LEBANON stands a better chance today of resolving its difficulties than at any time since the start of the civil war 16 years ago. This is the predominant view among the Lebanese people, who over the past few weeks have seen the main Christian and Muslim militias surrender their heavy weapons to the government of President Elias Hrawi.
``I am optimistic that the war has come to an end,'' says Adnan Iskander, a lecturer in politics at the American University of Beirut. ``For the first time most Lebanese believe it. This is very significant, because in the past we reached certain stages when we felt the war was coming to an end - but most of the Lebanese did not believe it.''
Beirut and a large area around it are enjoying unprecedented calm, with Lebanon's official armed forces (backed by the Syrian Army) in control. The confrontation line that divided the Christian east from the predominantly Muslim west has disappeared.
The disarming of the militias was one of the terms of the 1989 Taif agreement drawn up by members of Lebanon's National Assembly in the Saudi Arabian city of that name. The accord calls for political reforms to divide power more equitably between Muslims and Christians and to reestablish the control of the Beirut authorities over the whole country.
But uncertainty remains about how to achieved this without upsetting the fragile consensus among the Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and the Druze.
Ghassan Tueni, editor of the independent daily An-Nahar, says the priority should be working toward a truly democratic government. ``I don't think the militiamen - the thugs and criminals who have been made ministers - are the best people who can give us the right government,'' he says. ``We should allow violence to settle and let a new leadership emerge by democratic means.''
It is clear that the Beirut government and the Lebanese Army - whose loyalties have often fractured along religious or ethnic lines - will need time to win the confidence of the people.
Obstacles to peace
In addition to the formidable social and economic problems is the presence of two foreign armies on Lebanese soil - the Syrian (in the east and north) and Israeli (in a narrow ``security zone'' in the south) - plus Palestinian guerrilla activity in the south.
``I don't think that there can be peace in Lebanon under occupation in any form,'' Mr. Tueni says.
Syria has had troops in Lebanon since the 1970s and was instrumental in removing a major obstacle to the Taif accord last October, when its Air Force took part in an assault to remove the renegade Gen. Michel Aoun from the presidential palace. The Christian Army general had refused to accept the Taif agreement and vowed to fight until all Syrian troops had left Lebanon.
But while General Aoun is off the political scene (and sheltering in the French Embassy), he still enjoys considerable support among the Christian community as a symbol of resistance to what they see as increasing Syrian influence in Lebanese affairs.
But the Lebanese Forces, the main Christian militia led by Samir Geagea, finally agreed to join other armed groups in surrendering their heavy weapons at the end of last month.
Roger Dib is the minister appointed by Mr. Geagea to join the Cabinet of ``national unity.''
``I don't think that getting rid of all the weapons will get rid of all Lebanon's problems,'' Mr. Dib says, speaking the now-deserted Lebanese Forces' barracks near Beirut port. ``Obviously differences still exist, but now we can sit around the table and discuss them without having wars to support our points of view.''
Similar sentiments are expressed by Druze chief and Cabinet member Walid Jumblatt. Reclining languidly in his family mansion in the Shouf Mountains, Mr. Jumblatt says he hopes this is ``going to be the end of the civil conflict. ... because we are just fed up with this war.''
Jumblatt would like the government to work on national plans to unite the communities by providing such essentials as housing and jobs. But, he says, nothing is happening: ``No one is paying any tax and the government has no resources.''
According to Mr. Iskander, ``the Lebanese government during the war was the weakest party on the scene here. Right now people seem to realize that there is no hope for continued peace without a strengthened central government.''
The Lebanese government is hoping, too, that the remaining Western hostages will be released soon - to remove that particular stigma from the country and to open the way for the return of foreigners.
The hopeful come home
Many thousands of Lebanese are now returning to their country - planes into Lebanon are booked solid for the coming months. But it seems that most are coming just to test the water - to judge for themselves if stability has returned before committing themselves and their large investments overseas to the rebuilding of Lebanon.
For the Lebanese who stayed during the years of civil conflict, the hope is that, even if building the peace is difficult, there will at least be no more war. Some even talk about Beirut returning to its prewar prosperity. But most would probably agree with Patrick Smith, owner of a Beirut supermarket that was twice blown up during the conflict.
``I lived here when the city was at its best and I can't really see it again being what it was before 1975,'' Mr. Smith says. ``We would settle for anything, really, as long as we had a bit of peace.''