Can real peace take root in Lebanon?

The Feb. 14 blast in Beirut that killed Lebanon's admired former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri shocked the whole world. But now, there's an intriguing possibility that the very outrageousness of that act might have shifted the dynamic in Lebanon from one of a too-quick readiness to use violence to one of nonviolent mass organizing and inter-party negotiations over building a better future for the country.

This shift, if it's sustained, would be an apt memorial to Mr. Hariri, a man who devoted years of his life to reconstructing Lebanon's physical and social fabric. It would also be the best riposte of all to those who killed him.

Lebanon is a small, heterogeneous nation of 3.5 million people. Roughly 100,000 were killed during a civil war that raged from 1975 through 1989. Thousands more were killed after 1989 due to instability and a battle to expel Israel's army from south Lebanon. The Israelis withdrew in May 2000, leaving only one last sliver of land still contested. Lebanon's other big neighbor, Syria, still has 14,000 troops in the center and east of the country.

I lived and worked in Beirut for the first six years of the civil war and was a witness to the numerous massacres and widespread ethnic cleansing that marked those years. I was delighted when, after 1989, Hariri became one of the mainstays of Lebanon's attempt to stabilize and rebuild.

I was devastated when I learned of his killing. And, along with many of my Lebanese friends, I worried that, with political tensions already high in the country, that heinous act might provoke further waves of violence and plunge the country back into civil strife.

That has not happened yet. The really heartening news in recent days has been the maturity and restraint with which all major portions of Lebanon's - and, indeed, neighboring Syria's - political elite have responded to the grisly facts of Hariri's killing.

Syria has been a major player in Lebanon since 1976 when, with Washington's blessing, it sent its troops to save the country's Maronite Christians from defeat by Muslim and leftist militias. The Syrians have kept troops in large parts of Lebanon ever since, and have often used violence and political manipulation to assure continued Lebanese "support" for their presence. (Syria's Baathist rulers have expressed fears that if their troops left Lebanon completely, Israel might use the country's terrain to attack Damascus from the west.)

In Lebanon, many vocal politicians were quick to blame Syrian President Bashar al-Asad for Hariri's assassination. Others have defended Syria, arguing that some other party must have done the deed to try to make trouble for Mr. Asad. The facts of the matter are still sparse and contradictory. Different pieces of "evidence" indicate the responsibility of either rogue elements inside Syria's intelligence agencies or a pro-Al-Qaeda group seeking to bring problems to both Lebanon and Syria. Syria and Lebanon's pro-Syrian government have both called for a full investigation of the blast with some international "help," though they balk at the idea that the investigation might be run by outsiders.

The coalition of Lebanese politicians who want Syria to withdraw has used the time since Hariri's killing to mourn his passing - and to launch a broad interfaith movement dedicated to using peaceful protests and possible civil disobedience to win their goal. With Lebanon's parliamentary elections scheduled for May, the anti-Syria people want to see Syria's troops exit well before then, so the whole election can be truly "free and fair."

Many other Lebanese, including supporters of the country's largest and best organized political party, Hizbullah, are more ready to let the Syrian troops stay. But until now, Hizbullah has seemed committed to resolving Lebanon's internal differences through dialogue - and also, to holding verifiably fair elections as soon as possible. (Hizbullah has done well in several parliamentary and municipal elections held since 1992. It still also maintains a controversial militia in south Lebanon, which its leaders say is aimed at deterring further attacks by Israel.)

In the past week, both Lebanon's pro- and anti-Syrian forces have shown that they can bring hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Beirut. But so far, all these marches have been peaceful and disciplined. So far, too, both sides have used the same images of the late Hariri as a rallying point!

And Syria? On Monday, Arab League head Amr Moussa, who had just met with Asad, reported that the Syrian president would be withdrawing his troops from all or most of Lebanon "soon." If that happens, if the different Lebanese parties engage in serious dialogue, and if free and fair elections are held in Lebanon in or close to the May schedule ... then the country's new dynamic of nonviolence can continue to take root.

Yes, it might happen. But this shift to nonviolent politics and electoral democracy still needs the continued support of everyone else.

Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies. She spent the fall traveling in the Middle East, including Lebanon and Syria.

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