Thursday, 30 January 2014

Egypt's revolutionary confusion

The history of revolutions demonstrates that they are essentially a process, often lasting several years, not an isolated event.  Academic studies, such as The Anatomy of Revolution by Crane Brinton, or Uprising by Mark Almond, have shown how revolutions tend to follow certain recognizable patterns.  Perceived injustices perpetrated by the government spark a popular uprising which then catches fire and spreads. Factions within the pro- and anti-revolutionaries arise, fostering new conflicts, then often fade away.  Leaders of this or that faction come and go.  Finally a demagogic figure often emerges above the chaos and seizes power – a Cromwell as in the English revolution, a Napoleon as in the French, a Lenin as in the Russian.

Or, as in Egypt, a General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, newly elevated to Field Marshal on his way to the presidency.

Revolutions, as Almond points out, are 24-hour-a day events they require stamina and quick thinking from both protesters and dictators. An elderly, inflexible, or ailing leader contributes to the crisis. Almond cites the cancer-stricken Shah of Iran, the debilitated Honecker in East Germany and Indonesia's Suharto. In all cases decades in power had encouraged a political sclerosis which made nimble political manoeuvres impossible and left the revolutionaries dominant.

Almond might just as well have pointed to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, thirty years in power and rumoured to be seriously ill at the moment the Egyptian revolution erupted, just three years ago.

Revolutions, asserts Almond, are made by the young a thesis equally borne out by the Egyptian experience. 

Back in 2008 workers in an industrial city in the middle of the Nile Delta were organizing a strike, set for April 6, to protest against low wages and high food prices.  A group of young activists, determined to support them, dubbed themselves “The April 6 Youth Movement”.  Consisting of  predominantly secular and well-educated young people, the group employed tactics so far unprecedented in the Middle East.  They used Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, blogs and other new media tools to report on the strike, alert their networks about police activity, organize legal protection and draw attention to their efforts.

The group's leaders included a young woman, Esraa Rashid, and 27-year-old Ahmed Maher.  On April 6 thousands of workers did indeed riot. Egyptian security police struck back, killing four and arresting 400. Rashid was arrested and jailed for more than two weeks. A new demonstration on May 4, 2008 – President Mubarak's 80th birthday – resulted in Maher’s arrest.  He was questioned and beaten for about 12 hours. The next three years saw a succession of protests by the group, followed by other arrests, but the movement went from strength to strength.  So it is not surprising that the April 6 Youth Movement, with their demands for free speech and democratic government, led the protests in 2011 aimed at removing President Mubarak from power.

Perhaps it is also not surprising that, following Egypt’s brief flirtation with democracy that resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood gaining control of the government and the presidency, the April 6 movement was among the first to protest at the abuse of that power.  Young and secularist as they were, members of the movement had no desire to see Egypt shackled to the rigid Islamist rule at the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda. They felt that the high hopes voiced by many young, Western-inclined people in Tahrir Square in January 2011 had been dashed.

So the youth movement supported the popular uprising against the rule of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and, with the help of the army, helped to topple him.  The Muslim Brotherhood immediately commenced a programme of violent opposition to the new régime, and in the ensuing street violence over a thousand Morsi supporters were killed, mostly on the streets of Cairo, and thousands more jailed. 

The leaders of the military coup, headed by General, now Field Marshal, al-Sisi, were determined to demonstrate that it was in earnest in its total opposition to the Brotherhood.  The new interim government ruthlessly crushed all demonstrations of dissent, proscribed the Brotherhood as an illegal organization, and have put Morsi on trial.  However the April 6 Youth Movement, no friend of the Brotherhood, is instinctively against the use of force by government, and was active in opposing al-Sisi’s strong-arm tactics. As a result, a number of their most prominent figures have been detained for months or sentenced to prison amid a campaign to silence even secular voices of disagreement.

There could scarcely be a better example of the confusion inherent in on-going revolutionary situations.  Within the space of a few years April 6, the leading populist movement, had opposed the existing government (Mubarak’s), had opposed the elected government that succeeded it (the Muslim Brotherhood’s), and was now opposing the administration that had succeeded both (al-Sisi’s).

