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Lebanon Enters a New Phase


After months of political deadlock, Lebanon has entered what some observers call a new phase of reconciliation, with a new president, a transitional government and preparations for next year's parliamentary elections. But Lebanon's stability depends in part on developments in the Middle East.

This year's May 21 Doha Agreement ended an 18-month standoff between the Lebanese government and the Hezbollah-led opposition, and sectarian violence that killed scores of people. The accord enabled the Lebanese to elect a new president and form a national unity cabinet that includes the ruling pro-Western March 14 movement and gives pro-Syrian Hezbollah 11 out of 30 ministerial posts. Electoral reforms are likely to follow, with parliamentary elections slated for May 2009.

Political Representation

The Middle East Institute's Graeme Bannerman says the reforms are meant to reverse the electoral changes that Syria introduced during its military occupation of Lebanon in the 1990s.

"What the Syrians did was increase the size of the districts. So many of the Christians were being elected from districts that had Sunni majorities. So they had to win the Sunni vote. So what they're talking about doing, which they haven't decided on yet, is to make the districts smaller again. It changes who elects them," says Bannerman. "And the system at this point favors the Sunnis over the Shia. So there's this struggle about, 'How you are going to give the Shia a greater share of the voice on the Muslim side of the spectrum?' And it's unclear how it's going to work out."

Bannerman says the country's political system has failed to keep up with the demographic shift that has taken place since Lebanon's last census in 1932, when Christians dominated the population.

"The numbers are skewed. They don't actually represent the population as a whole. You have, for example, an even number of Christians and Muslims in the parliament, while there clearly is a Muslim majority in the country. The real struggle in Lebanon today, though, is who is going to be dominant on the Muslim side of the spectrum," says Bannerman. "And that's the struggle that is going on between the Sunnis and the Shia, politically. And the Christians are sitting on the sidelines on that argument. In fact, they are split on which way to go."

Most estimates put the share of Lebanese Muslims at about 59 percent of the total population, although no accurate demographic breakdown exists. Whatever the percentage, Middle East expert Fawaz Gerges of New York's Sarah Lawrence College says long-term stability cannot be achieved as long as Lebanon's political system does not mirror its population.

"At the end of the day, Lebanon is highly unstable, and Lebanese politics is by consensus. The dominant political and social player in Lebanon now is the Shia community led by Hezbollah. Hezbollah has the power and the means to either bring about a relatively stable political environment or all-out war," says Gerges. "Unless the leading communities in Lebanon -- not the Christians, the Christians have been marginalized in the last 15 years -- agree on a new social contract, Lebanon will likely remain a battle zone where regional and global powers fight by proxy."

Regional Politics

To a large extent, experts say Lebanon's stability hinges on regional developments such as Beirut's relations with Damascus, indirect Israeli-Syrian peace talks in Turkey and changes in Israel's leadership. Joshua Landis, Director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Peace Studies, says these events will determine the future of Hezbollah and Lebanon.

"If Israel and Syria make peace, one of the requirements is going to be that Syria stop any rearmament of Hezbollah that goes through Syria. And that will force Hezbollah to make some very serious decisions about its future. And I think that everybody is feeling out what the future possibilities are with the Doha accord, with [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert stepping down in Israel, with the new American presidential election taking place," says Landis. "This is a time of real change and we're not sure how the forces in the region will realign."

The Hezbollah Factor

Calls for Hezbollah to disarm have increased since its fighters clashed with pro-government Sunni supporters in May, when many observers feared the country was on the brink of civil war. While Hezbollah has already begun to retool itself as a full-fledged political party, Lebanon expert Mona Yacoubian of the United States Institute of Peace says it will be a long time before the militia disarms.

"Certainly, Hezbollah is positioning itself to take on a greater political role. It has now veto power in the cabinet. It will be running for seats in the parliament. It already had seats in the parliament," says Yacoubian. "But [on] this thornier issue of Hezbollah's arms, I think some believe that the ultimate solution is for Hezbollah's weapons and its arsenal to be folded into the Lebanese national security apparatus as part of a broader national defense strategy. And perhaps that's the long-term solution. But I think there's a long way to go before we could actually see that."

Most experts say contentious issues like disarming Hezbollah can be tackled only after next year's parliamentary elections. But they agree that the Doha accord has enabled Lebanon to enter a new phase that, according to the University of Oklahoma's Joshua Landis, coincides with positive change in the region as a whole.

"Where it will end up, we're not sure. Right now, the whole world is trying to take the measure of the Lebanese situation. And a lot of that will depend on the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, what happens between Iran and the United States," says Landis. "If there is progress on those fronts, all the actors will have incentives to behave themselves in Lebanon and to encourage their clients and their allies in Lebanon to get along. If there's more conflict in the region, they will encourage their allies to try to win a round. And it's always the Lebanese who pay for regional instability."

Most observers expect Lebanon's transitional government to hold until a new cabinet is formed after next year's general elections, although few predict what might happen after that.

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