Posted by Joshua on Monday, January 7th, 2008
Nicholas Blanford writing in the CSM explains that many in Lebanon are skeptical the Lebanon deal announced in Cairo can gain backing from Hizbullah and General Aoun. he writes:
Although the Lebanese opposition, spearheaded by the militant Shiite Hizbullah, has cautiously welcomed the Arab plan, analysts suggest that it could founder as rivals discuss the finer points in the days ahead.
"The devil is in the details and there are plenty of opportunities to derail the plan in the future," says Michael Young, opinion editor of the English-language Daily Star newspaper.
The March 14 coalition, which holds a slim parliamentary majority, gave a more positive reception to the Arab League proposal than did the opposition. Saad Hariri, a top March 14 leader, hailed it as "historic and noble."
The proposal calls for the immediate election of General Suleiman, whose nomination as head of state is supported by both sides; the formation of a national unity government in which Suleiman would hold the balance of power through ministers close to him; and the adoption of a new electoral law.
Under the Lebanese Constitution, a new government is formed after the election of a president. The opposition has blocked Suleiman's election since November, demanding a prior arrangement on the composition of the next government as well as key civil service appointments.
Hizbullah demands enough of a share of the next government to allow it to block any legislation that it deems a threat, such as moves to force the organization to disband its formidable military wing.
Mohammed Raad, who heads Hizbullah's parliamentary bloc, says a final decision on the Arab League proposal would depend on subsequent developments. "We don't want to be pessimistic or block the route to any productive decision, especially in a complicated matter like the Lebanese issue."
Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Hizbullah expert at the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut, says the Arab League proposal appeared to be an attempt to "weaken the opposition and corner it. It seems that Hizbullah is not too thrilled about it and I think that the end result will be that the opposition will not agree."
Michel Aoun, Hizbullah's main Christian ally in the opposition who harbors presidential ambitions himself, is also likely to object to the proposal, analysts say. Granting the balance of power in the next cabinet to Suleiman, a Maronite Christian, as all Lebanese heads of state traditionally must be, will significantly weaken Mr. Aoun's political influence.
So why would Syria sign onto a plan that might weaken its Lebanese allies? One reason, analysts say, is the threat of a boycott of the Arab League summit scheduled to be hosted by Damascus in March. The summit is a prestigious annual event attended by Arab heads of state and will boost Syria's credentials in the region.
According to Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was warned on the sidelines of Sunday's Arab League meeting that Saudi King Abdullah would refuse to attend the March summit if Damascus failed to endorse the Arab League proposal.
"The Syrians want the summit to be a success," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, adding that although the Arab League proposal is "not perfect [for Syria] … it's the closest thing to perfect at this stage."
Still, Mr. Muallem, in Cairo, said that while Syria and Saudi Arabia have agreed to cooperate on Lebanon, Damascus "cannot put pressure on anyone in Lebanon because the solution [to the presidential crisis] should be Lebanese."
Some Lebanese analysts interpret Muallem's comment as an attempt to absolve Damascus of blame should the Lebanese opposition eventually reject the Arab League proposal and continue holding out for a better deal.
Alistair Lyon of Reuters conveys similar skepticism from the Lebanese he interviews:
Regional antagonists Syria and Saudi Arabia, which support rival Lebanese parties, both said they backed the plan agreed in Cairo, but politicians and analysts said this was only a start.
"I'm not holding my breath," said Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, citing previous broken promises. "The problems are much more complicated than the Syrians just saying 'ok, we let the Arab declaration pass'."
Syria did not want to be seen to be putting spokes in the wheels ahead of an Arab summit in Damascus in March, but would not push its allies in Lebanon towards compromise, he argued.
Hezbollah, the armed Shi'ite political party backed by Iran as well as Syria, has reacted cautiously to the Arab plan and has not dropped its demand for opposition veto power in cabinet.
"I don't think the opposition can backtrack on that," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, visiting scholar at Beirut's Carnegie Middle East Center, noting that Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah had said the veto was vital to thwart U.S. designs on Lebanon.
"We're not really talking about numbers for a political sharing, but about strategic issues that have become even more important for Hezbollah, Syria and Iran," she said.
"It's a question of Lebanon's political orientation, its identity, and of Hezbollah's weapons above all else."
Lebanon's fate often seems linked to a wider conflict that pits Syria and Iran against Washington and its Arab allies. Each side accuses the other of blocking a deal among the Lebanese.
Saad-Ghorayeb said Syria had limited leverage over Hezbollah and none over Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun. It would not risk an opposition split by pushing hard for the Arab plan.
Aoun, a former army chief who once fought Syrian troops in Lebanon, is now allied with Hezbollah and Amal, a pro-Syrian Shi'ite party whose leader Nabih Berri is parliament speaker.
Aoun says he still opposes Syrian influence in Lebanon, but shares the determination of his Shi'ite partners to prevent the U.S.- and Saudi-backed Sunni, Druze and Christian bloc led by wealthy businessman Saad al-Hariri from monopolising power.
Berri has called an assembly session for Saturday for its 12th attempt to elect a president, but another postponement is inevitable unless a surprise political deal emerges beforehand.
Lebanon's political stalemate has lasted more than a year. The presidency barely functioned even before pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud left office on Nov. 23. The government limps on although its foes say it is illegitimate. Parliament has not met.
"This crisis has had devastating consequences on Lebanon," said Ghassan Moukheiber, a moderate member of Aoun's group in parliament. "We must have a president and a cabinet quickly. The country cannot continue at a standstill."
He said the Arab plan was balanced and took account of the concerns of the both sides, but was far from a done deal.
"It's a potential breakthrough because it seems to have taken care of the regional elements affecting or hindering the presidential election," Moukheiber told Reuters. "But it still needs to be ironed out by local actors, particularly Aoun, who would not be subject to direct influence from Syria or Iran."
Ghassan Tueni, publisher of the an-Nahar newspaper and an MP in the anti-Syrian majority, also voiced optimism that the Arab plan would eventually work because it had regional support, with Iran and Qatar encouraging the Syrians to accept it.
"But there are some difficulties," he cautioned. "Hezbollah was not party to the agreement and they are reluctant to admit that Syria can commit them to it, so they are trying to restate their exigencies, which I don't think will be acceptable."