A movement consisting of young people seeking a secular, democratic future for their country cannot be expected to take a long view.  That was expressed by US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, as supporters of ousted President Morsi organized and carried out terrorist attacks across Egypt and the Sinai peninsular.  “The Egyptian government and people are navigating their political transition in a challenging security environment, and violence aimed at undermining this transition has no place in Egypt.”

The clashes between Islamists and government forces contrasted with scenes of celebration in Tahrir Square and other major squares in provincial capitals, marking the third anniversary of Mubarak’s overthrow. Long queues of demonstrators lined up to enter the tightly secured squares through metal detectors. Some wore paper masks with al-Sisi's picture, and their rallies exhibited a ferociously anti-Islamist tone.

Like the youth movement, Egypt itself has come full circle these past three years from military régime to short-lived democracy and back again.  But the revolution is still running its course; the story is not fully told.  A future containing within it a spark of hope lies ahead.  A new constitution has been approved by popular, if somewhat manipulated, vote, and presidential elections – which will certainly see Field Marshal al-Sisi voted into office are to be followed by parliamentary elections, bringing with them the possibility of a non-Islamist régime, and real democracy. 

The Egyptian government and people are, in Harf’s words, “navigating their political transition”, and are certainly encountering some choppy waters en route.  All the same there is hope that the voyage could end in a happier and more stable future for the whole nation.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 January 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 31 January 2014:

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Secret plans for a diplomatic intafada

Some time after April 2014, when the nine months allotted to the current round of peace talks expires, Israel will face a disastrous Palestinian diplomatic assault on its legitimacy, backed by the many countries friendly to Palestine, claims the authoritative political website Debkafile.

Despite the US “framework agreement” due to be published shortly, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is likely to wait until the full nine months are over before launching the diplomatic intafada predicted by Debkafile if only to ensure the release by Israel of the final batch of Palestinian terrorist prisoners which was part of the deal for joining the talks in the first place.  So, it is believed, April 30 is the key date on which the PA will cast aside the cloak of seeking a peace agreement with Israel

It is no surprise, therefore, that on January 21 Abbas is reported as saying: “It was agreed that the negotiations would continue for nine months. There is not talk about an extension. We need to focus on the remaining time and not think about prolonging the talks.”  His chief negotiator, Saeeb Erekat, also dismissed the idea that the peace talks could extend beyond the April deadline.  The Palestinians, he asserted, would not agree even to a one-day extension.

Soon after April 30 then, if the intelligence reports are to be believed, all hell will be let loose against Israel, diplomatically speaking.  Teams within the PA organization, we are told, are even now concluding plans to enlist 63 international organizations for a massive and co-ordinated anti-Israel boycott, each in its own sphere of activity. Among them is the International Court of Justice at the Hague, which is to be asked to indict Israel for hundreds of alleged war crimes and the practice of apartheid.

This carefully designed operation will, if the reports are to be believed, sit nicely with events planned by the little known United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP) yes, it really does exist, and has done so since 1975, when it was set up under a resolution of the UN General Assembly. 

In 1977, following the establishment of CEIRPP, the General Assembly provided it with a fully-fledged secretariat, designated the Division for Palestinian Rights, as part of the UN’s Department of Political Affairs. Its mandate includes organizing international meetings and conferences, a publications programme, and setting up an online information system called the United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine (UNISPAL). Each year, on or around November 29, CEIRPP organizes an International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

One day of solidarity with the Palestinian people is now  apparently too modest a gesture for the UN.  So under their wide and elaborately constructed umbrella, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced to the world that January 16, 2014 marked the start of an International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinians. A detailed programme of events for the year has not yet been announced, but at the launch the UN’s Palestinian Rights Committee adopted a 12-page manifesto which proposes a global campaign to blanket the airwaves, social media, legislative and judicial forums, and schools, with a propaganda exercise aimed at promoting “international awareness of the obstacles to the ongoing peace process... including the settlements, Jerusalem, the blockade of Gaza, and the humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territory.” 

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, was not fooled into believing that the exercise was anything but a massive effort to delegitimize the state of Israel, and that the UN was compliant in the exercise.

"The UN is used as a tool in the service of Palestinian propaganda,” he said. “Instead of trying to end the campaign of Palestinian incitement against Israel, the UN provides a stage for Palestinian productions for the media. While the Palestinians seek UN solidarity, they continue to educate an entire generation to hate Israel and deny the connection between the Jewish people to their homeland. It's time to stop the hypocrisy and ask, where is solidarity with the victims of terrorism in Israel and their families?"

