Lebanon's Fateful Showdown By Amir Taheri

New York Post



January 27, 2007 -- WHERE do we go from here? The leaders of the two rival camps in Lebanon should be pondering the question in the wake of the showdown that brought Beirut to a standstill last Tuesday.

The showdown started in December, when Hezbollah - having withdrawn its ministers from the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora - started a mass sit-in in the heart of Lebanon's capital.

The immediate excuse was Siniora's decision to endorse the U.N. inquiry into Syria's role in the 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. More importantly, perhaps, Hezbollah saw its existence threatened by two Security Council resolutions stipulating that all militias be disarmed. Siniora had accepted both resolutions in the teeth of opposition from Hezbollah, which regards its militia as the centerpiece of its power as a state within the Lebanese state.

Yet other reasons, more broadly related to the balance of power in the region, also likely prompted Hezbollah to make its move. One reason was Iran's desire to humiliate the United States by bringing down Siniora's government, which President Bush often cites by as a child of the Lebanese "Cedar Revolution" and a symbol of democratization in the Middle East. Creating a pro-Iran government in Beirut would deliver the coup de grace to the "Bush Doctrine" of "spreading freedom."

Another reason for Hezbollah's move is the Irano-Syrian desire to use Lebanon in war against Israel. As Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim has said, a neutral Lebanon would deprive Syria of the "hinterland" it needs to deal with a putative Israeli blitzkrieg. Iran also needs Lebanon as a base for "flooding Israel with missiles," as Defense Minister Mostafa Najjar has noted.

Siniora, by contrast, has aimed to take Lebanon out of regional conflicts that have little or nothing to do with its own national interests. Where Hezbollah sees Lebanon as a "bunker" in the global war against the "infidel," Siniora sees it as a "beach" that could attract "infidels" to come and spend their money.

Elections results indicate that Hezbollah represents about 45 percent of the country's Shiites; it has succeeded in finding two valuable allies.

The first is Nabih Berri, the speaker of the National Assembly and the leader of the relatively moderate Shiite movement Amal (Hope). Berri doesn't share Hezbollah's apocalyptic vision; a wealthy businessman himself, he sees the logic of Siniora's strategy of seeking economic development rather than martyrdom. But he is beholden to the Syrian regime that has supported, and financed, Amal for three decades. Nor does he wish to appear as the man who split the Shiites at a time of rising sectarianism in the region.

Hezbollah's second ally is Michel Aoun, a pint-size ex-general who played a leading role in the 1975-'92 Civil War. Aoun has one ambition: to become president of Lebanon. In the 1980s, he tried to realize that ambition with the help of Saddam Hussein, who financed the Aounite faction for over a decade. At that time, Syria and Iran were Aoun's archenemies. Now, with Saddam in no position to help, Aoun has switched to the side of his old foes in hopes of achieving his elusive goal.

Hezbollah, Amal and the Aounites together represent at least 40 percent of Lebanon's population - but know that their alliance can never win a majority in free elections. Their task is further complicated by the country's sectarian system of government, which grants Sunni Muslims the right to nominate the prime minister, while Maronite Christians nominate the president and the Shiites nominate the parliament's speaker.

Muhammad Rashid Qabbani, the grand mufti of Lebanon and the principal religious leader of the Sunni community, has given Siniora unequivocal support, dashing Hezbollah's hopes of triggering a constitutional coup d'etat. The mufti's message is clear: Shiites and Maronites can't dictate the Sunnis choice for prime minister.

But the Siniora government has a much broader base. It is supported by nearly half of the Christian community, some pro-Arab and anti-Iran Shiite groups, the Druze and a number of smaller communities. In a general election, most observers agree, Siniora's coalition would win around 60 percent of the vote.

This is why Hezbollah has withdrawn from the political process and taken to the streets. The calculation is that most Siniora supporters are middle class, people with no experience of or desire for street politics. Hezbollah militants, by contrast, are experts in the politics of violence and trained for street fights. Some look forward to martyrdom as a shortcut to paradise. Burning cars, setting up street barricades, throwing Molotov cocktails, attacking adversaries with knives and clubs, ransacking government buildings and bringing out the guns (when and if necessary) are arts in which Hezbollah excels.

Yet, almost two months after Hezbollah promised to bring down Siniora's government in "a matter of days," the prime minister is still around, as resilient as ever. He has invited Hezbollah to return to the government, though without the veto that its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has demanded. Siniora has also offered early general elections, provided Hezbollah and its Aounite allies let things calm down for a while.

So, where does Lebanon go from here?

Hezbollah's street-pressure campaign has failed to destroy the Siniora coalition or to provoke the army into getting involved in the violence (thus risking disintegration across sectarian lines).

Yes, Hezbollah could continue the confrontation for weeks, if not months. It has lots of money (mostly from Tehran) and thousands of unemployed youths to man street barricades for $2 a day. It also has President Emil Lahoud, the man installed by Syria as Lebanon's head of state. Using his constitutional powers, the usurper refuses to sign government edicts, thus paralyzing segments of the administration. Such a strategy, however, is sure to fail.

Hezbollah might opt to do what it has always vowed not to do: turn its arms against other Lebanese communities. Yet, while it might score early victories in a new civil war, Hezbollah would have little chance of winning in the end.

The only sane way out of the crisis is a compromise among the Lebanese communities. Such a compromise could be built on these principles:

* Lebanon should not become involved in any war unless it is directly attacked.

* The Siniora government should be enlarged with the return of the Shiite parties and the inclusion of Aounites, with general elections within six months.

* Lahoud should resign, with parliament choosing an interim head of state, pending the election of a new president by the next National Assembly,

* The international community should provide an aid package to keep the Lebanese economy afloat until the political situation is stabilized.

Lebanon is teetering on the edge of the abyss. But it could still step back.

Amir Taheri is an Iran-born journalist and author based in Europe.