- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

BEIRUT

Lebanese are once again blaming foreigners for the inability of their feuding power brokers to form a government.

Pundits apportion the blame - in various permutations - to Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the French and the United States.

“Lebanon has been in this situation since it was formed,” said Imad Salamey, assistant political science professor at Lebanese American University in Beirut. “It is a country where co-existence and regional conflict has always existed at the same time without a final resolution.”

Apart from having no government since June elections, Lebanon seems in fairly good shape. With billions of dollars of foreign investment flowing inward, much of it from oil-rich Gulf Arab states, the nation lately is experiencing a real estate boom.

Yet political crises are rarely far from the surface. Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has tried since June to form a government after his coalition of Sunni Muslims, Druze and some Christians won 71 of 128 seats.

With a solid majority, it shouldn’t need anyone else to form a government. However, in Lebanon, bullets are at least as powerful as votes.

The Shi’ite Hezbollah militia is heavily armed and backed by powerful allies of its own, including the Shi’ite Amal party and a Christian party led by former Gen. Michel Aoun.

“Lebanon continues to be the ‘boxing ring’ where regional and international interests meet and/or collide,” said Aram Nerguizian, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Furthermore, Lebanon’s political actors - across the country’s political spectrum - continue to link domestic political moves and alliances on the overall ‘mood’ of patron states and enemy states alike,” Mr. Nerguizian said. “These factors all contribute to an environment where government formation is unlikely without a broader regional green light.”

The 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, designated Hezbollah as the only Lebanese militia allowed to keep its weapons, ostensibly to protect the country from Israel.

Hezbollah defeated Israel in a monthlong war in the summer of 2006.

The militia flexed its muscles again last year by seizing huge swaths of Beirut.

Hezbollah withdrew from occupied areas of Beirut under a May 2008 agreement negotiated in Doha, Qatar. In exchange, it won veto power over important Cabinet decisions. The fighting served as a reminder of Lebanon’s ever-present threat of civil war.

“Lebanon is in a holding pattern,” said Ghassan Schbley, a project associate at the RAND Corp. “Lebanon’s government formation is linked to the U.S.-Syrian and Saudi-Syrian rapprochement as well as to upcoming international decisions on Iranian issues.”

Other intractable issues continue to prevent Lebanon from forming a government. Mr. Hariri’s coalition wants Hezbollah to give up its weapons - a development that is unlikely anytime soon.

Mr. Hariri’s coalition also wants to see a war-crimes tribunal for the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri’s father. Syrian intelligence is believed responsible for the Feb. 14, 2005, blast in central Beirut that killed the elder Mr. Hariri and 22 others.

Another power broker allied with the opposition is Gen. Aoun, who is demanding key Cabinet positions for his party, especially the interior and telecommunications ministries that are important for intelligence-gathering. In addition, the opposition seeks to maintain good relations with Iran and Syria.

With a compromise beyond reach, Saad Hariri resigned on Sept. 10, only to be re-appointed prime-minister designate less than a week later.

“Political paralysis in Lebanon is never good for long-term stability,” said Mona Yacoubian, special adviser for the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington. “The longer the stalemate continues, the greater the possibility that any number of factors could lead to violence and instability.”

Ali Hamdan, senior adviser to parliament speaker Nabih Berri, leader of the secular Shi’ite party Amal, questioned the timing of the Hariri resignation and suggested that foreign elements are to blame.

“If we want to be clear and transparent, this is not the first time outside powers interfere in Lebanon,” Mr. Hamdan said.

“Before the Doha agreement, the Americans and their allies in the region accused Syria of not allowing Lebanon to find a political solution and of keeping a card in its hand. What they accused Syria of doing, you can now accuse them of doing. They want to pressure Syria, and this is good timing for their agenda.”

For Lebanon to form a Cabinet, he said, “We’ll need other countries to reconcile. We’re not an island.”

“The problem now is that the external actors have been forced to realize that the local disputes are so difficult to sort out that it takes active intervention by outsiders to bring pressure to bear on their allies here,” said Beirut-based political analyst Nicholas Noe.

“But none of the main states - not Syria, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Egypt, or Iran - are in much of a mood, or have a real need to bring that direct pressure. Thus the temporary stalemate,” he said.

Some Lebanese are exasperated with the tendency to blame foreign countries for its chaotic politics. It once took nine months to form a government.

“When you hear people talking about the formation of the government, you’d think Lebanon was at the center of the world. Please, let’s be real. It’s degrading,” said Elie Fawaz, political analyst at Quantum Communications, a political consultancy in Beirut.

“They say the Saudi track is going bad, so we can’t have a government. That means we’re not ready to solve our own problems. We’ll always fall back on the Saudis or the Egyptians or have a summit in Doha.” Instead, he suggested, “Let’s keep it local.”

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