If the threatened outbreak of a Palestinian diplomatic war by the PA occurs, potentiated, as it would be, by the UN’s own efforts via CEIRPP and the programme  of activities associated with the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Israel’s legitimacy and international credibility will be gravely jeopardized.

Is the Israeli government aware of the brewing storm – and if so, is it planning to do anything about it?

Counter-measures of a sort are, in fact, in hand – though whether they are likely to be adequate against the massive offensive being planned is open to question.

On January 21, Ze’ev Elkin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, disclosed that he was heading a new, sustained and pro-active effort to combat the worldwide, and growing, attempt to delegitimize Israel through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“I believe the most effective way to combat delegitimization,” he wrote, “is a pre-emptive strike. We must not be limited to reacting to threats but rather must work actively to make Israel a positive part of the public consciousness.”

For this purpose, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has created “Face of Israel”, a joint venture between the Foreign Ministry and diaspora Jewry.  Based on the successful model of Birthright, the educational organization that sponsors heritage trips to Israel for Jewish young adults, this new organization will be responsible for fighting Israel’s image battle internationally, under the guidance of the Foreign Ministry.

“We chose this model of operation,” says Elkin, “a joint venture between Israel and diaspora Jewry, because we deeply believe that Israel’s positive image and the threat of delegitimization, with its anti-Semitic tinge, is a global Jewish challenge. I believe that we, along with our partners in diaspora Jewry, have the knowledge, expertise and skills to combat delegitimization.”

A diplomatic intafada, no less than an active terrorist one, needs to be countered forcefully.  In light of the anti-Israel initiatives already in full operation, such as academic and commercial boycotts, to say nothing of what is being planned both openly by the UN and so far in secret by the PA (if what we read is indeed the case), friends of Israel must hope that “Face of Israel” is as effective as Ze’ev Elkin presumes it will be.

Israel has been given fair warning.  “Too little, too late,” as an epitaph on its counter measures, would be difficult to justify.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 January 2014:

Friday, 17 January 2014

Israel and Palestine: moving the goalposts

July 30, 2013:  “Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months”  –  John Kerry, US Secretary of State.

December 7, 2013:  “It is possible over the next several months to arrive at a framework that does not address every single detail but gets us to a point where everybody recognizes it’s better to move forward than go backwards.” Barack Obama, US President. 

The aspirational target announced by Kerry back in July, at the start of the current round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, has proved wildly optimistic.  And this in spite of the fact that, in the intervening six months, John Kerry has not spared himself in his prodigious efforts to achieve his objective.  If the Nobel Peace Prize were awarded on the basis of sheer persistence in the pursuit of peace, John Kerry would be the number one candidate this year.  A dozen visits to the Middle East by Kerry, 24 rounds of talks between the principal negotiators – and yet a final status agreement remains way beyond reach.

Is US diplomacy to admit defeat?  Never!  It has found a way to come to terms with the changed circumstances, and emerge smelling of roses.

“Rather than declare failure,” observes political analyst Herb Keinon, “what Kerry and US President Barack Obama have done is to change the name of the game.”  So what is now being sought is “not an agreement, but a basis to allow continued negotiations toward an agreement.”

In short, they shifted the goalposts and in so doing, they redefined the criteria by which “success” is to be judged.  The desired outcome is now no longer a “final status agreement”, but what has been dubbed a “framework agreement”, defined as a critical first step towards a comprehensive Middle East peace accord. Kerry is currently heavily engaged in trying to win the concurrence of the two negotiating teams to a document encapsulating this framework.  The statement will seek to achieve enough of a convergence on core issues to allow the two sides to proceed later, in a so-far unspecified time frame extending well beyond the original nine months, towards a formal peace agreement whose final outcome is to be a sovereign Palestinian state.

Informed sources indicate that the so-called “framework agreement” – which, rumour has it, is to be issued within the next few weeks will be a short document, perhaps fewer than a dozen pages and without detailed annexes. It would not be signed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and would most likely take note of reservations that the two sides have about some elements.

