Sunday, 23 May 2010

Lebanon, Hezbollah and the peace process

Tomorrow, Monday 24 May, the Lebanese prime minister, Said Hariri, is due to arrive in Washington on his first official visit to the United States. He will be meeting President Obama in a dual capacity – as one of the main players on the Middle East stage, and also as holding the current presidency of the UN Security Council, a position which Lebanon retains until 31 May.

The situation is more than a trifle bizarre, since Hariri heads a national unity government that includes Hezbollah, the Shi'ite Islamist guerrilla body backed by Syria and Iran, and proscribed as "a terrorist organization" by the United States. Yet almost inevitably Obama and Hariri will discuss current US-led international efforts to impose new UN sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear programme.

Lebanon, it is reported, has quietly asked the permanent members of the Security Council – Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States – not to push for a vote on a new Iran sanctions resolution while it holds the presidency. When, or if, the vote is called, Lebanon is expected to abstain, given that Iranian-backed Hezbollah participates in its government.

Lebanon's history is, perhaps, more convoluted than many another state's – and this is not the place to rehearse it in detail. Sufficient to note that the end result is a sovereign nation whose day-to-day existence, as well as its future development, is heavily influenced by its neighbour, Syria, and the remoter once-colonial power, France.

During the Second World War Vichy France, Hitler's puppet state, first assumed control of Lebanon, but the country was liberated by Free French and British troops in 1941. It was declared an independent sovereign nation, and France handed over power to the first Lebanese government as from 1 January 1944.

The "National Pact", an unwritten agreement reached in 1943 and subsequently revised, established the basis of modern Lebanon. Political power in Lebanon is allocated on what is known as a "confessional" system, with seats in the parliament allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians. Posts in the civil service and in public office are distributed in the same way. The top three positions in the state are allocated so that the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament, a Shi'a Muslim.

Efforts to alter or abolish the confessional method of allocating power have been at the centre of Lebanese politics for decades, but no other system has yet displaced it. In 1989 many of the provisions of the National Pact were codified, and so, in effect, sectarianism was perpetuated as a key element of Lebanese political life.

And this partly explains the presence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government. Hezbollah, an extremist Islamist group, originated within the majority Shiite block of Lebanon society. It emerged with a separate identity in the early part of the 1980s as an Iranian-sponsored movement resisting the presence of Western and Israeli forces. Perhaps its most notorious terrorist actions – and ones that certainly will not be far from the forefront of President Obama's mind when he meets Hariri – were those of 23 October 1983 when the United States Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up in a suicide bombing just twenty seconds before an apartment building containing a group of French peacekeepers. Just six months previously, on 18 April, the US embassy in Beirut had been subject to a suicide car bombing which killed 63 people.

Born in blood, fire and explosion, Hezbollah can scarcely be said to have become respectable, but the group achieved a certain acceptability in Lebanese society following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000. In the election that followed – the first to include south Lebanon since 1972 because of the civil war and the Israeli presence that followed – Hezbollah formed an electoral alliance with the Amal party and took all 23 seats in South Lebanon, out of a total 128 parliamentary seats.

Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process. Following the elections in April 2009 Hariri took five months to pull together his government. The resulting 30-minister cabinet includes 15 ministers from Hariri's coalition, and 10 from the opposition including two Hezbollah ministers. The remaining five were nominated by President Suleiman.

Ahead of his trip to the States, Said Hariri has been on a whistle-stop tour of Arab capitals. Last week he visited Riyadh for talks with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz, Amman to meet King Abdullah, and then Damascus where he met Syrian President Bashar Assad. Yesterday (Saturday 22 May) he travelled to Cairo for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

After that meeting, Hariri is reported as calling on the international community to make "serious efforts" to push the peace process forward. "The only end for this process," he said, "is peace." And this is the message he proposes conveying to President Obama. One can only hope that he is speaking for the whole of his coalition government.

One last, and vital, entry in Hariri's diary before he steps on the plane for America, underlines yet again, if underlining were needed, the continuing influence in Lebanese affairs of the previous colonial power. French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, will arrive in Lebanon early today, and will meet Lebanese President Michel Suleiman as well as Hariri. The French government may have its own reasons for rushing Kouchner out to Lebanon at short notice, prior to a vital meeting with the US President. But official early reports speak of Kouchner's desire to reiterate his country’s support for Lebanon’s national unity government, and to emphasise France’s commitment to UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (which effectively ended direct hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel and established a buffer zone), and to the role subsequently played in south Lebanon by the peacekeeping forces which include 1,500 French soldiers.

There may be more to it than that.

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