Lebanon: Civil War or Nasrallah's Peace?
As Middle East newspapers were warning this weekend that Lebanon is on the brink of civil war, Beirut enjoyed a moment of civility.
As tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators began an indefinite occupation of the city's center last weekend, thousands of marathon runners skirted the massive protests without incident.
Amidst the country's worst worst political crisis since the end of a bloody civil war 15 years ago, Lebanon also displays habits of accommodation that some hope will help it avoid the most dire of scenarios. But a peaceful democratic resolution, some commentators say, will most likely benefit the man most antagonistic to Washington and Israel -- Sayyed Nasrallah.
The latest developments show a deepening impasse between the opposition, led by Hezbollah, the Shiite party and militia, and the pro-Western government it seeks to topple.
Tensions mounted Monday as thousands turned out to mourn a Shiite demonstrator who was killed during clashes in a Sunni neighborhood Sunday.
The government responded to the weekend demonstrations by deploying more troops to the capital to head off the possibility of sectarian violence, according to Aljazeera.net.
AP reported that Egypt's president and Russia's foreign minister are calling for for calm.
In Lebanon's diverse online media, commentators on both sides proclaim their own peaceful intentions while fearing the worst of the opposition.
On Friday, the pro-government Arabic daily Al-Mustaqbal warned that the demonstrations organized by Hezbollah and supported by some Christians were actually the makings of a coup orchestrated by Syria and Iran.
"The direct goal of the Syrian-Iranian coup against the situation in Lebanon is to thwart the [establishment of] an international tribunal [to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri]," said Al-Mustaqbal, according to a translation by the pro-Israeli Middle East Media Research Institute.
Iran and Syria, said the Sunni daily, also hope to thwart the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which mandates the disarmament of Hezbollah's militia.
"This is a coup against the very existence of the state. Oh [Lebanese] Army, as of today you face the test of defending the state, the regime, and its institutions," said the Al-Mustaqbal editors.
But Al Manar, Hezbollah's Web site, charges that it is pro-government forces preparing for civil war by distributing guns in the Mount Lebanon region, north of Beirut.
Hezbollah, of course, has its own militia, as Al Manar acknowledged. But "Hezbollah's chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah sought on many occasions to reassure the Lebanese that the sole use of the arms of the resistance is to confront the Israeli enemy adding that these weapons will not be used internally," the editors said.
Ya Libnan, a pro-government site, was not reassured.
"Hezbollah's ongoing propaganda campaign to brainwash its followers has resulted in hundreds of thousands of misinformed people, manipulated into believing that their government is illegitimate," said YL columnist Mohammed Hussein. The current demonstrations, he said, are a "sneak peak of a Hezbollah dictatorship."
But Monday Morning, a nationalist newsweekly based in Beirut and also distributed in Syria, set aside blame of Hezbollah, saying sectarian differences between Shiites and Sunnis are stoked by the United States and Israel for their own advantage.
"The basics of the problem are anchored in Iraq and its neighbor Iran. The two countries fought a long war in the 1980s, during which Washington gave help to both belligerents. The US's strategic goal was to ruin two major Muslim states which regarded Israel as a major enemy and a target," said Monday Morning editors. Now, America's goal is to "let the Muslims fight each other and bleed on both sides. This reality will ease the situation from the American-Israeli side."
The secular Daily Star said Lebanon faces the same "trying circumstances" as Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
"On the one side are indigenous forces -- Arab and Iranian mainly -- that seek to assert an indigenous identity and often militant ideology, and on the other side are forces that prefer a political order that weds local interests with close ties to Western powers and international alliances," said the Daily Star editors.
"Street confrontations that remain peaceful are an established means of expressing various views, but these must be channeled into existing political and constitutional mechanisms that remain the only credible means of brokering a compromise that meets the legitimate demands of all sides," the editors concluded.
Lebanon's best-known journalist, Ghassan Tueni, called for a dialogue to contain the mushrooming crisis. Tueni, the former An Nahar editor whose son was assassinated last year, suggested that talks with Tehran would be a "launching platform" for a "dialogue in the name of all the Arabs," including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. At stake, he said, is not just the future of Lebanon but the Arab nation.
'At the Crossroads'
The debate about civil war is also raging beyond Lebanon.
Civil war is not inevitable, said the French academic, Pascal Boniface, in a column for the Gulf News.
"There is some pessimism due to the following reasons - the divide between the communities is growing, the external powers, Syria, Iran, Israel, France and the US, have their own antagonistic agenda. But history could come to the rescue of Lebanon as the Lebanese people are against collective suicide," he wrote.
"The Christians are aware that fresh fighting will mean the end of their influence. Hezbollah is at the crossroads. It is both a national Lebanese movement and a Syrian ally. Whether it would prefer one role to the other could be the deciding factor of a civil war or not."
Nadim Zaazaa, a Lebanese contributor to Islam Online, was less optimistic.
"Once again, Lebanon is at crossroads. And once again, Lebanon doesn't seem to be up to the challenge. The country is sadly too futile to withstand the pressures it is facing. It may be true that Lebanon has stood firm in the face of the Israeli aggression, but there is a different test that Lebanon has repeatedly failed: the challenge of upgrading the Lebanese polity to a capable medium that can adapt to and interact with the social, economic, and political changes that it comes across. The roots of such a problem reside in all aspects of the Lebanese reality -- the history, the constitution, society, and even the individual mindset of every Lebanese."
Hezbollah's "street theatrics" endanger the country, say the editors of the Khaleej Times in the United Arab Emirates. "Hezbollah won itself plaudits and support from Arabs, Muslims and the rest of the world for the exemplary courage and perseverance it demonstrated in the face of Israeli aggression earlier this year. This newspaper had joined other media in the Middle East and elsewhere in hailing the victory of Lebanese people including Hezbollah over a ruthless power armed to its teeth."
"Which is why it is unfortunate that Hezbollah should squander that hard-earned public support and sympathy in such a pointless exercise, which could seriously destabilize an already volatile country."
In Israel, there is widespread feeling that the Hezbollah-led demonstrations will end, not with civil war, but a political victory for Nasrallah.
As the liberal Haaretz said, "What appears to be an internal political demonstration - so far conducted nonviolently - against a government that the demonstrators view as illegal, corrupt and unrepresentative is liable to end with the establishment of a pro-Syrian government, which would be under the influence of Nasrallah and his supporters, including the Christian Michel Aoun."
In a column for the the centrist Ynet News, Eyal Zisser, a professor at Tel Aviv University, said that "the demonstrators' restraint, as well as the fact that they chose to hide behind General Aoun, demonstrated that Nasrallah's sights are not set on a bloody civil war. Nasrallah is simply seeking to subdue [pro-Western Prime Minister] Fouad Siniora and to force him to surrender to his demands."
"What can be expected is a typical Lebanese bazaar, where both sides will ultimately emerge only partially appeased: Siniora will be forced to surrender to some of Nasrallah's' demands and Nasrallah will have to retract some of his other demands," Zisser concluded.
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