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Political chaos in Lebanon ravages economy, instills fear

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2011

BEIRUT | As Lebanon waits for lawmakers to begin trying to form a new government, political gridlock and looming security threats are corroding the Lebanese economy and creating fear in the streets.

"They don't mind sacrificing the public," said Lebanese political analyst Hilal Khashan. "All public activity has come to a complete halt."

Other analysts say that, without a government, Lebanon is in danger of slipping back into the sectarian violence that has long plagued the country.

Lebanese bankers say the political crisis already has damaged the economy and could result in higher rates of unemployment, as the cost of living continues to soar.

Lebanese people say they fear the political crisis will lead to violence on the streets. Last week, grenades reportedly were thrown into the office of the Free Patriotic Movement, a powerful, mostly Christian ally of the Shiite political party Hezbollah.

Early Wednesday, several Beirut schools closed as sporadic protests were dispersed. By evening, political rivals of Hezbollah were denouncing the protests.

"Hezbollah's suspicious street action today has terrorized the people and places the country on the edge of tensions that we reject," said Jamal al-Jarrah, a member of parliament, according to local news source Naharnet.

The Lebanese government collapsed last week after 11 ministers resigned in protest of the ruling party's support of the international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Ten of the ministers were from Hezbollah, which allied with nearly half the parliament.

Tribunal officials filed a confidential indictment Monday thought to name Hezbollah members in connection with the assassination.

Hezbollah, which has the strongest military in the country, repeatedly has criticized the tribunal and accused the U.S. and Israel of manufacturing the proceedings expressly to discredit the organization.

Formed in the 1980s in opposition to the Israeli occupation, Hezbollah is referred to as a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S.

But in Lebanon, the organization is an influential political party backed by Iran and Syria.

In a speech Monday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said his organization should be "thanked" for collapsing the government through legal means.

"We are not afraid of anyone's speech or threat," Mr. Nasrallah said on Al-Manar, Hezbollah's television station. "We act according to our convictions."

Many people here say the real security threat in Lebanon is economic. Locals watch violent protests over the cost of living in Tunisia, Algeria and discontent in Jordan and wonder whether Lebanon is next.

Mahadine Saifadine cooks traditional Lebanese baked goods at his shop in central Beirut. He said he expects the prices of gas, bread and diesel fuel to rise steadily while Lebanon is without a government.

"Everything is going to go up," he said. "Nobody cares about the people at all."

Parliament members were set to debate on who will be the next prime minister on Monday, but the talks were postponed while local and regional leaders try to sort out the mess.

Saudi Arabia and Syria failed in earlier efforts to broker agreement between the two sides, and Lebanese politicians remain completely deadlocked in their support for or rejection of the U.N.'s Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

On Tuesday, diplomats from Turkey and Qatar met with Lebanese officials. Earlier this week, leaders from Qatar, Syria and Turkey met in Damascus and called for a return to the talks led by Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Lebanese journalist and political analyst Hazem Saghieh said regional interests will ultimately decide whom the parliament selects as a candidate for prime minister. Syria will have a large effect on the process because of its influence on the only Lebanese party not associated with the two major political coalitions.

"Each Lebanese event nowadays is a regional event," said Mr. Saghieh.

Alain Aoun, a member of parliament and of the Free Patriotic Movement, said the formation of a new government promises to be long and painful. "I'm skeptical about reaching in one week what we didn't reach in months," he said.

Mr. Aoun said that March 8, the name of the opposition coalition that includes his party and Hezbollah, will not support a new government that continues to cooperate with the international court. He said the court is a political tool of the West that will never render justice.

"This international tribunal is now part of this game of nations and confrontation between the U.S. and Israel on one side, and the international community, and Syria and Iran and Hezbollah," Mr. Aoun said.

March 14, the name of the Western-backed ruling-party coalition, will only accept a government that supports the tribunal.

"If we topple this institution, it means that we will not have justice," said Butros Harb, the labor minister under Saad Hariri, the recently ousted prime minister and son of the slain leader. "And it means that we are giving a license to continue killing people when we disagree with them."

Lebanon has a long history of political assassinations that have gone unpunished. Supporters of the tribunal say the proceedings will stop the cycle of violence.

"To support the international tribunal for us is to support justice," said Fares Souaid, the March 14 secretary-general.

The U.S. has been unwavering in its support for the tribunal, but critics say the U.S. position has more to do with its rivalry with Iran and Syria than a genuine interest in seeking justice for the slain leader.

Abbas Khaleefe, who works in a cable-television shop in a mostly Shiite neighborhood in Beirut, agrees. He also said the court is poised to reignite tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Lebanon. He said supporters of Rafik Hariri, who was a Sunni, will attack Shiite areas if Hezbollah members are indicted. "We will have to defend ourselves," he said.

Mr. Souaid, with the March 14 coalition, said it will be Hezbollah that attacks, when Saad Hariri is renamed prime minister. Hezbollah repeatedly has called for peaceful noncooperation with the tribunal, but promised to "cut the hands" off anyone who tries to arrest its members.

"We are afraid that the Hezbollah [will] use arms once again," said Mr. Souaid.

Not far from the cable shop, in his camera store, Mohammad Najjar said he just wants the political bickering to stop. As leaders battle it out in the press, he said, sectarian differences on the streets grow tense.

"Sunni is not talking to Shia," he said. "Shia is not talking to Sunni. This is a major problem."

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