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Next for young Lebanese: politics

But older leaders like Michel Aoun, who returned Saturday after 14 years in exile, remain popular.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2005



BEIRUT, LEBANON

At "Camp Freedom" in Martyrs' Square, the makeshift village that became the epicenter of anti-Syrian sentiment over the past three months, the tents are coming down and the camp's leaders are mulling future moves.

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"We achieved something here and we want to keep our movement together," says George Badara, whose tent is home to the National Liberal Party, a Christian group. "We plan to meet every three months and see if there's anything more we need to do for Lebanon."

Following intense protests that ended with Syria exiting Lebanon last month after 15 years of military and political domination, young activists like Mr. Badara now face another formidable challenge: turning their mass movement into parliamentary power.

But Lebanon's complicated quota-based sectarian system can reject the most able of potential legislators. And a budding politician also has to contend with the well-entrenched existing political class, which includes the scions of Lebanon's traditional leading families, powerful businessmen, and former warlords. Despite what many Lebanese refer to as the "new" Lebanon, it is the older established politicians who look set to reap the reward of Lebanon's newfound independence.

"It's been disappointing not to have new figures emerge who can be objectively portrayed as new leaders. It will probably require some time," says Chibli Mallat, a prominent Lebanese lawyer and democracy campaigner.

Aware of youths' role

The older generation of politicians in Lebanon are keenly aware of the role played by the young in the past three months, and some say they are seeking ways of attracting them into the political mainstream.

"It's a critical question how we keep the new generation playing a major role in the country, to rebuild institutions and structures and bring in a new democracy to Lebanon," says Amine Gemayel, who served as Lebanese president from 1982 to1988.

Still, young activists have a hard time advancing in their own political parties, let alone running for parliament. With parliamentary elections only weeks away, there are few young candidates being included on electoral lists, which tend to favor established figures.

"Many leaders believe that women or the young won't be winning candidates," says Ziad Majed, vice president of the Democratic Left party. "They need what they consider to be heavyweights in their lists, people who can recruit votes, who have money; It's more about the candidates themselves rather than the party and the political program."

Indeed, 15 years after the end of the Lebanese conflict with the Syrians, the political scene here is studded with the names of people who rose to prominence between 1975 and1990.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who headed the largest militia during the war years, is a top opposition figure. Samir Geagea, the Christian head of the Lebanese Forces militia, is about to be released after 11 years in jail and commands huge support from young Christians. And on Saturday, tens of thousands of Lebanese welcomed home Michel Aoun, a former army commander who spent the past 14 years in self-imposed exile in France after leading an ill-fated campaign to drive the Syrian army out of Lebanon in 1990.

General Aoun remains a popular figure, especially among young, mainly Christian, Lebanese who made up the bulk of the crowd greeting the general in Beirut's Martyrs' Square on Saturday. "He is a very honest man," says Tony Khoury, wearing an orange T-shirt with a picture of General Aoun. "He wants to get rid of sectarianism and he defended Lebanon against the Syrian occupation."

Although General Aoun is revered by his supporters as a genuine nationalist, his critics say he is power hungry, has a fiery temper, and his military campaigns against the Syrians and fellow Christians caused hundreds of deaths.

"The people demonstrating for Aoun and Geagea are very young. The young don't know them, and they have no memory of the war," says Ibrahim Daher, a Christian former cabinet minister. He says it is "a pity" that so many Christians are looking to the "icons of the war" to rebuild the country.

Sectarian system

A further potential hindrance for the young is the sectarian political system, known as confessionalism in Lebanon - a series of checks and balances where positions of power and influence are allocated to ensure that all Lebanon's 18 religious sects are represented proportionately. Critics say it exacerbates sectarianism, while its defenders maintain that it allows for a fair representation and prevents one sect from dominating the others.

Either way, it can block a potential candidate from running for election in his home district if there are no quotas available for his sect.

Still, some analysts and political figures say that the political upheaval of the past three months inevitably will open up the system to new blood.

"There is a new generation taking over in Lebanon," says Marwan Hamade, a leading opposition figure. "I think what happened in the last few weeks was absolutely eloquent about the young's desire for change."

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