Saturday, 22 September 2007

News from the Lebanon

The Lebanon is an unfortunate country, what was once the Paris of the East is in a geographically important position and suffers from having powerful neighbours and a very mixed population. Interestingly the population split in the Lebanon is unknown because they have not held a census since 1932 because of sensitivity/controversy over the religious makeup of the population. It is estimated that the Lebanese population is now about 60% Muslim and 40% Christian. Wikipedia states that "Lebanon is a parliamentary, democratic republic, which implements a special system known as confessionalism. This system, meant to insure that sectarian conflict is kept at bay, attempts to fairly represent the demographic distribution of religious sects in the governing body. As such, high-ranking offices in the government are reserved for members of specific religious groups. The President, for example, has to be a Maronite Catholic Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Deputy Prime Minister an Orthodox Christian, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’a Muslim. The Lebanese parliament building at the Place de l'ÉtoileThis trend continues in the distribution of the 128 parliamentary seats, which are divided proportionally between Muslims and Christians. Prior to 1990, the ratio stood at 6:5 in favor of Christians; however, the Taif Accord, which put an end to the 1975-1990 civil war, adjusted the ratio to grant equal representation to followers of the two religions. According to the constitution, direct elections must be held for the parliament every four years, although for much of Lebanon’s recent history, civil war precluded the exercise of this right."

Lebanon's main problem is its neighbours, it's Southern neighbour is Israel but its more dangerous neighbour is to the East and North, Syria. Syria has increasingly wanted Lebanon as under its control, as it was prior to independence from France in the 1940's. Syria has been meddling in Lebanon's affairs for many years but recently this has reached serious levels. On February 14 2005 the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut. Syria was accused of carrying out the attack due to rift between Hariri and Damascus over the Syrian-backed constitutional amendment extending pro-Syrian President Lahoud's term in office. The assassination of Hariri marked the beginning of a series of assassination attempts that led to the loss of many prominent Lebanese figures.
The United Nations Security Council unanimously called for an investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The findings of this investigation suggested the assassination was carried out by a group with considerable resources, that it had been prepared many months in advance, and that the group had detailed knowledge of Hariri’s movements. This investigation into the Hariri assassination is ongoing and has yet to be concluded. The United Nations Security Council and the Lebanese cabinet have approved a Special Tribunal for Lebanon that would prosecute those responsible for Hariri's death. On February 28 2005, with over 50,000 people demonstrating in Martyrs' Square, Prime Minister Omar Karami and his Cabinet resigned. In response, Hezbollah organized a large counter-demonstration attended by hundreds of thousands of people, supporting Syria and accusing Israel and the United States of meddling in internal Lebanese affairs. On March 14 2005, one month after Hariri's assassination, throngs of people rallied in Martyrs' Square in Lebanon with around 1 million people. Protesters marched demanding the truth about Hariri's murder and independence from Syrian presence in Lebanon. The march reiterated their desire for a sovereign, democratic, and unified country, free of Syria's hegemony.
In the weeks following the demonstrations, bombs were detonated in Christian areas near Beirut. Although the damage was mostly material, these acts threatened to drag Lebanon back into sectarian strife. Eventually, and under pressure from the international community, Syria began withdrawing its 15,000 army from Lebanon. By April 26 2005, all uniformed Syrian soldiers had already crossed the border back to Syria. On April 27 2005, anti-Syrian Lebanese celebrated their first free-from-Syria day. UN forces led by Senegalese Brig. Gen. Mouhamadou Kandji and Lebanese Brig. Gen. Imad Anka were sent to Lebanon to verify the military withdrawal which was mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1559. During the first parliamentary elections held after Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2005, the anti-Syrian coalition of Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian parties led by Saad Hariri, son of assassinated ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, won a majority of seats in the new Parliament.The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), though not allied with the Rafik Hariri Martyr List during the elections, garnered strong representation in the newly elected Parliament. The political alliances were interesting in that in some areas the anti-Syrian coalition allied with Hezbollah and in others with Amal. They did not win the two-thirds majority required to force the resignation of Syrian-appointed President Lahoud voted for by Rafik Hariri parliamentary bloc, due to the unexpectedly strong showing of formerly exiled General Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement party in Mount Lebanon. Despite being staunchly anti-Syrian during his 15-year exile, upon his return Aoun aligned himself with politicians who were friendly to the Syrians in the past decade: Soleiman Franjieh Jr and Michel Murr. Their alliance dominated the north and the Matn District of Mount Lebanon. Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt joined forces with the two staunchly pro-Syrian Shiite movements, Hezbollah and Amal, to secure major wins in the South, Beqaa, as well as the Baabda and Aley districts of Mount Lebanon. This alliance proved temporary. On February 6, 2006 Hezbollah signed an understanding of disarmament with Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. After the elections, Hariri's Future Movement party, now the country's dominant political force, nominated Fouad Siniora, a former Finance Minister, to be Prime Minister.His newly formed representative government has obtained the vote of confidence from the parliament. On July 18 2005, Lebanon elected a new parliament dominated by an anti-Syrian coalition. This parliament approved a motion to free Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, who had spent most of the past eleven years in solitary confinement in an underground cell with no access to news. The motion was endorsed by pro-Syrian Lebanese President Émile Lahoud the next day. (The above section quotes liberally from Wikipedia)

What has happened now is that another Christian politician has been killed by a car bomb. Antoine Ghanem, 64, a member of the Right-wing Christian Phalange Party, was killed along with eight other people in the attack in a Christian suburb of Beirut. He was the eighth prominent anti-Syrian figure assassinated since 2005 and the attack came just six days before parliament was scheduled to meet to elect a new president in a deeply divisive vote.

This assassination is aimed at preventing any elections from taking place and at distracting world attention from Syria's weapons programme, a plan that took a severe knock on 6 September - see my article on Syria.

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