Wednesday, December 31, 2003

My Lebanon 2003 roundup, for the Daily Star of Dec. 27.

A year of living dangerously

Whereas Lebanon could have been an Arab country deriving benefit from the US invasion of Iraq, namely through American appreciation for its free-market consociational model and its relevance in post-war Baghdad, the iron bond with Syria dictated otherwise. As the year closed, the bitter realization was that 2003 was a catastrophic follow-up to that climax of 2002: the Paris II economic summit held to help Lebanon emerge from its virtually insurmountable economic morass.

For much of the year, the Lebanese have had to contend with a virtual lockdown of their political system, provoked by a government of mostly pro-Syrian apparatchiks incapable of advancing a forward-looking policy agenda, grafted onto the more enduring personal rivalry between President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

This combination has suffocated even the vaguest of aspirations for domestic reform, all because the gentlemen in Damascus thought the new government would prevent Lebanon from turning into a fifth column while American soldiers entered Iraq. What the Syrians did not see, however, was that temporary quietude through a team of political heavyweights would lead to deadlock, and, therefore, threaten an economic revival necessary to ensure long-term Lebanese social stability. Lest we also forget, the Syrians need Lebanon as a safety valve to export hundreds of thousands of their laborers who might otherwise metamorphose into domestic Islamists if forced to rely solely on employment at home.

Lebanon’s Islamists showed a more paradoxical face in 2003. Even as Hizbullah behaved with remarkable pragmatism by mostly keeping the Shebaa Farms front quiet and negotiating a prisoner release with Israel, its Sunni counterparts were active in the shadows of Sidon and Tripoli. One might forget that this was a year in which an American missionary was killed in Sidon and several other foreigners the target of bomb attacks--and when militant Sunni Islamists were at the heart of fighting in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.

Even as the public’s attention was focused on Hizbullah and its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, the real question was why the state behaved so passively toward the Sunni groups, who have posed a systematic domestic security threat in recent years--dating all the way back to the attempted Balamand bombing of Christian clergymen in the early 1990s.

Lax security and unanswered questions were also obvious in another highlight of the year, namely the rocket attack against Hariri’s Future Television station. It is not often that post-war Lebanon has had to contend with assaults against its politicians, and the general silence that followed the event suggested there was more than met the eye. If the effort was designed to intimidate Hariri, it only partially succeeded. Soon, both the Hariri and Lahoud factions were leaking damaging information on each other, and by year’s end the prime minister was openly drawing attention to his dispute with the president.

Looking ahead to 2004, the next battleground will be municipal elections scheduled for spring. Lahoud would like to extend his stay in office, but knows it will be difficult to justify a deferral of the presidential election in fall if local polls take place beforehand. On that basis alone, Hariri will support elections and, unless the security situation deteriorates dramatically, it is difficult to see him losing. Even Syria might flinch at the thought of postponing local elections that most Lebanese consider as relevant, if not more so, than legislative elections.

Then we must ask what will happen to Lahoud? The president has been peripatetic in recent weeks, even venturing overseas, when his modus operandi had been to avoid travel, except to countries having trivial local importance. If his mandate is to be extended, he must display verve and activity, and he has done so. Ultimately, however, his fate will be in the hands of others.

An extended or renewed mandate will be a tough sell for the president’s friends in Beirut and Damascus. Hariri is opposed to it, so too is Sfayr, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Birri has shown little enthusiasm. The Maronite community has never really been behind Lahoud and now, we hear, the Americans are whispering that whatever the constitution mandates on an election should be respected, although this can be read in contradictory ways. Lahoud will even be hard-pressed to find an ally in Paris, where President Jacques Chirac plainly backs Hariri.

So, will the corpse of 2003 resurrect in 2004? Everything suggests it might, since the alternatives could be disastrous, both for Lebanon and Syria. On the other hand the political leadership has rarely disappointed those predicting disappointment. But why fret? Whatever happens, the cast of characters will stay in office for the coming months; plenty of time to paint your new year black.

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