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Lebanon:  Real Changes May Come With Young Generation

The assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri four months ago set in motion the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, the emergence of a mass-based opposition movement, and a re-examination of the country’s sectarian political system. But some analysts say real democratic changes may have to wait for the next generation of Lebanese politicians.

Saad Hariri, the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is set to lead the new Lebanese Parliament after four rounds of general elections that ended this week. But Arab-Israeli clashes in 1948 and 1967, thousands of Palestinian refugees fled to Lebanon, causing regional upheaval and a 15-year civil war in Lebanon. U-N resolutions and international peacekeepers failed to bring an end to the turmoil. Then in 1975 Syrian troops marched in.

Daoud Khairallah, who teaches law at Georgetown University says, “Syria, in fact, was the underwriter of peace and security in Lebanon, granted at the price of much coercion and rampant corruption. Is there a substitute for Syria should things flare up again? There does not seem to be an answer that I am aware of.”

Professor Khairallah says a landslide victory of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah-Amal alliance in southern Lebanon shows many Lebanese are still loyal to Damascus. Hezbollah, formed in 1982 as a militia to resist occupying Israeli troops and supported by Iran and Syria, has become a major force in Lebanese politics. Its civil arm operates schools, hospitals and a television network for thousands of Shia Muslims. Georgetown University’s Daoud Khairallah says it would be a mistake to try to enforce Hezbollah’s disarmament.

“While the majority of the Lebanese people would like to see an end to the police state and the corruption associated with Syria’s presence, it is doubtful they will go along with disarming the Lebanese resistance as long as some Lebanese land is still occupied and the Palestinian refugee problem in Lebanon has not been properly solved.”

Some analysts decry the absence of new political figures in the elections. Hisham Melhem, a US-based correspondent of the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar blames the Lebanese political system. Designed to give equal representation to 18 ethnic and religious groups, the current election law, he says, reinforces sectarianism because candidates represent their ethnic or religious communities, rather than political platforms. As a result, they often run without any competition.

“I think nine out of 19 candidates in Beirut won by virtue of nobody running against them. The same thing in the south – a number of candidates also won like that. This phenomenon in Lebanon, we call it the ‘steamroller.’ The steamroller of Saab Hariri and [Druze leader Walid] Jumblatt in Beirut took over the whole slate. The steamroller of Hezbollah and Amal in the south, which is essentially sectarian-based, also made it practically impossible for anybody outside Hezbollah and Amal to compete in those elections,” says Mr. Melhem.

Thus, many observers note, Christians in the south, where Shia Muslims make up two thirds of the population, felt that the system deprived them of what they see as their right to choose a Christian member of the parliament. Muslims in many majority-Christian areas were similarly disgruntled.

But Clovis Maksoud, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington, says Lebanon’s sectarian system has its advantages. “The elections have brought about a certain equilibrium. The attempt at becoming a satellite of Syria has been removed and the attempt of rendering Lebanon anti-Syrian has been removed,” says Professor Maksdoud. But, he adds in order for Lebanon to move ahead, political parties must offer their visions for the progress of the entire country with all its diverse communities.

Journalist Hisham Melhem says this may take time, but he believes it will happen. He says his optimism is inspired by the mass outpouring of young Lebanese in reaction to the former Prime Minister’s assassination.

“When you looked at these young men and women during the demonstrations, they displayed an incredible sense of political sophistication, political maturity, no violence whatsoever. And there was this incredible use of new technology, the way they used the Internet, the way they used the cell phones, the way they used the Arab satellite phenomenon, the way they used the international media.”

Mr. Melhem adds that Lebanon was once an example of multi-ethnic democracy in the Middle East and these young people offer hope that it will become one again.

This report is part of VOA Focus series. To hear more Focus stories, please click here.