Shaping Lebanon's future

The good news is that Lebanon has partially recovered from the Syrian occupation and is on its way to establishing a democracy, albeit, a fragile one. But if that democracy is to survive and grow, Lebanon will need to find a way to overcome a perversely complicated political framework, where specific Christian and Muslim communities share power of governance and representation.

This strange formula of power sharing (half the parliamentary seats for Christians and half for Muslims) is not likely to work forever, given the country's changing population profiles. For instance, Muslims tend to have larger families, and Christians tend to emigrate during hard times. As a result, some Lebanese have grown up as Western-oriented citizens without authentic Arab roots; in contrast, some over-identify with fanatic Arab causes.

If Lebanon is to gain long-term stability, power sharing must be secularized. A more realistic alternative, in the short term, would be to rotate leadership positions among the different communities. Currently, Muslims are not allowed to hold the position of president or head of the army; nor can a Christian become a prime minister.

An additional reform would be to allow Lebanese emigrants to vote in Lebanese parliamentary elections.

The parliamentary elections going on now are not likely to bring significant reforms or ensure stability for long. For better or worse, Lebanon has become a typical Arab regime, in which political wisdom is suppressed, reform is inhibited, triumphal rhetoric is encouraged, religious authority is supreme, and minorities are marginalized.

The first three rounds of the four-part elections have failed to produce important new leaders with practical ideas for building a modern and unified state. Politically, the same old wine is packaged in new electoral bottles.

The third round, however, has re-introduced General Michel Aoun as a popular national leader, with a new language for reform. At best, his new government would offer reduced corruption, expanded economic enterprise, enhanced tourism for oil-rich Arabs, and a continued relaxed environment for civic organizations.

Meanwhile, the impact of Middle East politics -- Syrian, Palestinian and Iranian -- on Lebanon is immense, and in a way crippling.

Syria's attempts at political and economic reform may have a positive effect on Lebanon. But radical, political renewal in Syria is very difficult to achieve. Syria and Lebanon must reconfigure their relations to become good neighbors and equal partners.

Experts on Syrian affairs call on the US to change its diplomatic approach to Syria. The Bush administration is too insensitive to Syria's priorities and US diplomacy has no incentives tied to reform. (Read " Inheriting Syria," by Flynt Leverett, Brookings, 2005.)

Arab-Israeli tensions interfere with Lebanese domestic politics on a daily basis. Consider this: the 250,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanee camps have access to stored arms. Their plight is dire and that factor adds instability to the country.

The role of Iran in Lebanon is complicated. Since Iran is the world's leading Shiite community and Hezbollah is Lebanon's major Shiite political organization, there is a clear common ground for partnership between these two contrasting political entities. Hezbollah is a militia, a political party and a welfare organization. Iran is an isolated and agitated state, and its ideology is reflected in Hezbollah's political culture.

After the presidential elections in Iran this Friday, the new regime will determine how friendly it will be to the West and how sensitive it will be to Lebanon's sovereignty. Subsequently, Iran's leadership may help or hinder the politics of accommodation of Hezbollah.

In principle, the less suspicious and more secure Hezbollah is, the more likely it is to lay down its arms. Hezbollah may be persuaded to give up its heavy weapons and to stop carrying light arms as a first step. This compromise would also be a measure of respect for the new Lebanese government. However, current elections have further emboldened Hezbollah, making it more likely that weapons will need to be addressed in the near future.

By labeling Hezbollah as a "terrorist" organization, the US may be complicating Lebanese domestic dialogue about the legitimacy of armed resistance against an external force. Regrettably, the Lebanese opposed to Hezbollah are seen as being submissive to US policies. Supporters of Hezbollah claim that since they are not working against the state, they are not a militia.

There seems to be no effective and lasting cure for Lebanon state-building outside of a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli problem and the resolution of the US-European-Iranian crisis over the issue of nuclear enrichment.

The Lebanese deserve a modern, unified and secure country. Post-election Lebanon will be different but not "new".

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