their country to the brink of a new civil war. Earlier this week talks in Doha, Qatar, between representatives of Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led opposition and the pro-Western government had suffered a setback when the opposition rejected Arab-mediator proposals for the political rivals to elect a new president and form a unity government before working on a new election law. Both the government and the opposition were seeking changes that would give them an advantage in parliamentary elections next year. The opposition had insisted on having more than one-third of Lebanon’s 30 cabinet posts. Under the new agreement, it will get at least 11 posts, enough to veto any cabinet decision. In addition, both sides agreed that the Speaker of Parliament (a Shi’a Muslim) will call for army chief General Michel Suleiman (a Maronite Christian) to be elected president, a post that has been vacant since last November.
According to Hanna Anbar, associate publisher of the Beirut Daily Star, the meetings in Doha were hung up on several important issues, including Hezbollah’s refusal to discuss possible disarmament. Most Lebanese militias disarmed as part of an agreement that ended the 15-year civil war in 1990, but at that time Hezbollah was allowed to keep its weapons to fight Israel. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Anbar says the lack of stability caused by the political crisis and this month’s fighting in Lebanon has had a deleterious effect on the lives of “everyone in the country.” There is “no control of prices” and basic items have gone up 300-400 %. He says it also proved that the army could not protect the people and the government could not protect the people. Furthermore, half the population is, in his words, is “armed to the teeth.” Because extremism can have a “life of its own,” Hanna Anbar says, many moderates feared that Lebanon could be dragged into another civil war – if negotiations in Doha had not worked out. But he disagrees with those Western analysts who suggest that Lebanon was in danger of becoming a “full-fledged Iranian satellite state.” Mr. Anbar notes that Lebanon has 18 sects, including a large Sunni population, a large Christian population, and a sizable Druze population. So, he says, no matter how much the Shi’a population wants Iranian influence in Lebanon, there is “no way they can impose it on the rest of the country.”
On the other hand, Hanna Anbar says, it is accurate to say that Hezbollah is now the single most powerful force in Lebanon. Nadia Bilbassy, diplomatic correspondent for Al-Arabiya television, agrees. In fact, she calls last week’s events a “Hezbollah coup d’etat.” Ms. Bilbassy says that ultimately the Shi’a want to transform their demographic power into political power. But the fear of the other groups is that Hezbollah and its allies may be able to block an independent U.N. investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in which the Syrian government has been implicated.
Ahmed Saltini, the press attaché at the Syrian Embassy in Washington says that, just like most Arab and international media, the Syrian media were closely following each day’s developments in Lebanon and the talks in Doha. Mr. Saltini says history shows that, when events “unfold violently” in Lebanon, Syria is directly affected, and therefore, Syria has a major stake in having Lebanon “stable and unified.”
In fact, Syria’s interest in Lebanon has been an issue in the West. Hezbollah is classified a terrorist organization by the United States, and adding the group’s ties to Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s ascension to power in Lebanon is certain to accelerate Western fears. But Nadia Bilbassy suggests that Hezbollah discredited itself in the “eyes of people on the Arab street” when earlier this month it triggered the worst fighting in Lebanon since the end of the civil war. Ms. Bilbassy describes the political situation as extremely “complex.” Contrary to opinion outside the region, she says, it can’t simply be reduced to a “radical force supported by Iran as opposed to a moderate force supported by the United States.” Many Lebanese view the sectarian struggle as a “matter of survival.” On the other hand, Ms. Bilbassy says, the Shi’a see themselves as “marginalized” by the Sunnis and Christians, even though a new census would probably confirm that they are in fact the “majority.”
Some analysts suggest that the new accord reached after five days of negotiations in Doha represents more of a respite than a resolution to a crisis that cuts across issues that are fundamental to Lebanon’s future – the power of the Shi’a community and the influence of foreign patrons – Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
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