The mere prospect of this framework accord – to say nothing of a final status agreement, if or when it finally appears is beginning to produce political ructions in both Jerusalem and Ramallah.  Rejectionist voices in both camps are already loud in their condemnation of feared – though by no means confirmed concessions being made by their leaders.  On January 4 the leading Palestinian negotiator, SaebErekat, told local media:  “There’s no place to talk about interim agreements or extension of the negotiations, and that’s also what I told Kerry.”  A few days later Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, created an international furore by castigating Kerry’s efforts as an “incomprehensible obsession,” and “messianic”.  Kerry’s spokesmen in Washington may have roundly condemned the comments, but Kerry himself, “undeterred” as he puts it,  sails serenely on.  “I will work with the willing participants who are committed to peace and committed to this process.”

The substance of the negotiations undertaken during those twenty-four, no doubt wearisome, sessions has not been revealed.  The blanket of secrecy imposed by Kerry at the very start of the process has, by and large, been successfully maintained. A few self-styled “informed” leaks there have been, but how valid they are is anyone’s guess.  Kerry insisted – and with some justification that it was vital for the parties to be able to negotiate freely, and without the political and media pressure that would undoubtedly have built up if regular progress reports had been issued.

But there is an obverse to that particular coin.  The absence of hard information provides a breeding ground in both camps for rumour, and for fear of where the talks are headed and what vital matters are being conceded.  Even worse, with no indication of whether the negotiations are indeed leading the parties towards agreement, neither Israeli nor Palestinian public opinion is being prepared for a successful outcome.  This is particularly obvious on the Palestinian side, where traditional anti-Israel, “anti-normalization”, demonstrations continue unabated. and where Kerry was met by hostile and vociferous protesters on his latest visit to Ramallah.  Inside Israel, the free media do give voice to the wide range of political opinion – but even so, there seems only cynicism about the likely result of the current talks, and no groundswell of support for a successful outcome.

In short, while more extreme voices on both sides continue to express profound lack of confidence in the negotiations and in those undertaking them, any sort of countervailing body of opinion pushing for a successful outcome, organizing pro-agreement demonstrations, urging the leaders to reach an accord, preparing the public for peace, has so far been notably absent in both the Palestinian territories and Israel, although - a hopeful sign?- one such demonstration actually took place in Israel on January 17. Nevertheless it is pretty clear that neither side is yet ready to embrace the concept of peaceful co-existence, and that, following the framework agreement, substantive discussions are likely to extend well beyond April 2014 into an indefinite future, with no assurance of a successful outcome.  

The situation leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. A horrid suspicion persists that, at the end of the day, the mountain will have laboured mightily and brought forth a mouse.  If current reports are to be believed, the framework agreement will have been signed by neither of the prime movers - Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or PA President Abbas.  It will be, reports suggest, an American statement, setting out what the peace discussions have so far achieved, but also apparently detailing areas of remaining disagreement.  A statement, in short, of the obvious.  The reaction on all sides might well be: “Tell us something we don’t know.”  If this is to be claimed by Washington as success, and a result commensurate with John Kerry’s intensive efforts to bring the parties to an agreement, then the shifting of the original goalposts will scarcely have been justified.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 20 January 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 January 2014:

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Is Israel a Jewish State?

         This basic question – with a self-evident answer for most people – has, if media reports are to be believed, turned itself into a major stumbling block on the road to a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

What is at issue is not so much the fact of the matter as Palestinian acknowledgment of it.  Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly asked for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.  He put it at its bluntest in his June 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University: “The root of the conflict was, and remains, the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own in their his­toric homeland.”
Just as often Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas reiterates that this is something the Palestinians will never agree to.  On Egyptian TV Abbas said unequivocally: “I will never recognize a Jewish state” – a sentiment he repeated in December in a letter to President Obama. He contends that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would disenfranchise its 1.6 million Arab citizens and undercut the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees.  It would also imply the renunciation of the cherished dream, held equally by Fatah as by Hamas, of an eventual extension of an Arab Palestine “from the river to the sea”.

US foreign policy is quite clear on the matter. In his visit to the Middle East early in 2013, President Obama said, in so many words: “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state” a sentiment endorsed pretty generally by the international community. When the Russian ambassador to Israel was asked to ratify the proposition, he gave a sensible answer. Why reiterate what we and 33 other nations accepted in the UN vote in 1947, he asked. That resolution stated explicitly that British mandate Palestinewould be two states — one Arab state and the other Jewish.” 

