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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

Jul 08th
Home arrow News Content arrow Blog arrow Blog Items arrow Opinions and Editorials arrow It may soon be too late for Lebanon
It may soon be too late for Lebanon PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 23 July 2007

Oussama K. Safa
Oussama K. Safa

In the past two months, Lebanon has witnessed unprecedented levels of violence that threaten to mortally weaken what is left of the country's institutions and governance apparatus. The war that the Lebanese Army has been waging against Fatah al-Islam in the northern camp of Nahr al-Bared is part and parcel of a carefully orchestrated campaign to destabilize the country's security. The severe military clashes in the North, which began as the UN Security Council prepared to ratify under Chapter VII a special international tribunal to prosecute political assassinations in Lebanon since 2005, were quickly followed by the violent killing of pro-government parliamentarian Walid Eido. More recently, attacks have been carried out against UNIFIL troops stationed in South Lebanon to ensure the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 - another of Lebanon's recently won tools to restore and maintain sovereignty. 

These violent messages are a stark reminder that attempts to secure Lebanese independence and sovereignty two years after the withdrawal of Syrian troops are being stubbornly opposed. Some observers attribute the instigation of violence to the neighboring Syrian regime. True or not, no Syrian tears are being shed over what has befallen Syria's neighbor. The meticulous weakening of Lebanese institutions and the state's impaired governance capacity serve Syria's interest of delaying the actual establishment of the special tribunal and strengthen the hand of the opposition. Additionally, the damning UN evidence of Syrian support for cross-border arms smuggling has confirmed many a suspicion about a deliberate Syrian role in Lebanon's recent woes.

Eight months into the sit-ins and the ministerial walkout staged by the opposition in December in Beirut, a frail and skeletal government remains in power with little effectiveness and a crippled capacity to govern. While the Lebanese opposition's move to topple the government did not achieve its declared goal, it has managed to paralyze practically all vital functions of the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The latter and his ministers remain ensconced in the sprawling government compound, trying to govern mostly through long-distance ministerial decrees and unwilling to venture outside and risk their lives.

The creeping power vacuum is painfully felt in Beirut. It has been compounded by the fact that the opposition speaker of Parliament has prevented the convening of the legislature for more than nine months, bringing parliamentary life to a grinding halt. The Eido assassination in June not only further weakened the already dwindling majority of pro-government parliamentarians, but confirmed once again the threat facing the current government coalition and its sympathizers. The assassination has caused the temporary migration of pro-government MPs away from potential assassination to the safe havens of European cities. Gradually, the ability of the government to effectively manage the multiplicity of headaches that began with the reconstruction process after last summer's war and continued with the ongoing attrition in Nahr al-Bared and the deteriorating security situation in the South, has been seriously curtailed.

In addition to the unstable security situation, Lebanon is facing a severe economic pinch that will soon bring the government to its knees. This has resulted from the lack of a tourist season for the second year in a row, the financing of an expensive reconstruction process, a spiraling debt and the fighting in the North. The pledges of support made at the Paris III donor conference last January have not materialized and the private sector - the economy's spinal chord - that was hoping to rev up the tourist season finds itself in dire straits. If no quick resolution is found to the current political standoff, economic collapse is lurking by the end of the year.

While the country should have been busy preparing for the presidential elections scheduled for the last week in September, the current political logjam between the opposition and the government is fast approaching the point of no return. Should September pass with no elected president, the country will face its worst constitutional paralysis since the days of the civil war in 1988 that ended with the Taif Accord a year later.

At stake here is the election of a president that both the opposition and the ruling majority can live with. If this doesn't happen, the opposition might opt for one of two unconstitutional moves: keep the incumbent Emile Lahoud in place on the pretext that the majority prevented the election of a new president; or establish a transitional government to call for early legislative elections. The government majority, on the other hand, is contemplating the constitutionally questionable election of a new president with the simple parliamentary majority that it still retains instead of the required two-thirds quorum. 

Should any of these scenarios prevail the country will head toward complete polarization and effective partition.

The prevalent power vacuum has upset plans to rearm and train Lebanese troops and upgrade their military hardware. While the army has proven itself the only institution still functioning effectively in Lebanon and worthy of people's trust, some worry that in the current polarized political environment a very strong armed force would risk an unwarranted coup d'etat. This approach has deprived the army of much-needed firepower and tactical attack equipment in its fateful war in Nahr al-Bared.

Another problem facing the armed forces, a reflection of Lebanon's complex sectarian web of political machinations, is that the commander-in-chief of the army is a Maronite, which automatically means that he is a presidential hopeful. Some worry that if he emerges victorious in Nahr al-Bared on the eve of presidential elections, he might be propelled into the presidency. This thinking has caused major political poles of power in Beirut to give cold support at best to the army's war in the North, hence depriving it of much-needed political cover against Fatah al-Islam.

With Nahr al-Bared and the increased attacks against UNIFIL forces in South Lebanon, the country is now facing a problem of terrorism tantamount to Al-Qaeda's threat in Iraq. The Lebanese government in its current capacity is unable to deal with this problem alone; nor can the Lebanese Army do so, absent the full support of the various political actors including the opposition. Unless the government coalition is broadened to include the opposition and a new shared governance consensus is quickly found, it might soon be too late to restore any semblance of state sovereignty and institutions for some time to come.

Oussama Safa is director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. These are his personal views. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

Commentary By Oussama K. Safa - The DailyStar
Monday, July 23, 2007

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