Monday, May 26, 2008

Arab Viewpoint: Lebanon’s Triumph

Ushering in a new chapter in a country is never easy, more so when the country in question is as fractious as Lebanon. But even in the politics of Lebanon in which people and parties rarely if ever agree on anything, it was obvious that either the multidivided country was willing to band together in an alliance of peace or find itself in a new civil war. Fortunately, for many both inside and outside Lebanon, cohesion won over chaos.

The election of the new President Michel Suleiman accomplishes many things at once. It ends a deadlock which has left the country without a head of state since November. After the election, the ball will begin rolling quickly. Suleiman will name a prime minister who will then put together a unity government. New rules will be made for a general election next year, and incendiary propaganda will cease. Most important is the decision, retroactive immediately, that all sides are to forsake armed force.

For months, Suleiman was accepted by all sides as the only candidate to succeed outgoing President Emile Lahoud, but disagreements have repeatedly prevented a parliamentary vote from appointing him. So what happened? The most important decision was granting the opposition an effective veto over policy, followed by the passage of a new electoral law which now appears designed to curtail, rather than reinforce, sectarian rivalry.

Suleiman’s decision not to stand against Hezbollah during the recent military escalation, in which more than 80 people died, appears to have overcome opposition wariness that he was unsupportive of Hezbollah’s resistance. Crucially, the Doha agreement granted the opposition a “blocking third” of Cabinet seats, enabling Hezbollah to exercise a veto on any decisions that encroach upon its powers.

Despite the congeniality in Doha, it appears force has once again won out in Lebanon, forcing the birth of a deal that has been on the table for a year and a half. This leads to questions regarding the strength of the accord. In any peace deal, the most important question is how long the peace will last. Is it a temporary band-aid, worked out simply to stop the immediate gunfire or is it an accord in which the sides are genuinely satisfied with what has been achieved and what they gained, even if the gains for one are noticeably more than the other? Nobody emerged with total victory but certainly Hezbollah won in as much as it got the things it most wanted. But the accord does not stop with Hezbollah’s relative triumph. The composition of the new government has been agreed, but there will be much haggling over who gets which portfolio. The new rules for the general election must also be enforced. And violence must not return.

There have been false dawns in Lebanon before. But this could be the real thing, if only because of the fear factor. The recent street battles forced the country to look back at what it had been through. And to realize it did not want to repeat the past. It then pulled back.

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