- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

NICOSIA, Cyprus — When Lebanon explodes — as it did this month and does with almost predictable regularity — and Beirut’s airport shuts down, it is the rich who usually get to Cyprus first.

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.

Arab mediators in Qatar have set a deadline of today for Hezbollah negotiators to respond to the latest plan to end the country’s political stalemate.

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.

The soaring birthrates of Lebanon’s Muslims and the emigration of Christians have dramatically altered the old balance. Today, Christians make up 22 percent to 30 percent of the population but still control the army and the central bank. Half of the seats in the 128 parliament are reserved for Christians.

The rise of militant Islam across the Arab world has seriously undermined the role and influence of Lebanon“s Christians and sapped their cohesion.

The Rev. Samir K. Samir of Beirut”s Christian St. Joseph University said, “Once a bastion of religious tolerance, Lebanon now is moving toward the model of Islamization seen in Iraq and Egypt.”

The latest crisis has weakened the Siniora government and further marginalized Lebanon“s Christians, often leaving them at the mercy of powerful warlords.

Although its troops were withdrawn in 2005 after a controversial 29-year occupation, neighboring Syria also keeps a close eye on a country with which it claims strong historical and geographical ties. During the colonial period, France administered Lebanonand Syria as one country.

In recent years, at least seven prominent Lebanese politicians opposed to Syria were killed in terrorist attacks that some blame on Syrian agents. They included former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed Feb. 14, 2005.

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