And indeed the wording of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 explicitly states that the territory of Palestine would be divided into “a Jewish State covering 56.47%”  and “an Arab State covering 43.53% of Palestine”.

The international determination to establish a homeland for the Jewish people harks back to the resolution passed by the San Remo conference in 1920, and confirmed by the League of Nations in July 1922 when appointing Britain as the mandatory power for Palestine.  

Israel’s Declaration of Independence, issued on May 14, 1948, the day that the British mandate to govern Palestine expired, says:
“This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable. This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State… Accordingly, we hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”

This original and unequivocal assertion of the nature and purpose of the new state should, on the face of it, be sufficient to provide the definitive answer to any question as to Israel’s essential character.  Of course, it is not.

An article earlier this month in a German paper compared Netanyahu’s call for the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel as a Jewish state to the creation of an “apartheid state” or a “theocracy”, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The writer argued that if PA President Mahmoud Abbas were to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, “Arab Israelis would be second-class citizens.” 

The demand for recognition also has its challengers inside Israel.  It is a peculiarity of Israel that, while its inhabitants can categorize themselves as Israeli citizens, they cannot list their nationality as “Israeli”, only as “Jewish,” “Arab” or one of the other 130 possible nationalities adopted by the interior ministry for Israeli citizens. The category “Israeli” is not one of them.

Six years ago 21 appellants petitioned to be registered as “Israeli” in the Israeli national registry, arguing that without the existence of a secular Israeli identity, Israeli policies discriminate against minorities.  The case went before a Jerusalem district court judge who declined to give judgment, deeming the issue not a matter for the courts.

Last October the Supreme Court disagreed, and heard the appeal.  They rejected it, referring back to a ruling issued by then-Supreme Court President Shimon Agranat some 40 years ago. In Agranat’s words: “There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people. The Jewish people is composed not only of those residing in Israel but also of diaspora Jewries.”

In short, although all Israelis qualify as “citizens of Israel,” the state is defined as belonging to the “Jewish nation,” meaning not only the 7 million Israeli Jews but also the 7 million in the diaspora.

A more down-to-earth challenge to the demand by Netanyahu for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state comes from Israeli finance minister Yair Lapid.  Last autumn, in a TV interview in the States, Lapid said: "I don't feel we need a declaration from the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The whole concept of the State of Israel is that we recognize ourselves.”

Dr Tal Becker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out in his detailed examination of the issue: “The term ‘Jewish state’ is sometimes misconceived as implying an aspiration for a Jewish theocracy. Properly understood, however, the claim seeks no more and no less than public recognition of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in a state of their own.” 

So yes, Israel is a Jewish State, and given that it is also committed to preserving the rights of all its citizens and minority groups, there is nothing undemocratic about asserting the fact, however difficult its non-Jewish citizens may find singing the Zionist national anthem, “Hatikvah”.  Perhaps a new first verse that all can subscribe to is called for.  As for the claimed right of return of some 5 million Palestinians, this is clearly an issue for resolution within the context of a final peace accord, and acknowledging that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people should not affect that matter one way or the other.

In the final analysis, however, minister Lapid may have a point.  If Abbas decides during difficult peace negotiations to acknowledge Israel's essential nature, it would be a gesture of goodwill; however, the status of Israel as a Jewish state is for Israel itself to determine, and is not at all dependent on Palestinian endorsement.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 January 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 January 2014:

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Liberating Lebanon

"We have decided to liberate Lebanon from occupation by illegal weaponry."

The words of one-time Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, at the funeral of his friend and ally, Mohammed Chatah, blown to pieces by a car bomb on Friday, December 27, 2013.

What did he mean? First and foremost, he was reaffirming the basic philosophy underlying Lebanon’s so-called “March 14 Alliance” – a coalition of Lebanese politicians united by their opposition to the Syrian régime and to the Shia Islamist movement, Hezbollah. March 14 was the launch date in 2005 of the Cedar Revolution, a protest movement triggered by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri earlier that year. The demonstrations were directed against Syria’s President Bashar Assad, suspected from the first of being behind the murder, and his Iranian-supported allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, who were widely believed to have carried out the deed. The March 14 Alliance is led by Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s younger son.

