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Apr. 30, ’09: LEBANON: Generals’ Release May Influence June Election April 30, 2009

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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Analysis by Helena Cobban*

WASHINGTON, Apr 30 (IPS) – On Wednesday, a judge at the Hague-based “Special Tribunal for Lebanon” (STL) ordered Lebanon to release four senior Lebanese generals imprisoned since 2005 on suspicion of involvement in killing former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February of that year.

The order from pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen raised new questions about the course the newly opened STL might take. It also caused jubilation – and celebratory gunfire – among those Lebanese who had previously distrusted the court, fearing it was engaged in a U.S.-backed witch-hunt against Syria and all its allies in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s four million citizens go to the polls Jun. 7 in a parliamentary election that will determine the balance in the country’s next government. Ever since Lebanon won independence in 1943 it has been a battleground in which stronger regional – and international – powers have competed, hard, for influence. People and politicians throughout the Middle East will therefore watch the results of the election carefully, to see which way the region’s tides are flowing.

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a 110-minute, drop-by visit to Beirut. Though she claimed the visit was strictly non-political, she made a point of visiting Hariri’s gravesite, sending a potent signal of support for the country’s anti-Syrian politicians.

At a brief press conference elsewhere in the city, Clinton voiced a tough warning against foreign meddling in the elections, seemingly unaware of the irony involved in that stance.

Lebanon has been hailed by some westerners as the oldest democracy in the Arab world. However, the country’s political system is still based on the sectionalisation of voters and candidates according to the religious denomination each inherited from her or his father, as marked on her identity card.

The Lebanese call this system “confessionalism.” It gives the votes of some Lebanese – especially the Christians, who are a numerical minority – much more weight than the votes of others. It has helped to perpetuate a form of political feudalism in which voters tend to be swayed much more by clan allegiance than by the candidates’ political programmes.

It also for many years discouraged the emergence of anything resembling modern political parties. Many entities that look like parties turn out, on closer inspection, to be facades for old-style clan or feudal networks. Several analysts have remarked that the Lebanese body most closely resembling a national political party is the pro-Iranian, and mainly Shiite Muslim, resistance movement Hizbullah.

Hizbullah was formed in the 1980s from networks that actively resisted the Israeli troops who had occupied southern Lebanon since 1982. It is reviled by Israel and the U.S. as only a terror organisation, but it has competed in Lebanese elections since 1992 and has always performed well. It has also on occasion – including now – had members in the country’s government.

In the present decade, Lebanon has seen the tides of a number of different powers swirl across its political landscape.

In 2000, Hizbullah mainly achieved its goal of expelling Israel from the country, and won much support from Lebanese of all religions for doing so. (It maintained, however, that Israel’s continued presence in the small Shebaa Farms area meant Israel still occupied a portion of Lebanon, and this justified Hizbullah keeping its weapons. Israel claims Shebaa is part of Syria, not Lebanon.)

After Hizbullah liberated just about all the south from Israel in 2000, Syrian troops were still in central and northern Lebanon. That deployment had started in 1976 – at the invitation of Lebanon’s government and with the backing of the U.S. and Israel.

After 2000, Syria, Hizbullah, and their other allies were quite powerful in the country. Rafiq Hariri, a key ally of Saudi Arabia, was prime minister and was on very good terms with Syria. As all Lebanese prime ministers have to be, Hariri was a Sunni Muslim.

In 2004 he had a falling-out with Damascus and quit his job. In February 2005 he was killed in a massive car-bomb that his son, Saad, and the Saudis blamed on Syria.

A month after the assassination, close to one million Lebanese rallied, mainly peacefully, against Syria in downtown Beirut. That rally spawned the “March 14” movement (M-14), which received much support from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. It was so successful that within weeks the Syrian troops had left Lebanon completely.

In the June 2005 election, M-14 won 72 of the parliament’s 128 seats. But Hizbullah and its allies still had 35 seats. The strongly anti-Hizbullah factions inside M-14 were unable to persuade the government to demand that Hizbullah disarm completely – especially since Israel continued to violate Lebanese airspace and to hang onto several Lebanese prisoners captured during the 22-year occupation.

In July 2006 Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips for the Lebanese detainees. With considerable support from Washington, Israel hit back with a fierce, 33-day assault against not just Hizbullah, but also many vital civilian facilities throughout Lebanon.

Israel’s leaders said their aim was to turn Lebanon’s population against Hizbullah and force the Beirut government to disarm it. But the war backfired badly for Israel. Far from repudiating Hizbullah, Lebanese citizens from all religions rallied round it. Israel was finally forced to conclude a ceasefire embodying almost exactly the same terms that existed before the war.

Hizbullah emerged from the 2006 war bloodied but proud and unbowed, but M-14 still controlled the government.

In spring 2008, the government tried to end a longstanding arrangement whereby Hizbullah gained data from surveillance cameras at Beirut airport. Hizbullah sent its supporters into the Beirut streets to protest. Serious fighting started to erupt between Hizbullah’s mainly Shiite supporters and the Sunni supporters of Saad Hariri.

The Emir of Qatar – a low-key though persistent critic of Saudi Arabia – then intervened. He called Lebanon’s political bosses to his capital, Doha, where he brokered a new governing formula called the Doha Agreement. Under the formula, the pro-Hizbullah bloc – which includes significant numbers of Christian MPs – won 11 seats in the 30-member cabinet. Participants also agreed on the long-overdue appointment of a new president, Michel Sleiman. The preceding arrangements at Beirut airport stayed in place.

Even with a stronger Hizbullah presence in the government, the U.S. continued to provide aid, including military aid, to Lebanon.

Throughout the past decade the main external players in the Lebanese political theater have been the U.S. and Iran, but Saudi Arabia and Syria have also been important influences.

In the post-2004 era, Lebanon experienced considerable fallout from the rupture in relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Prior to 2004, that relationship had been steady and strong for many years, despite Syria’s longstanding parallel alliance with Iran.

In the post-2004 years, Lebanon also came close to becoming a tinderbox where the tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims threatened to erupt – as in Iraq – into vicious, open fighting.

Over the past few months, however, the Saudis and Syrians have both done a lot to mend their relationship. The scene thus seems set, for now, for the orderly holding of the June election. The pro-Hizbullah “March 8” bloc (M-8) is expected to do well, and might even win.

Several western governments are already starting to discuss how they might deal with a government that contains an even stronger Hizbullah component than the present one. None of them, so far, is discussing any boycott as extreme or damaging as the one imposed on the Hamas bloc that won the Palestinian elections in 2006.

The latest order from the STL judge may help M-8’s chances in the election. Certainly, it will not hurt them.

Lebanese blogger Qifa Nabki had this wry comment on the affair: “At the end of the day, there is something so fittingly Lebanese about the fact that the pronouncement of a foreign magistrate regarding the culpability of a foreign power should have a significant bearing on a local election.”

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