Posted by: sean | July 13, 2007

Beirut’s bloody hot summer

I’ve been away from the computer for a while, which explains the lack of posting. In the meantime, “the situation,” as we’re fond of calling it here, has not gotten any better. Everyone seems convinced that something (probably something bad) is going to happen on either the 15th or 17th of July. I’m not convinced that anything dramatic will happen next week, either good or bad. I’m hoping that there isn’t a war this summer (between Syria and Israel or Lebanon and Israel or between Lebanon and Lebanon).

I am, however, afraid that the grinding stalemate will continue, that the draining status quo that’s been depressing everyone will drag on. And that’s surely better than war, except that maybe things have to get a lot worse before they can get better. In any case, I’m not optimistic.

My friend Mohamad has a piece in the Nation about the tension building in Lebanon that’s worth reading for a recap of what’s been going on and what this summer might be in store for us this summer and why the tinkering that everyone wants to do to the system isn’t enough to prevent future problems of the same sort:

Confessionalism leads to a weak state. It encourages horse-trading and alliances with powerful patrons. And it’s easily exploited by outside powers (Syria, Iran, the United States and Saudi Arabia being the latest examples). But most of the current players are too invested in this system to really change it. And foreign patrons don’t want change, because that could reduce their influence.

“Whenever you talk about a new Taif, people freak out…. Lebanese are always afraid of changing any social contract,” says Khalil Gebara, co-director of the Lebanese Transparency Association, an anticorruption watchdog group. “Because the problem is that, in Lebanon, social contracts are changed only in times of violence.”

What if the battle over the presidency continues past September, and the country is further paralyzed? There’s a real fear that the Lebanese government could once again split into two dueling administrations, as happened in 1988, when outgoing President Amin Gemayel appointed Aoun as a caretaker prime minister because Parliament could not agree on a new president. He created a largely Christian government, while the sitting Sunni prime minister refused to leave and led a rival Muslim administration. The crisis ended in October 1990, when Syrian warplanes bombed the presidential palace, driving Aoun into exile in France. It’s remarkable how many Lebanese are talking openly today about the possibility of another government breakup; some are even resigned to it.

Splitting the country into two administrations in 1988 was a logical endpoint of the confessional system. Lebanese leaders are going down the same path once again: They’re trying to run the country under a system that’s no longer viable and that continues to create a perpetual crisis. Until the Lebanese can agree on a stronger and more egalitarian way to share authority, they will be cursed with instability, their future dictated by foreign powers.

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