The echoes of Rafik Hariri’s cold-blooded slaughter have continued to reverberate through Lebanese politics. Hariri had been demanding that Hezbollah disband its militia and direct its thousands of fighters to join Lebanon's conventional armed forces. The same demand lies behind Siniora’s new pledge to “liberate Lebanon from occupation by illegal weaponry" – the illegal weaponry being the massive input of arms and money provided to Hezbollah by Iran.

More practically, perhaps, Sioniora was referring to the fact that Saudi Arabia had just pledged $3 billion to Lebanon to help strengthen the country's armed forces. The Lebanese army has struggled to contain a rising tide of violence linked to the civil war in neighbouring Syria. With Hezbollah fighting to support Assad, while a large segment of Lebanese opinion is in favour of toppling him, the conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions and threatened the country's stability. Many Lebanese – even those of Shii’te persuasion – resent the fact that Hezbollah is engaged in conflict, at the behest of Iran, against Muslims in a neighbouring country – activities far from the purpose for which the organization was founded. They resent the mounting death toll of Lebanese fighters – a recent estimate was 262 dead – and Hezbollah has reportedly been paying the families of its fighters killed in Syria to keep quiet about their relatives' deaths. These resentments, allied to the assassination of Mohammed Chatah, may explain the car bomb in the Hezbollah area of south Beirut on 2 January which killed four and injured over 60 people.

The Lebanese President, Michel Sleiman, who made the surprise announcement of the Saudi pledge in a televised address, said that “the weapons will be bought from France quickly." At the moment the balance of military power within the country heavily favours the military wing of Hezbollah, formally declared “a terrorist organization” by the European Union in July 2013. This boost to Lebanon‘s armed forces should go some way to redressing the balance.

In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the one and only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Sh’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Despite brief interludes of prosperity (“Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East”), Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict.

Liberated in 1941 by Free French and British troops from the control of Hitler’s puppet Vichy France, Lebanon was declared an independent sovereign nation. France handed over power to the first Lebanese government as from 1 January 1944.

Modern Lebanon was established on the basis of an agreed "National Pact". Political power is allocated on a religious or "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.

Theoretically no system could seem more just, more designed to satisfy all parties in a multi-sectarian society. In practical terms, it has proved a constant irritant. Efforts to alter or abolish the confessional method of allocating power have been at the centre of Lebanese politics for decades, and it partly explains the presence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government.

Hezbollah, an extremist Shia Islamist group, emerged with a separate identity in the early 1980s as an Iranian-sponsored movement aimed at resisting the presence of Western and Israeli forces. Responsible for a string of notorious terrorist actions, such as the suicide car bombing of the US embassy in Beirut killing 63 people, and the blowing up of the United States Marine barracks six months later, Hezbollah was born in blood, fire and explosion.

It can scarcely be said to have become respectable, but Hezbollah achieved a certain acceptability in Lebanese society following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone it had established along the border. In the election that followed Hezbollah took all 23 South Lebanon seats, out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has consistently participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process, has been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government, and has slowly achieved substantial, if not dominant, power within Lebanon’s body politic – far too much, according to the March 14 Alliance.

The movement to free Lebanon from Hezbollah’s grip is closely bound up with the interminable judicial investigation into Rafik Hariri’s assassination – a process which began in April 2005 with the establishment of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC). According to the Commission – the last of its ten reports was delivered in April 2008 – the Lebanese and Syrian security and intelligence agencies committed the assassination using members of Hezbollah.

The UNIIIC was succeeded by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), whose pre-trial proceedings continue to this day. Antonio Cassese, its president, has suggested that the bulk of the court’s work would not be completed before 2015.

Throughout the eight years since Rafik Hariri’s assassination, Hezbollah and the Syrian régime have consistently sought to quash the UN investigation, or at least to disrupt and discredit it. As a result UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called on political leaders in Lebanon not to interfere in the STL's affairs:

"I want to be perfectly clear. This tribunal [has] a clear mandate from the Security Council to uncover the truth and end impunity. I urge all Lebanese and regional parties not to interfere in the tribunal's work. It will go on.”

Will the outcome of the investigation – and the trials, if any, which follow – be sufficient to loosen Hezbollah’s stranglehold on Lebanon’s body politic and permit the re-establishment of the harmonious balance of power envisaged in its unique constitution?