Lebanon: Finding Its Own Voice

In her democracy-pumping speech in Cairo this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emphasized that America's role is to encourage the Middle East along the path of political reform, not to walk it for the region.

Quoting her boss, she said Washington's goal is "to help others find their own voice, to attain their own freedom, and to make their own way."

She wasn't talking specifically about Lebanon, but she could have been. In a breathtaking example of people finding "their own voice," many Lebanese this year took to the streets, demanding that Syria - which dominated its neighbor for three decades - withdraw its troops. With pressure from the US, the UN and France, they succeeded beautifully. In parliamentary elections that concluded Sunday, the people reinforced their message by voting in an anti-Syria majority.

Lebanese citizens are now looking to see just how their elected leaders will go about building a more representative government which respects their rights and improves their standard of living - and which removes the vestiges of Syrian influence from Lebanese politics. (And there are vestiges: in the pro-Syrian presidency, in assassinations of anti-Syrian elites, and in the powerful political/terrorist group, Hizbullah.)

The region will also be watching, for in some ways, Lebanon is microcosm of challenges common to the Middle East: sectarian divisions, widespread corruption, and an armed militia within its borders.

Disarming Hizbullah will be one of the toughest tasks ahead for the new Lebanon. The US and the United Nations, through its Security Council resolution last September, have insisted that Hizbullah disarm. But neither Iran, which finances and arms Hizbullah, nor Syria, which happily acts as the conduit for Iran's supply route, will want to see Hizbullah weakened as an anti-Israel, anti-US force. Meanwhile, Hizbullah feels emboldened by a strong performance in the election.

This equation could possibly change if, for instance, the more pragmatic Iranian cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wins Friday's runoff presidential election in Iran and decides it's time to improve relations with the US; or if Palestinians and Israelis ever reach a peace deal.

But the power to disarm Hizbullah really resides with the Lebanese themselves. Right now, they're deeply divided over this issue. But as time progresses, perhaps they'll "find their own voice" again, and come to see that, like the foreign occupying power of Syria, a foreign-armed militia within their borders is not compatible with democracy.

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