13 September 2007

Opposition Leader Sees a Way Out for Lebanon

With Lebanon in political paralysis for almost a year, Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament and a leader of the opposition, on Wednesday pressed for agreement on his plan to restart negotiations and warned that Lebanon was headed toward chaos without a deal soon.

The political process has been caught between a demand for more power by the Hezbollah-led opposition and the American-backed government, struggling to maintain its authority. After threats of sectarian violence earlier this year, the situation grew calmer. But a resolution of the issues was never reached, and the need for one has become more urgent because President Émile Lahoud’s term ends in November.

Mr. Berri’s proposal would have the opposition drop its demand for a unity government if all political factions agreed by Sept. 25 to negotiate to select a new president by consensus.

But the proposal is mired in the familiar back-and-forth between the opposition and the American-backed majority. Each side says it wants to compromise for the benefit of Lebanon, and each charges the other with making unreasonable demands that threaten to push this sliver of a nation into “the unknown,” as Mr. Berri said Wednesday.

“Why am I in a hurry?” Mr. Berri, leader of the Shiite Amal movement, said to reporters from The New York Times and Le Figaro in his Beirut office. “I don’t like this situation around Lebanon. Here we are on top of a volcano.” It was an unusual moment: Mr. Berri rarely allows interviews with the Western press.

If Parliament does not agree on a new president by 10 days before the current president’s term ends, the Constitution would allow the governing coalition to elect its candidate. But many here believe that could lead the opposition to set up a parallel government, dividing the country and perhaps igniting factional violence. So far, there is little public optimism that a deal will be reached, though there have been intense behind-the-scenes negotiations with many foreign diplomats visiting Beirut to try to head off a crisis.

“There isn’t any movement, any creative energy,” said Oussama Safa, general director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, a nonpartisan research center. “There is no new item offered on the agenda, no movement worth noticing on it. Berri has the power to push for a deal, but we cannot forget that he is a partisan actor.”

Mr. Berri has tried to present himself as the peacemaker, saying that his offer is straightforward and, most important, the last chance.

Though Mr. Berri deflects questions on the issue, his proposal offers the opposition — in particular Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that has been pressing the Sunni majority for a bigger role in government — a face-saving way out of the immediate standoff. Late last year, Hezbollah organized an open-ended protest in the center of Beirut, vowing to keep it going until the government fell. The government continues in office, and the protesters’ tents are still crippling the center of the city.

But Mr. Berri has also made it clear that he thinks the majority is reluctant to compromise because it has the support of the United States. “They have help from your government and from the Security Council,” he said in the interview. “If I know that my father is going to help me, I don’t care about my brother.”

The majority says that Mr. Berri’s proposal has a catch: He will allow Parliament to convene only if two-thirds of the members attend. He says that is a constitutional requirement, but the majority contends that all that is needed is a simple majority; the two-thirds requirement for meeting, it says, would effectively require it to have support of two-thirds of the members to elect a president, instead of a simple majority.

Under the power-sharing agreement among sects here, the prime minister must be a Sunni, the Parliament speaker a Shiite and the president a Maronite Christian.

The majority may be especially sensitive to the proposal for a two-thirds requirement since aides to Michel Aoun, a retired general and Christian leader who split the Christian factions when he aligned with Hezbollah, have said he is a potential consensus candidate.

“It is not necessary that the consensual candidate be neutral,” Mr. Berri said during the interview. “He can be from the majority, and he can be from the minority. As long as there is a consensus around him, then he will be the strongest.”

Elias Atallah, a member of Parliament in the majority bloc, said that the governing coalition of Sunni, Druse and Christian factions “will agree on the initiative, but with our conditions.” He also said that “it is impossible that we agree on General Aoun as a consensus candidate.”

The majority at one point offered to give in to the opposition’s demand for a national unity government with veto power over all decisions, if all issues were resolved together: the choice of a president and support for an international tribunal that would investigate the killing of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and the many other bombings in the two years since. (Investigations ordered by the United Nations Security Council have uncovered evidence implicating Syria in the assassination, though Syria has denied any involvement.)

The opposition did not accept that offer from the majority.-(nytimes)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.