The Razor’s Edge Can Still Cut

The most interesting thing about Lebanon these days – given the continuing political upheaval in the region – is what hasn’t happened. And for many Lebanese, the absence of obvious headline-grabbing activity is the calm before a very bad storm.

The country hasn’t gone up in flames, as so many have tiresomely predicted every few days. I don’t care whether it’s the Christian cab driver who is convinced his Shi’ite neighbors will slit his throat the moment things get a little twitchier or the politicians who toss out incendiary accusations against entire sectarian groups, your average Lebanese is convinced that no Lebanese is to be trusted. As I said, in a land of many faiths, the people have no faith in each other.

But what else hasn’t happened? Well, there’s still no presidential candidate agreed upon. President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian stooge, is due to step down later this month but since Hezbollah and its allies walked out of the current government last year, he says he won’t turn over power to an “unconstitutional” cabinet. Since there are no Shi’ites in the current government, and the Lebanese constitution requires representation of all the various sects, he says the government is illegitimate. That Hezbollah and its allies voluntarily removed themselves from the system, in the collective mind of the pro-Syrian faction, is considered beside the point.

Lahoud’s blowing smoke. Because when his term is up near the end of November, that’s it. The Constitution is clear — assuming you read Arabic — so if the president’s term expires without a new president, the pro-Western majority bloc gets to call an extraordinary session of parliament and elect their guy with a simple 50 percent plus one vote. The more pressing problem is that legalities don’t play well in Lebanon. This is a delicately balanced country that operates on consensus, and neither the pro-Syrian bloc, led by Hezbollah, nor the pro-Western government, led by Fuad Siniora, can agree on a consensus candidate. The two sides are far, far apart on fundamental issues: the status of Lebanon’s relationship with Syria, its former occupier, and the status of Hezbollah’s weapons and its current state-within-a-state structure. The fear is that if the pro-Western bloc elects its own majority president, Hezbollah and its allies will form their own shadow government or possibly stage a coup.

The Army, which has so far shown remarkable unity and has been containing Lebanon’s centrifugal forces, is making plans to maintain security and order should there be a presidential vacuum. In my more paranoid moments this sure sounds like planning for a coup to me and it doesn’t reassure anyone when Michel Suleiman, chief of the Army, is talked up by Hezbollah as a “transitional president” for a military government. It also doesn’t help that Suleiman has been making pro-Syrian statements lately and that up to half the army is Shi’ite. No wonder many Sunnis and half the Christians in the nation are worried about their primary loyalty: Is it to the state or to Hezbollah, the separatist Shi’ite militia?

And so there are rumors and stories of the various factions arming up in preparation should the presidential decision go badly.

“The old weapons have been taken out, dusted and oiled up, and new weapons have been bought in alarming quantities,” said Omar Nashabe, who writes on security issues for the opposition Al-Akhbar. “They are ready to burn the country again.”

Even private citizens are getting in on the action. In downtown Beirut this week, two armed drivers argued over the right of way on one of Beirut’s many narrow streets. The argument ended with one of them shot dead.

Hezbollah is preparing for something. Last weekend, the group staged a massive military exercise on both sides of the Litani River, south of which the group is not supposed to wander while armed. So, the fighters didn’t carry weapons when they cross the river. Both Israeli military observers and members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) watched the exercise, which was personally overseen by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Hezbollah said the maneuvers were in response to similar exercises by the Israelis, who flew jets over Lebanon’s southern airspace in continued violation of UNSCR 1701, which ended last year’s war. “I hope that both friend and foe will realize that the resistance is totally ready to confront all kinds of Israeli threats,” Nasrallah said.

And all kinds of domestic threats as well. The demonstration of Hezbollah’s organization and manpower wasn’t lost on the pro-Western government faction in Beirut. Sure, Siniora dismissed it as a simulation on paper, but Hezbollah’s second-in-command warned of “measures” the group would take should a pro-Western president be chosen. And there are reports that Hezbollah is stronger than ever. Last week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a report that said Israel worries that Hezbollah has rearmed with new long-range rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv, that the group has tripled the number of C-802 shore-based anti-ship missiles and established an air-defense unit armed with surface-to-air missiles. (I’ve highlighted the good stuff, on page 6.)

So to say people are nervous is an understatement. Newspaper columnists have even taken to saying that failure to elect a president in Lebanon — seeing as its tied in with geopolitics involving Syria, Iran, Israel and the United States — could spark a war stretching from Beirut to Tehran. Actually, the Cassandra columnist forgot Afghanistan, so such a war would stretch from Beirut to Kabul.

Will that happen? Hard to say. Lebanon’s poor fate is to be the punching bag for the bullies and battleground for the region’s various rivalries. And it’s been that way for centuries.

I guess a lot has happened after all — but nothing has changed.