EGYPT: Helpless Before the Lebanon Crisis
EGYPT: Helpless Before the Lebanon Crisis
Thursday, January 17,2008 09:03
By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

With another bombing in Beirut this week, the political standoff in Lebanon appears far from resolution. Egypt"s role in the crisis, meanwhile, remains limited to making broad appeals for national reconciliation in line with Arab League resolutions.

"The Egyptian role in Lebanon is one of mere spectator," Abdel-Halim Kandil, political analyst and former editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama told IPS.

Since 2005, Lebanese politics has been paralysed by a power struggle between the western-backed majority government and the opposition led by the Shia resistance group Hezbollah. The opposition, which includes both Shia and Christian elements, demands a greater say in government decision-making than that accorded it under the prevailing 1989 Taif Accord that ended fighting between Christian and Muslim forces, and set the blueprint for a government with representation for different militant groups.

The majority, led by MP Saad Hariri"s 14 March movement, is united in its opposition to the influence of next-door Syria -- which staged a military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 -- on Lebanese affairs. Despite the lack of substantial evidence, the 14 March movement and its allies hold Damascus responsible for a series of assassinations of high-profile Lebanese figures over the last three years.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, is closely supported by both Syria and Iran. Although Hezbollah has been designated a "terrorist organisation" by Washington and Tel Aviv, it is widely credited in the Arab world for its steadfast resistance against Israeli occupation of Lebanese territories.

In late November, the stalemate reached crisis proportions after the term of former pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud expired, with both sides unable to agree on a successor. Under the terms of the Taif Accord, the Lebanese head of state must be a Maronite Christian.

Since then, the selection of a president has been postponed a total of 12 times by a deadlocked parliament. The next attempt is reportedly scheduled for Jan. 21.

The majority camp would like to see Lebanon"s next president implement UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of all Lebanese militias, including Hezbollah. Hezbollah, for its part, citing the continued occupation of Lebanese territory by Israel, will not accept a pro-western president committed to its disarmament.

A number of foreign diplomatic initiatives have so far failed to resolve the impasse, including mediation efforts by Paris late last year. Many close observers fear that a drawn-out presidential vacuum could lead to the eventual establishment of rival governments or -- in a worst-case scenario -- civil war.

As it now stands, both sides have tentatively agreed on army commander Michel Suleiman as a potential presidential candidate. Although the majority camp had initially voiced opposition to Suleiman"s candidacy in light of his amicable relationship with Hezbollah, it moderated its position in December.

Nevertheless, major differences remain, including the opposition"s demand for the right to veto legislation in parliament.

At a Jan. 6 emergency meeting at the Cairo-based Arab League, Arab foreign ministers agreed to a three-point plan aimed at breaking the deadlock. The initiative, proposed by Cairo and Riyadh, calls for immediate election of Suleiman as president, formation of a national unity government -- in which neither side has veto powers -- and the adoption of a new electoral law.

Notably, the proposal was endorsed by Damascus -- an Arab League member -- and welcomed by Tehran.

Three days later, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa travelled to Beirut where he met with Lebanese leaders from both sides in an effort to persuade them to sign on to the plan.

"Time is running short and we need to salvage the situation," Moussa was quoted as saying. He added that Lebanon was at "a decisive stage".

But while both the majority and the opposition welcomed the initiative, Moussa left the Lebanese capital days later without securing its official endorsement by either side. Nevertheless, leaders from both factions vowed to study the proposal and announce their respective positions within days.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, while putting his full weight behind the Arab League plan, has also warned of the potentially dire consequences of a failure to resolve the deadlock.

"Egypt urges all factions in Lebanon to implement the proposal so as to prevent the destruction of their country," he was quoted as saying in the state press on Jan. 13.

Yet despite Mubarak"s strongly-worded counsel, many local observers say Egypt"s diplomatic role in Lebanon -- outside the Arab League context -- is relatively weak.

"Egypt"s profile has waned, in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, while the diplomatic roles of Saudi Arabia and Iran have become more prominent," said Kandil. "Under the leadership of (former president Gamal Abdel) Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt"s role in Lebanon was a force to be reckoned with."

Mohamed Abu al-Hadid, political analyst and head of state-owned print house Dar al-Tahrir, which publishes prominent government daily al-Gomhouriya, agreed that Egypt "doesn"t have much influence" in Lebanon.

"Syria, France and Iran currently play more direct roles in Lebanon because they all have loyal supporters inside the country," Abu al-Hadid told IPS.

According to Saad al-Husseini, MP for the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement and head of the group"s foreign relations division, Egypt"s role in Lebanon is sorely impeded by Cairo"s close alliance with Washington.

"Because it is beholden to U.S. policy, Egypt"s hands are tied diplomatically -- both in Lebanon and elsewhere," al-Husseini told IPS.

Nevertheless, despite major domestic differences between Egypt"s Islamist opposition and Mubarak"s ruling National Democratic Party, al-Husseini expressed support for Cairo"s official position on Lebanon.

"The Muslim Brotherhood supports Cairo"s call for a speedy compromise on the choice of president," he said. "This is in the interest of the resistance against Israel, because any new president will be unwilling to disarm Hezbollah."

According to Kandil, the crisis cannot be defused without the active involvement of both Iran and Syria. In order to obtain Syrian support, he noted, components of the Arab League proposal closely mirrored demands made by the Hezbollah-led opposition.

"The quick formation of a national unity government and a new electoral law are both major demands of the Lebanese opposition," he said.

"The U.S. can only influence Lebanon by way of force, while France failed to solve the problem diplomatically," Kandil added. "The key to resolving the issue lies with the Iran-Syria axis." (END/2008)