09 November 2007

Rivals must co-operate over Lebanon

Three European foreign ministers rushed to Beirut recently to persuade the pro-western parliamentary majority and pro-Iranian and Syrian opposition to hold presidential elections by the late November deadline, and avoid another tragic conflagration in the ­Middle East. The United Nations Security Council added its voice this week by demanding free and fair elections and Arab and western foreign ministers huddled in Istanbul to talk about Lebanon.

But if Lebanon is to avert disaster, the flurry of diplomacy needs more vigorous and reasoned input from two crucial parties – the US and Iran. However unusual, Washington and Tehran have more reason to co-operate than to spar over the latest Lebanese crisis, even though they back rival factions. Their instincts are to seek victory for their allies, but their strategic interests are better served keeping Lebanon as a relatively dormant front and promoting a presidential compromise.

Since Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister and Syrian opponent, was assassinated in Beirut in 2005, Lebanon has suffered a nightmarish combination of serial killings of anti-Syrian figures, war with Israel and relentless internal feuding. For more than a year, the Sunni-led government has been under siege from a powerful opposition led by the Shia militant group Hizbollah and seeking a bigger role in decision-making. The government has vowed not to let Lebanon fall into what it calls the Iranian-Syrian axis; the opposition has pledged to prevent Lebanon becoming another American proxy.

In theory, the presidential election represents a valuable opportunity for pro-government forces – supported by the US, Europe and Saudi Arabia – to use their narrow majority and vote in a friendly president to replace Emile Lahoud, the obstructive pro-Syrian leader and opposition ally. Paralysed by opposition pressure, its MPs under constant threat of assassination, the so-called March 14 coalition is eager to exercise what remains of its power.

But in practice this would mean the new president would lack support from the Shia, one of the largest religious communities, and a good segment of Christians, allied to the Shia. More alarming, the opposition is determined to prevent a vote that goes against its interests, and some members have threatened to set up a rival government. Given Lebanon's history of civil war (1975-1991), Hizbollah's militancy and rumoured efforts to form new militias, the risk of renewed sectarian strife should not be underestimated.

Partly because of its own disunity, Lebanon has become entangled in the broader crisis in the region, turning into a stage where the US on one side and Iran and Syria on the other play out their dispute. Yet, for Washington, the collapse of Lebanon into civil war would mark the unravelling of the last standing US-promoted Mideast experiment in democracy, now that Iraq and Palestine have come undone. It is not a risk Washington can afford to take.

Moreover, if Damascus, as pro-government forces charge, is bent on destabilising Lebanon through political violence, with the aim of reasserting its control, then saving Lebanon from disintegration is surely the best way to confront Syrian designs.

Syria's intentions in Lebanon are not in perfect harmony with Iran's. Tehran has more reason to favour stability in Lebanon, at a time when it confronts the US in Iraq and over its nuclear programme. Its priority is to protect Hizbollah and avert an Iraqi-style Sunni-Shia conflict. The value of Hizbollah for Iran extends beyond the group's disciplined military order. By standing up to an Israeli onslaught last year, Hizbollah was hailed as a champion of Muslim rights, winning support among Sunni Arabs and boosting the image of Shia Iran. Hizbollah's aura, however, would dissipate as soon as it turned its guns against other Lebanese, reducing it to the status of a Shia militia.

Given the deep mistrust of the two rival camps in Lebanon, compromise is not easily achievable, but it is not impossible. The president would have to sign off on the minimum requirements of each faction. On the government side, this includes a commitment to the UN tribunal to try the killers of Hariri and other anti-Syrian figures; on the opposition side, it would consist of a pledge to maintain discussion over Hizbollah's future and the fate of its military wing, a matter of domestic debate, rather than foreign dictate. This is far from being an ideal situation and it is certainly not the lasting solution to Lebanon's woes. But compromise, at least, buys Lebanon time and prevents the crumbling of an exceedingly fragile state.

The writer is the FT's Middle East ­editor

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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.