25 November 2007

Political Chaos in Lebanon

Beirut - At the stroke of midnight last night, pro-Syrian Lebanese
President Emil Lahoud, his extended term finally at an end, walked out
of the hilltop Baabda Republican Palace and waved goodbye to the
assembled photographers and journalists.

What he left behind was political chaos that threatens to engulf the country in civil war.

That’s because the majority government forces in parliament led by
Said Hariri, son of the beloved ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri who was
murdered in 2005 and the opposition led by the terrorist group
Hezbollah have been unable to reach agreement on a consensus candidate
to replace him:

Lebanon woke up Saturday a state without a president, a government
termed “illegitimate” by the Hezbollah-led opposition and an army
guarding social order with consent of the feuding parties.

Foreign powers called for calm and speed up of efforts to elect a
new head of state, while Iran cautioned that Lebanon is “so close to
civil war.”

Former Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud left the hilltop Baabda
Republican Palace at midnight Friday, ending a controversial term of
nine years in office after Parliament failed to elect a successor
hurling the nation into power vacuum.

“Lahoud’s term end to a republic without a president,” the daily
an-Nahar headlined its front page. “Political and security guarantees
govern the transition era,” it added in the eight-column double
headline. “Lahoud walked out,” shouted al-Moustaqbal daily, which is
affiliated with MP Saad Hariri, leader of the largest parliamentary
bloc that opposed Lahoud.

“A republic without head .. protected by organized vacuum,” outlined as-Safir in its front-page banner.

That “organized vacuum” protecting the “republic without a head” is
the Lebanese army. Just prior to his vacating office, President Lahoud
transferred the responsibility for security to the army. And while
Prime Minister Siniora has rejected this move as unconstitutional, both
sides for the time being seem content with the idea that neither
controls the troops in the streets:

lebanon celebrates - lahoud out 10.jpgAn
air of organized vacuum was evident in the streets of Beirut late
Friday evening where partisans of Hariri’s al-Moustaqbal Movement
celebrated the end of Lahoud’s term with fire crackers and chants of
“Lahoud out, out” in Tarik Jedideh district while supporters of
Hezbollah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s AMAL movement maintained
calm in the adjacent district of Barbour.

An army captain in charge of checkpoints along the Kourniche Mazraa
thoroughfare, which separates the two neighborhoods, told reporters:

“Things are under control. Both sides know that we are here and we will not tolerate disturbances.”

Businesses and public institutions were open for normal services
Saturday as calm prevailed over Lebanon, amidst calls by the United
States, The European Union and the United Nations to maintain calm and
speed up efforts to elect a new head of state.

The only difference observed, however, was that Lahoud’s pictures
have been removed from offices of some government institutions in areas
traditionally hostile to the ex-president and the pro-Syrian

It is just one manifestation of a highly volatile and dangerous situation. Who controls the army?

At issue is the presidency who by law is elected by a 2/3 majority
in parliament. Failing to achieve that super majority, parliament by
law can then elect the president by simple majority. However, the March
14th forces who control parliament have been reluctant to take that
latter step because the opposition has made it known that they would
view any president elected by simple majority as illegitimate. Hence,
the strenuous efforts to find a consensus candidate who would enjoy the
support of both sides.

However, as the weeks and months dragged on, it became apparent that
Hezbollah was not interested in consensus but rather chaos. They have
rejected every plan, every formula, every candidate offered by the
majority as well as those offered by respected, non partisans like the
Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Hezbollah will have it all or
nothing when it comes to the choice for president.

What next? More negotiations, more of the same. Eventually, most
observers believe that the March 14th forces are simply going to have
to bite the bullet and elect a president by simply majority. At that
point, Hezbollah may very well name their own president who would, in
turn, name a prime minister and cabinet.

Two governments backed by two factions - a recipe for civil war.

The future is dark and unknowable in Lebanon at the moment. The
people are on edge - hugely disappointed in their politicians who they
blame for the impasse. But perhaps their anger should be directed
toward Damascus where President Assad sits, spinning his webs of
intriuge and confusion, all designed to maximize Syrian influence in
that tiny, divided nation.

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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.