- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Assassination of two Lebanese patriots, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and pioneering journalist-commentator Samir Kassir, provided the basis for genuine reform of the country’s fractious politics and elimination of Syrian dominance.

The tragic incidents have spawned positive reactions: competing political factions are collaborating for the first time in 50 years; Syrian suzerainty is being eliminated, with puppet President Emile Lahoud the last major figure to go.

After 29 years’ occupation, the Syrian army and intelligence forces were more than reluctant to withdraw. Lebanon’s economy provided ill-gotten wealth for a generation of Syrian military and political overlords. Moreover, the very act of occupation was raison d’etre for Syria’s dictator, the inept and unpopular Bashar Assad.

Hariri’s February assassination, triggered massive and unified support for Syria’s withdrawal. Uniformly seen as the work of Syrian intelligence, the murder of arguably the most broadly respected politician in the country’s history triggered mass demonstrations, eventually forcing withdrawal from the land first occupied in 1976.

The May murder of Samir Kassir has also been traced to Syrian activists, resulting in the demand for President Lahoud’s resignation. When this happens, Lebanon’s tortuous path to freedom will near completion.

Mr. Lahoud, a Maronite Christian politician thoroughly co-opted by Syria, is resoundingly disliked by his base constituents as well as most of the Muslim population. Oddly, opposition National Assembly member Nassib Lahoud, a cousin, is perhaps the most capable and most likely candidate to succeed him.

Halfway through a four-week electoral process, it is virtually certain a coalition of political entities united in opposition to Syria’s involvement in the country, will win a mandate to re-establish Lebanon’s independence. Equally, Saad Hariri, son of the murdered Rafiq Hariri, is certain to become his country’s prime minister, if he finally decides to seek the office.

The younger Mr. Hariri’s impending accession to one of Lebanon’s two most powerful political posts begs the question: Is Saad capable of filling his father’s shoes? A graduate of Georgetown, 35-year-old Saad Hariri has spent his adult years successfully tending the family’s sprawling business interests. The question nervous Beirut observers ask is if the neophyte politician inherited Rafiq’s political, as well as business, acumen.

Dynastic politics is the norm in Middle Eastern politics and has often created major problems. Looking no farther afield than Damascus, Bashar Assad, a trained ophthalmologist, inherited his father’s 29-year Ba’ath dictatorship in 1990 and is clearly much less effective than Hafez Assad.

As one prominent Beirut businessman told me several days ago, “Saad Hariri is no oculist.” True enough, but the question is whether this newcomer to Lebanese politics’ convoluted cut-and-thrust has his remarkable father’s innate political instincts.

There remains one further issue looming over whether tiny Lebanon can resume its formidable 25-year post-World War II economic and political advance, almost unique in the troubled Middle East: Can the Hezbollah military of 6,000 to 12,000 trained fighters be peacefully disarmed, leaving a viable but no longer militarized political force?

The current elections have assured Hezbollah 14 seats in the 128-member National Assembly, and another nine with the allied Amal Party, which among other things will assure Amal chief Nabih Berry re-election as speaker. Their relative strength will also make disarming their militia particularly difficult.

Based in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley and along the Israeli border, founded by Iran and nurtured by Syria, the group for 20 years has been a major insurgent factor in Israel and trained thousands of Palestinian recruits. If not disarmed, Hezbollah will remain a seriously destabilizing force in Israel and Lebanon.

Saad Hariri’s accession to his father’s political mantle can be a powerful healing factor in Lebanon’s tortured political life, involving a 15-year civil war that led to Syria’s occupation. Reining in Hezbollah’s military might, so essential to the country’s stability, will be a critical test for Mr. Hariri.

Given Hezbollah’s electoral success, this can only be done by co-opting the leadership. Direct confrontation would assure renewed and bloody factional strife.

However tenuous and despite recent months’ violent events, the glass is decidedly half-full in Lebanon. With careful maneuvering by a Saad Hariri government, including selection of a new president and disarming of Hezbollah’s military, the glass of democratic liberty and stability would become full indeed.

Hurdles aplenty remain. Lebanese politicians long affiliated with Syria would be delighted if the progress of recent weeks slowed, or even stopped altogether. One, Omar Karame, brother of murderously martyred Prime Minister Rashid Karame and a three-time holder of the office himself, professes pessimism about Lebanon’s ability to right itself.

Mr. Karame, who is not seeking re-election, blames everyone in sight for his country’s woes, especially the United States, which he claims wants a major military base in Lebanon and citizenship for 350,000 resident Palestinian refugees.

Unabashed at holding such a dreamy outlook, Mr. Karame told me perhaps an armed Hezbollah is the only force that can deter such nefarious American ambitions.

Omar Karame has it all wrong. The source of Lebanon’s woes, as well as its resurgence, is the Lebanese themselves. Freewheeling, often corrupt factional politics became so heated a catastrophic civil war broke out some 35 years ago. Nevertheless, after terrible decades of war and occupation, the Lebanese have the capability and, it appears, the commitment to make their vest pocket nation once again a regional base for democratic freedom and vibrant free-market economics.

The determining factor will not be the United States or any other outside force. Rather, the country’s emergence from three decades of political, economic and social chaos depends on whether this time the Lebanese can maintain their commitment, long term, to get it right.

John R. Thomson, a longtime Middle East resident, revisited Lebanon in the days prior to its current four-week parliamentary election cycle.

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