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Curbing the Crisis in Lebanon

Lebanon's political crisis deepened this week following the resignation of six government ministers from opposition parties led by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement Party. The resignations occurred after talks collapsed over Hezbollah's demand for a key role in decision-making.

Trouble began after Israel’s military offensive into Lebanon ended last August. The Shi’ite group Hezbollah claimed victory in the conflict and, in the eyes of many in Lebanon and the Middle East, emerged politically strengthened. Amid the destruction, many analysts say Hezbollah, which gave devastated families millions of dollars in aid, saw itself stronger than the Lebanese government and in a position to demand more political power.

Anti- and Pro-Western Forces

Hezbollah holds two of the country’s 20 cabinet posts, which are divided among Lebanon’s various sects. Its demand for control of more than a third of the government’s ministerial positions has been rejected by a majority of politicians on the grounds that it would give Hezbollah the power to paralyze decision-making.

Political scientist Bassam Haddad of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia says Israeli-Lebanese hostilities destabilized Lebanon’s delicate political balance and deepened existing ideological differences. "It became a more stark conflict between the camp that supports Hezbollah and the camp that does not support Hezbollah in Lebanon. So the conflict is around Hezbollah as well as inter-Lebanese conflicts that have to do with the different sectarian groups, the different political alliances. It is a number of problems wrapped up in one situation," says Haddad.

Some analysts have characterized the political crisis as a tug-of-war between opposing external powers, namely Syria and the United States. Many say this conflict manifests itself through tensions between the pro-western, anti-Syrian March 14 Forces party, which is the Christian-Sunni majority that controls the government, and the pro-Syrian, Shi’ite Hezbollah. A major part of the debate is the issue of setting-up an international tribunal to bring the assassins of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri to justice. An ongoing U.N. probe has implicated Syrian officials in last year’s slaying. Despite the resignation of six of its ministers, the government approved a proposal for establishing the tribunal and sent it to the United Nations for ratification. Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, has called the proposal illegitimate because he did not approve it.

This conflict, says Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma, focuses on two diverging views. "One is that Lebanon belongs with the West, with the United States. And that's what's being upheld by the March 14 crowd. The other is that the United States is bad for the Middle East. It's brought war. It's brought an Israeli invasion, and that Lebanon belongs with Syria, [it] belongs with the Arab nations, and belongs with Islam. And that is the major dispute and it's the fundamental identity question that Lebanon has yet to resolve," says Landis.

Many analysts argue that Lebanon has often been used as an arena for competing foreign powers. But others point out that Lebanon has its own political dynamics, regardless of what other countries may want to accomplish.

St. Joseph's University’s Bassam Haddad notes that it is one thing to say another country is interfering in Lebanon for its own interests, and another thing to say that what happens in Lebanon coincides with what foreign powers may want.

"There are local reasons why Hezbollah wants to be part of the government. There are local reasons why the Hariri [i.e., Saad Hariri, the son of the slain Prime Minister] camp wants Hezbollah not to have much power in the government. Those local reasons coincide with what is desired externally. And the [mistake] that many analysts make is that they assume that these are just puppets of outside actors. Even when the Hezbollah camp talks about the Lebanese local powers that are responding to American interests, that is not entirely true," says Haddad.

Power Balance

Haddad notes that many Lebanese want to preserve the status quo. Lebanon's confessional, or sectarian-based, political structure divides key posts between Christians, Sunnis, Shi’ites and Druze without allowing any one party to dominate the system. It is the result of an agreement reached by Christians and Sunnis after Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943. The 1989 Taif Agreement that reconciled Lebanese factions after a 15-year civil war called for equal representation for Christians and Muslims and a new election law free of sectarian restrictions.

But the accord was never fully implemented, says St. Joseph’s University's Bassam Haddad.

"The Taif accord of 1989, signed under the auspices of Saudi Arabia, was a way to adjust the power division so that it reflects the demographic changes. It didn't do this perfectly. And although the sects were given more power here and there, the power was not proportional to their portion of the population. And the division of power did not take into consideration the class system in Lebanon and the class structure, whereby most of the disadvantaged Lebanese are Shia," says Haddad.

Lebanon’s last official census was in 1932 and established Christians as the country’s largest religious group. Now most analysts estimate that Christians account for no more than 35 percent of the country's population. The remainder is divided among Muslims and Druze. While estimates vary, Shi’ites are considered to be the single, largest religious group in Lebanon - - at least 35 percent of the population.

Role of Hezbollah

That, most experts agree, is one of the main reasons Hezbollah wants more say in the government. But even if its role were to expand, Richard Parker, former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon during the Carter Administration and a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says serious questions surrounding the party need to be addressed.

"What role will Hezbollah have? It's going to be a very difficult problem to resolve to decide what the role of Hezbollah is going to be. It's very difficult to maintain a standing militia like this, so well armed and so powerful, in competition with the country's army. Many questions [need] to be decided as to who is going to get orders and who is going to obey," says Parker.

Many experts say Hezbollah is hoping for early elections that would eventually open the door for a review of Lebanon’s sectarian political system, which no longer mirrors the country’s demographic makeup.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.