“Differences among the Lebanese have reached the edge of suicide.”
– Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, in a meeting of the country’s Christian and Muslim religious leaders after renewed violence in the city of Tripoli.
The foreboding statement by Lebanon’s newly-elected president at first seemed out of place. It came on the heels of clashes between Sunnis loyal to the government in the Bab al-Tebbaneh quarter of Tripoli and Alawite supporters of the opposition in the neighboring Jabal Mohsen quarter. The June 22nd-23rd clashes ultimately left nine dead and 45 wounded before the Lebanese Army stepped in to end the fighting.
The situation in Tripoli though pales in comparison to the events that unfolded in Beirut more than a month prior. At that time, Hezbollah’s men swept across and extended control over nearly all of West Beirut after Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s cabinet ordered the group’s private telecommunications network dismantled. Beirut appeared to be poised for all-out civil war. After intervention by Qatar’s prime minister, representatives of the opposition and the ruling March 14 Coalition agreed to convene in Doha. The result was the Doha Accord, reached on May 21st, which allotted the opposition enough ministerial posts to wield veto power over cabinet decisions and led to the election of General Michel Suleiman as president four days later.
After Siniora was nominated by March 14 to continue on as prime minister, hopes ran high that a cabinet would soon be formed and the 18-month political crisis that had paralyzed the country would finally be over. Continued wrangling over key portfolios between the opposition-allied Change and Reform Bloc of Michel Aoun and Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, the leading party in the majority coalition, has prevented one from materializing.
The resumption of fighting on sectarian grounds (albeit in Tripoli and not Beirut) after Doha, coupled with the failure to form a national unity cabinet is likely what led Suleiman to issue his fatalistic pronouncement.
Lebanon however, is a nation where hope and despair often co-exist.
As the two-year anniversary of the July 2006 War nears, Hezbollah and the Israeli government have reached an agreement on the exchange of prisoners. In a July 2nd press conference, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah confirmed that the two Israeli soldiers captured after found trespassing in the summer of 2006 (providing the needed pretext for the subsequent Israeli invasion) would be handed over to Israel in exchange for five Lebanese prisoners held there.
The most famous of them (or infamous, depending on which side of the Lebanese-Israeli border the narration is told) is Samir Kantar, a Lebanese Druze. Acting as a member of the Palestine Liberation Front, he was sentenced to four life terms for a 1979 raid that killed three Israelis, including a young girl (Kantar asserts she died in the firefight with Israeli soldiers).
Israel will also hand over the remains of other Lebanese and Hezbollah fighters killed in the July War and release an undisclosed number of Palestinian prisoners at a later date. Israel will likewise receive the remains of its soldiers and be given definitive information on the fate of the long missing airman, Ron Arad.
In his press conference confirming the deal reached with Israel, Nasrallah concluded by saying:
“First, I congratulate all Lebanese on this achievement and I hope that all the Lebanese consider it their achievement. We will deal with it just as we dealt with the 2000 victory and we will not use this new achievement for internal ends.”
“The second point is the bodies that will return to Lebanon…their funerals should be a national, unified event, a chance for the Lebanese to meet again… I personally announce Hezbollah’s absolute openness to any political meeting under any title and in any context if it helps in uniting Lebanon, preserving civil peace and overcoming the previous phase in Lebanon.”
“The final point is that I urge all popular powers to distance themselves from any provocation so that we can make good and civilized use of the sacred blood in bridging the gaps between the Lebanese.”
The reaction to Nasrallah’s speech from among those who have opposed him most, including Siniora and Walid Jumblatt, was refreshingly positive.
Siniora hailed the imminent return of the Lebanese detainees, declaring it a “national success.” He vowed to attend the ceremony marking their return and make it a national holiday. Jumblatt described Nasrallah’s statements as “encouraging” and also planned on greeting Kantar and the others remarking, “This issue goes beyond any security or political considerations.” Unfortunately, but quite predictably, Future Movement head Saad Hariri failed to comment but indicated his party would participate in the welcoming ceremonies as well.
Whether the outreach found in Nasrallah’s words or the upcoming return of Lebanon’s captured and fallen will be enough to unite this fractured country remains to be seen. The initials signs are hopeful. But as Lebanon’s political future has always been a risky one to predict, it is probably best to say this is a chapter yet to be written.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: rbamiri (at) yahoo.com.