As Syria pulls out, Lebanon again in flux

Plans for a new government were delayed Monday as consensus eludes both camps.

As Lebanon saw plans for a new government collapse Monday, analysts warned that continued political turmoil could undermine the fragile spirit of national unity here.

While most rule out a return to the civil strife that engulfed Lebanon between 1975 and 1990, the impending Syrian withdrawal is shifting political fault lines as new alliances emerge and old loyalties wane.

The declining influence of Damascus has spurred some of Syria's once staunch political allies in Lebanon to begin breaking away. The Lebanese opposition, meanwhile, faces the stark challenge of forging fresh common cause among groups united largely by their opposition to Syria's presence.

"The dangerous element is if we return to the religious fault lines of 1975," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "If the changes occur along political lines, then that's fine. But if they emerge along sectarian lines, then whatever unity has been achieved will lose its flavor."

The political upheaval caused by an end to 15 years of Syrian domination continues to paralyze the creation of a new government, almost guaranteeing the postponement of key parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

Omar Karami, the acting prime minister, was due to announce the creation of a 30-member government Monday morning. But last-minute disagreements between loyalists over the composition of the cabinet and the electoral law for the upcoming vote has led to another delay. Mr. Karami resigned along with his government on Feb. 28 and the country has since endured political paralysis.

Much rests on the results of the elections. If the opposition triumphs at the polls, as it believes it will, that could lead to the ouster of President Emile Lahoud, Syria's most faithful ally in Lebanon, and a thorough shake-up of Lebanon's institutions, particularly the security services which are seen as too closely aligned to Damascus. The opposition was galvanized by the assassination in February of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, leading to a series of street demonstrations demanding an end to Syria's pervasive presence in Lebanon.

The protests and unrelenting international pressure forced Syria to commit to withdrawing all its troops and military intelligence personnel by the end of this month. The final stage of the troop withdrawal is well under way with a steady stream of equipment and soldiers returning to Syria.

Postponing the elections could lead to the fragmentation of the opposition and an erosion in its public support as the passions surrounding Hariri's murder subside. If the loyalists succeed in retaining a majority in the next parliament, Syria's influence over Lebanon could linger, albeit in a less overt manner than before.

"There is an inner core in the loyalist camp which is leading their effort to postpone the elections. It is still linked to the Syrian Mukhabarat [military intelligence] and acting under their guidance," says Simon Karam, a member of the Christian Qornet Shehwan opposition group.

But, he adds, some leading politicians among the loyalists are beginning "shift away."

Many Lebanese politicians built parliamentary careers through unswerving obedience to the wishes of Damascus, even if their votes were at odds with the views of their own constituents. But the edifice of pro-Syrian support in Parliament is crumbling as politicians readjust to a Lebanon free from Syria's tight grip.

"You have very serious cracks appearing in the loyalist camp and there is no doubt that the earthquake that started with the assassination of Hariri is going to affect the body politic," says Chibli Mallat, professor of international law and an opposition activist in Beirut.

Even the security apparatus, the main bastion of cooperation with Syria, is beginning to unravel, according to a former Lebanese intelligence officer. Last week, the UN Security Council authorized the establishment of an international probe with wide-ranging powers to investigate Hariri's murder. That development has spurred some senior intelligence chiefs to increase their personal security measures, fearing possible assassination before they are questioned by the UN commission.

"Some of them know every little secret in Lebanon for the past 15 years. I think we will see some unclaimed killings when the investigators begin their work," the former intelligence officer says.

But the opposition is in no position to rest on its laurels, analysts say. It has yet to hammer out a broad political platform beyond its key demands of a Syrian troop withdrawal and an international probe into Hariri's assassination, both of which have been, or are close to being, fulfilled. Indeed, on other key policies, such as disarming the militant Hizbullah organization, economic measures, and foreign relations, there is no consensus - and in some cases broad disagreement.

At the weekend, Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and most vocal member of the opposition, called upon his allies to "to agree on a clear agenda that organizes the postelections period."

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