Light in Lebanon

Constitutional reform brings hope in this fractious land of minorities

WHILE the world focuses on the explosive situation in the Persian Gulf, the civil war in Lebanon continues to torment its people. As late as 1975, Lebanon was among the world's 35 upper-middle income countries with an economy in which trade, banking, and tourism generated two-thirds of the national income. Now, after years of war, Lebanon appears a country in ruins. But out of the conflagration of Lebanon there may be arising a new light for its future.

In August 1989, Lebanese parliamentarians of all factions forged a compromise under the auspices of the Arab League at a conference held in Taif, Saudi Arabia. On Sept. 22, 1990, President Elias Hrawi, a Maronite Christian, signed the document that has created constitutional reforms for Lebanon.

In 1920, when the creation of Greater Lebanon took place under French auspices, the Maronite Christians wanted to develop the economic potential and expand the size of the country they had dominated since 1861. Muslims, believing they would be subject to Maronite rule, opposed their inclusion in the new political structure, preferring to be included in the newly created Syrian state. But the French mandate forced the inclusion of the Muslim population into what was to become the Republic of Lebanon.

There has been no census in Lebanon since 1932, but the population estimates today are thus: Shiite Muslim, 1 million; Sunni Muslim, 600,000; Maronites, 600,000; Greek Orthodox, 350,000; Greek Catholic, 300,000; Druze, 300,000.

In creating Greater Lebanon, the Maronites had made a crucial blunder. In the new territory they were, from the first, no longer a majority but only a minority group in a country of minorities. Thus since 1920 the essential dilemma has remained whether Lebanon should be an independent Christian state, possessing much smaller borders than at present, or should Lebanon remain in its present form but as part of the overwhelmingly Muslim Arab world?

By the 1960s, political parties had become interest groups rather than disciplined political organizations in the Western sense. Lebanon now has 14 political parties, broadly divided by religious affiliation and international allegiance into pro-Muslim, pro-Arab, left-of-center, pro-Western, and right-of center.

These ethno-religious factions, which keep Lebanon weak, suggest how it has become a playground where external forces settle political scores. For example, since the cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war in August 1988, the traditional enmity between Iraq and Syria, which had intensified because of Syria's support for Iran during the war, increasingly found expression by proxy in the conflict within Lebanon. By mid-1989, as the renegade Gen. Michel Aoun pursued his campaign to expel Syrian forces from Lebanon, Iraq had become the principal supplier of weapons to his Christian army.

Despite this political chaos, a new constitutional compromise that shifts governing authority to conform more closely to Lebanon's changing demography and political interests was forged.

Up to now, the traditionally dominant Maronite Catholics, the largest Christian sect, have held the top posts of the government, army, judiciary, and the central bank since Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943. But with Muslims the majority (55 percent of a population of 4 million), the cabinet and parliament will now contain equal numbers of Muslims and Christians.

The constitutional formula of having a Maronite president, a Sunni prime minister, and a Shiite speaker of parliament will remain. But the amendments, among other things, invest executive power in Lebanon's Council of Ministers, stripping the president of the exclusive right to implement major decisions.

Political vendettas played out in Lebanon now have another field - the Persian Gulf. Some Christian Lebanese policymakers who have received supplies from Saddam Hussein might be concerned by the nascent cooperation between the Americans and the Syrians in Saudi Arabia. They might fear that Syrian President Hafez Assad, who supports military opposition to Saddam Hussein in the Gulf, might undermine the new cooperation in Lebanon. However, they recognize that the alliances in the Gulf are not organic, since they are not under the auspices of the Arab League, and hence may be easily dissolved once the crisis has passed.

The Arab League has proctored a resolution of conflict in Lebanon that may be sustainable. Can it do the same in the Persian Gulf, where many of the same players are involved? Can the resolution reached in Lebanon become a model for the conflict currently at issue in the Gulf?

Unlike Lebanon, however, the Gulf contains one additional element - oil - which has brought in outside participants. In Lebanon, the indigenous people have worked to resolve the conflict without outside interference. In the Gulf, does the presence of oil mean that the United States will not allow the indigenous people the same opportunities?

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