Deal or no deal in Beirut

Milton Viorst has covered the Middle East for 40 years. His most recent book is "Storm from the East: The Struggle between the Arab World and the Christian West."

While the eyes of the world are focused on the fading prospects of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the upcoming meeting in Annapolis, Md., an electoral deadlock in Lebanon grinds inexorably to a climax, threatening to upset an 18-year factional truce and ignite a new civil war that will add one more explosive ingredient to Middle East instability.

Lebanon’s problems are not new. They are rooted in the 1920s, when France’s colonial regime created the country out of Syrian territory and squeezed Christians, Druze and Muslims -- Sunni and Shiite -- into it. At that time, the Maronite Christians, whose close ties to France dated to the Middle Ages, were the colonial power’s political allies, so the constitution that France imparted required that Lebanon’s president, its most powerful official, be a Maronite. The prime minister, under the constitution, would be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament would be a Shiite. The system, a peculiar form of democracy, is called “confessionalism.”

For most of the ensuing years, confessionalism enabled the sects to coexist in a fragile balance. The enormous exception was the horrible civil war that raged from 1975 to 1989, killing 100,000 and leaving much of the country in ruins. None of the sects wants a repetition.

The current president is Emile Lahoud, an ex-general whose term expires Friday. For weeks, the country’s political and sectarian leaders have been meeting in secret to agree on a replacement, who will have to be confirmed by the parliament in order to take office. So far, they have failed.


Basic to the deadlock is the steady growth of the Shiite community, which is now acknowledged to be the largest of the country’s major sects. Its principal voice is Hezbollah, an organization that is, all at once, political, social, religious and military. A year ago, Hezbollah’s militia single-handedly stopped an incursion of the Israeli army into south Lebanon, significantly enhancing its prestige across the country. But when it demanded more political power as a reward, it was rebuffed, and its ministers quit the Cabinet. Hezbollah’s parliamentary representation, however, remains strong.

It is no secret that Hezbollah’s arms and money come chiefly from Shiite Iran, with help from Syria. Hezbollah denies that it is beholden to either country. It is motivated, Hezbollah says, purely by Lebanese nationalism. But the U.S. -- insisting that Hezbollah is an Iranian-Syrian pawn and a collaborator in global terrorism -- strongly backs its rivals.

The U.S. position doesn’t carry much weight with the Lebanese these days -- mostly because of its role in Israel’s invasion last year, when American officials did little or nothing to stop the incursion.

Few Lebanese -- no matter what their sectarian loyalty -- can forgive the U.S. role. They are reminded of it every day, by the rubble strewn across south Lebanon from repeated bombings. Lebanon’s prime minister told me in an interview that a million cluster bombs and 380,000 mines lie unexploded in the area, bringing almost daily casualties. I myself saw a 10-foot crater among the shabby apartment buildings of a Shiite quarter of Beirut. Bombed bridges and roads, far from the battlefields, still impair normal traffic. Even now, Israeli jets violate Lebanese airspace daily, overflying Beirut.

Though most Lebanese have grown used to America’s pro-Israel policy, they are now watching with anxiety as the U.S. emphasizes Hezbollah’s role as a surrogate for Iran and Syria. Lebanese have little sympathy for Iran and even less for Syria, not just because of Syria’s three-decade occupation of Lebanon but also because of the recent assassinations widely attributed to Syria, notably of the popular Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Still, the Lebanese are outraged at America’s use of their soil, in war and politics, as the playing field for its ongoing feuds with Iran and Syria.

On Nov. 8, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch made clear to Congress that the U.S. opposed the election of a president by any consensus that included Hezbollah. Under Lebanese law, a presidential candidate needs to win the support of two-thirds of the parliament to be elected on the first ballot, but after that, a simple majority suffices. Welch suggested that the U.S. would use its economic and political muscle to back a candidate that it considered favorable to U.S. interests. The U.S. strategy, as the Lebanese see it, is to promote a narrow, anti-Hezbollah majority on the second ballot.

Most Lebanese seem to be holding their breath, denying that civil war looms. The many private militias that were primed for battle in 1975 no longer exist, they point out. Even though Hezbollah has the strongest armed force in the country -- stronger than the Lebanese army, which mirrors the society’s schisms -- it shows no sign of preparing for a putsch. Most Lebanese tell themselves the factions will remain stubborn until the last minute, then make a deal.

But if they don’t, what then? The most common prediction is that Hezbollah will reject the legitimacy of a narrowly based president supported by the United States and form a rival government, eroding the integrity of the state. Where Lebanon goes from there -- where the Middle East goes from there -- is anyone’s guess.


A Lebanese explosion scares the Arab world, which is already in turmoil; it should also scare Washington. At the very least, it would aggravate the Shiite-Sunni conflict in Iraq. But it also would add kindling to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, especially if the Annapolis meeting flops. A consensus president would restore a measure of equilibrium to a very fragile country. Failure by all the factions to come together on a candidate would leave the entire region more dangerous, placing in jeopardy everyone’s interests, including our own.