Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lebanon deal brings end to political stalemate

After five days of talks in Qatar, Lebanese factions have agreed on a deal to end the country’s 18 month political stalemate and renewed fighting that claimed at least 67 lives this month. The outcome was greeting by celebratory gunfire in Beirut as Lebanese TV broadcast the Doha ceremony live which brought an end to five days of talks. But weary Government leaders have had to give way on major provisions to avoid the alternative of outright war. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said it was "an exceptional agreement at an exceptional time". Parliamentary secretary Saad Hariri also put the best spin on the outcome saying "I know that the wounds are deep, and my injury is deep, but we only have each other to build Lebanon.”

Other parties in the region were less circumspect. Syrian President Bashar Assad claimed the talks as a victory and called Qatari Emir (and Prime Minister) al-Thani to congratulate him on the agreement. Iranian News Agency ISNA also congratulated the Qataris for their efforts. They quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini who said “The Islamic Republic of Iran hopes that the Doha accord ... will provide a blossoming and brilliant future for the Lebanese.”

Iran and Assad had good reason to be happy – their proxy Hezbollah made major inroads in the talks. They have almost doubled their seats in cabinet from 6 to 11. Crucially, it now has enough seats in cabinet to give it veto power in the new national unity government. It also benefits from a new electoral law that divides Lebanon into smaller districts which will give the country’s sects better representation. Shiites make up between 30 and 40 percent of the Lebanese population, yet are accorded only 18 percent of parliamentary seats. However, one downside is the need to disarm – the deal states that the "use of arms or violence is forbidden to settle political differences".

The deal also paves the way for parliament to elect a new president. Lebanon has been without a president since November 2007. Al-Thani said the deal will be "carried out immediately” and he believes the election of a new president will occur within 24 hours. The post is likely to be filled by Army chief Michel Suleiman. The army is seen as the one institute that stands above the fray. Suleiman is a good compromise candidate and despite being a Maronite Christian is regarded by the country's rival political factions as relatively neutral. More importantly he has kept the army on the sidelines of civil conflict.

Several key issues remain unresolved after Doha. Among them are what will happen to Hezbollah’s large weapons cache, and thorny question of Lebanon’s quixotic relationship with Syria. The Lebanese government blamed Syria for the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But Syria has so far refused to co-operate with a UN investigation into the murder of Hariri and ten other government officials. In October 2005, UN investigator Detlev Mehlis told then Secretary-General Kofi Annan the plot to kill Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials”.

Nevertheless, one immediate benefit of the outcome of the talks was the end of a 180 day Hezbollah sponsored blockade of the centre of Beirut. The protest began on 1, December 2006 when the opposition set up a sprawling tent city on streets leading to the offices of the Prime Minister Siniora, in a bid to force him to step down. The camp site paralysed the commercial heart of the city and large parts of the centre became a ghost town as dozens of restaurants and businesses were forced to shut down. Today, trucks started clearing the tent city under the orders of Opposition parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri. While protesters headed home, workers returned to the city to pick up the pieces. Fadi Harb, an employee at a nearby cell phone shop, said happily, "This agreement means calm, peace, security, stability and the future."

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