Monday, November 5, 2007

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 1

During the coming days, I will post my interpretation of the recent history in Lebanon. It is a translation of a series of articles posted on my Dutch blog about a year ago, supplemented by the history of the last year. The series will consist of roughly 15 episodes, so stay tuned!

In order to gain insight in what has happened during the last two years in this country, it is useful to use a leitmotif to explain the various events. As always, there are plenty of themes available one could use to describe and explain history and Lebanon’s history is no exception. You could focus on the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites, the ever shrinking influence of Christians in Lebanon, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, etcetera. There are many options to choose from, that much is clear.

In this series of articles, I will look at Lebanon’s history through the prism of the relationship between Lebanon and Syria. Not because it will result in the best possible explanations, but it is mostly a choice forced upon me due to my limited knowledge. Obviously, I will try to be as neutral as possible, but please keep in mind I am not a journalist, historian or otherwise professionally engaged in following events in Lebanon. Therefore, please accept my apologies beforehand for all the mistakes and errors that the series of articles no doubt will have.

In order to appreciate the current political situation, we have to go back to fall 2004, the year in which the six year mandate of President Emile Lahoud expired. It was up to the Lebanese parliament to appoint a successor which led to much maneuvering taking place prior to Lahoud’s expiry date. The Lebanese president has to be a Maronite Christian and thus the head of the Maronite church was heavily involved in the process of finding a suitable successor.

The concept of separation between State and Religion is as good as unknown in Lebanon and many politicians frequent the Maronite patriarch to ask for his advice and opinion. Despite the differences within the Maronite community, most of the Maronites agreed on one thing: the next president should take a more independent stance towards Syria. Especially the patriarch has consistently been fighting against the Syrian dominance in Lebanon and he was hoping that a new president would be different from Lahoud, whom many Maronites saw as pro Syrian.

The Syrian dominance started in 1976 when they arrived in Lebanon to separate the then fighting groups after the start of the Lebanese Civil War and they haven’t left since. This gave them a period of almost 30 years to establish a secure power base and to be in control of Lebanon. Many Lebanese felt their country was reduced to nothing more than a province of Syria since all the decisions taken by the Lebanese government were only effected after Syria would approve. Lahoud was considered to be a symbol of the power neighbor Syria held over Lebanon since he was seen by the inner circles of the Maronite church as unwilling and possibly unable to stand up against Syria.

Many people started to get worried when it became clear that Syria intended to extend the term of Lahoud. Not only the Maronites were concerned, but other groups as well, especially the Sunnis. By constitution, the prime minister of Lebanon has to be a Sunni Muslim, a position held by Rafiq Hariri at the time. He was a business man who almost single-handedly rebuilt the downtown area of Beirut that was left in shatters after the 15 year long civil war. The relationship between Hariri and Lahoud was quite problematic with the former hoping to get more power after the exit of Lahoud.

Another group that was upset about Syria’s intentions to extend Lahoud’s term was the Druze, led by Walid Jumblatt. His father, Kamal Jumblatt was killed during the civil war, most likely at the initiative of Syria. This has left his son little warm feelings for Lebanon’s neighbor. The only group that did not object was Hezbollah. They felt that Lahoud, despite being a Maronite, understood the sisterly relationship between Syria and Lebanon and has always supported the Arab cause

The matter of the extension of the presidential term, and especially the fact that the Lebanese government was considering changing its own Constitution at the instigation of a neighboring country, got international attention which resulted in the UN resolution 1559 on September 2, 2004. It called for a “free and fair electoral process” and for the foreign forces (read: Syria) to leave Lebanon, which many understood as a slap in the face of Lahoud’s ambitions and Syria that was considered to be the puppet master behind the scene.

OK, problem solved, you’d say: with so much internal opposition against Lahoud’s extension as well as the international concerns which resulted in an UN resolution, it would be impossible for Lahoud to stay on as president, right?

Nah…that would have been too easy. Nothing is what it seems in Lebanon and despite many objections beforehand, most politicians crumbled under pressure and voted in favor of changing the Constitution to allow for Lahoud’s extension. Jumblatt and some independent Christian MPs opposed the change, but all others agreed to the change. The others, including the party of Rafiq Hariri did not have the courage to go against Syrian interests and it shows how strong of a grip Syria held over Lebanon at that time.

Interesting enough, though, Hariri decided to leave his position shortly after, or, depending on one’s political stance, was pressured into doing so and was succeeded by Omar Karami, a staunch defender of Syrian’s interests in Lebanon. For the casual observer, it seemed as if Syria has won the battle and that order was restored. After all, Lahoud got his extension plus they got the bonus of having a prime minister who was close to Syria. Hence, from Syrian perspective it seemed that all was quiet on the western front…

See here for the next episode.


Jeha said...

True, the late Hariri had a sad tendency to compromise on the fundamentals. But it is not as much that "Rafiq Hariri did not have the courage to go against Syrian interests" as that they broke his arm. Litterally.