The fate of Lebanon's democracy will be decided in 2009
The Lebanese, who are still split into two political camps, greeted placidly the news that Lebanon and Syria will soon exchange ambassadors in accordance with a decision that topped a joint statement released at the end of a summit between Presidents Bashar el-Assad and Michel Suleiman (on 13 and 14 August).
Of course for Lebanon this is a big gift, one that everyone was waiting for since 1943 when the country became independent. But it is all coming quite late and the joy of seeing the former occupying power finally recognise Lebanon's independence cannot erase 30 years of struggle, interference and suffering which it had to endure to achieve this goal.
Naturally everyone wants to believe in the good news, but a certain scepticism prevails in majority circles, especially after the Lebanese heard Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem utter words from another time when he referred to "privileged relations" between Lebanon and Syria, an expression that goes directly back to a Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination, Syria imposed on Lebanon in 1991, which called for the "broadest [. . .] coordination" in the political, economic and security fields between Syria and Lebanon. "Coordination" was so strong that diplomatic and security reports used to reach Damascus before Lebanese officials were informed about them.
Plus the rebuilding of relations between Lebanon and Syria comes at a time when trust between much of Lebanon's political class and Syria is still mince his words when he told journalists that he would not go to Syria as long as the truth about the assassination of his father Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005 was not elucidated and the heavy clouds hanging over the Syrian regime about this and subsequent attacks were not lifted.
In this respect everyone is waiting for the conclusions of the international probe into the circumstances surrounding Rafik Hariri's assassination. The Commission's final report, which is almost completed, is expected to be released in late 2008; at that time a special tribunal should begin operating in The Hague (Netherlands) and examine the evidence collected during three years of painstaking work.
This is not the only uncertainty hanging over Lebanon's future. After an absurd war launched by Israel in July 2006 and two years of crisis that paralysed all of its institutions, the country has to cope with two opposing fundamentalisms, both of which are potential sources of violence, namely Shia/Iranian-inspired Hizbollah and Salafi-inspired Sunni groups.
With an arsenal that includes rockets that can reach Tel Aviv and the Dimona nuclear compound, Hizbollah represents a constitutional challenge to the state. It continues to refuse to place its forces under Lebanese command, whilst religiously following a political path subordinate to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran.
For their part Sunni extremist groups have become exasperated by a military operation launched by Hizbollah last May against the paramilitary forces of the (Sunni) Future Movement and the (Druze) Progressive Socialist Party. For the time being the re-emergence of Sunni Islamism is centred essentially in Tripoli, the capital of northern Lebanon.
Beside these two potential sources of violence the Lebanese army is directly threatened from terrorist groups that are more or less connected to Al-Qaeda. The latter is thought to be behind a recent attack that killed ten soldiers in Tripoli. In this area in 2007 the army crushed with heavy losses an insurrectional movement led by a group, Fatah al-Islam, considered close to Al-Qaeda, that was operating inside a Palestinian camp, Nahr al-Bared.
In addition to these political and military challenges there is the country's economic and social situation, characterised by high unemployment, poverty, rural exodus, youth emigration, and noticeable social inequalities. A "national dialogue" under the auspices of the president should in principle tackle all the challenges that Lebanon faces, but given the lessons of the past it does not seem very promising.
The regional and world contexts are dominated by the US elections in November 2008, the evolution of the Iranian nuclear issue and the indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel.
Under these delicate and difficult conditions Lebanon is approaching a crucial phase in its political life, ending with parliamentary elections in the spring 2009.
These elections will take place under an old electoral law and chances are evenly split between the current majority and the opposition. The election's outcome is already known in areas dominated by the big Muslim blocks, Sunni, Shia or Druze. In ridings where the outcome is uncertain Christian voters will make a difference. Thus the fate of Lebanon's democracy will depend on the intelligence with which this battle will be carried out.
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