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They cross the 130 miles of the Mediterranean that separate Beirut from the Cyprus coastline aboard private yachts, ferries and chartered vessels, often paying up to $1,500 for a plastic deck chair. That was the rate during five days of fighting that pitted Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants against the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora that left more than 60 people dead.
The Cypriots welcome the wealthy refugees — especially if they have credit cards or funds permitting a stay in the myriad luxury hotels of this tourist island. The poor evacuees who follow are sheltered in public buildings, fairgrounds and other installations while efforts are made to “process them” for other destinations.
During the “summer war” of 2006, when Israeli troops battled Hezbollah Shi’ite Muslim guerrillas, about 55,000 Lebanese and foreigners fled to Cyprus. About 60,000 Lebanese Christians lived in Cyprus during the 15-year Lebanese civil war that ended in 1990.
The deal, which reportedly would give Hezbollah’s political arm a “blocking minority” veto on major decisions in a unity government, would clear the way for army chief Gen. Michel Sleiman to take over as president — a post that has been vacant since November.
But few here believe that the precarious peace will last long or that Hezbollah’s dominant show of force has clarified once and for all time the problems besetting the picture-postcard “Land of the Cedars.”
This time there was no euphoria among either the evacuees or those who stayed behind. By now, most Lebanese accept that the country is condemned to periodic outbreaks of violence for reasons that no one has managed to rectify.
They include the unsatisfactory power-sharing deals by diverse religions and sects; a passive government without real power; interference by neighboring Syria; the relentless conflict with Israel; and the presence of some 300,000 Palestinian refugees with their own armed militias — and agendas.
To Rami Khouri, editor at large of the English-language Beirut Daily Star, the situation in Lebanon is a “battle pitting Arabism and Islamism against a liberal, Western-oriented cosmopolitanism.” The outcome — if there is one — “will be determined in the years to come by events in Syria, Iran and Washington,” he said.
Only a small part of the population takes part in the upheavals, which have devastated villages and reduced parts of Beirut to rubble. Most hide, pray or leave the country hoping for a better life elsewhere.
The army — seen by many as the country’s one true national institution — has remained in the background in the current crisis. Despite U.S. military support and backing from President Bush, the 55,000-strong army lacks heavy equipment, modern communications and transportation. According to experts, its most striking achievement has been cohesion under stress.
“They hold together, they are still the national army under a unified command and control,” said Timur Goksel, a former adviser to the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.
Lebanese experts say today’s political volatility has its roots in the outdated system of power-sharing among the main religious communities first laid out back in the 1943 National Covenant.
When it was signed, Lebanese Christians, mostly Maronites, were in the majority and dominated the country”s politics and business. By agreement, the president was always a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, head of the parliament a Shi”ite Muslim. Thus every major Lebanese faction had a “mentor” to whom it could appeal.
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