Lebanon's Government Hobbled by Political Structure

The Lebanese government is being told it must extend its writ to its southern border and disarm Hezbollah to end the current crisis. Yet the government, which swept into power last year on the heels of massive street demonstrations, is a complicated and messy mass of compromises that have hobbled its ability to do much of anything.

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The present government of Lebanon emerged from what's known as the Cedar Revolution. Massive street protests broke out in Beirut in March of last year after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The protesters and much of the international community blamed Syria for the killing. And within a matter of weeks, Syria was forced to end its military presence in Lebanon after some three decades. The departure of Syria created a political void for the new Lebanese government. It is now being tested by the latest conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

NPR's J.J. Sutherland has this report from Beirut on how the new Lebanese government has taken over the job of running the country.

J.J. SUTHERLAND reporting:

The government that emerged in Beirut was an awed, messy compromise, like so much else in this country. Different religious groups hold predetermined offices. Both pro and anti-Syrian factions are represented. Even Hezbollah holds two cabinet ministries.

Minister of Social Affairs Nayla Moawad is a Christian from northern Lebanon. She says the government was caught off guard by the July 12th Hezbollah raid into Israel that set off the current conflict.

Ms. NAYLA MOAWAD (Minister of Social Affairs, Lebanon): We were all furious. And we stated very clearly, in an official statement, that we did not know about the operation, we did not approve of it. We did not support it.

SUTHERLAND: Ever since Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2000, the international community has been urging Beirut to dispatch the Lebanese army to the Israeli border to replace Hezbollah guerillas. Even though many in Lebanon support that demand, the Beirut government has proven incapable of reaching a consensus on the issue.

Timur Goksel, a former senior advisor to the U.N. force in Lebanon, says the government is simply not capable of challenging Hezbollah.

Mr. TIMUR GOKSEL (Former Senior Advisor to the U.N. Force in Lebanon): In Lebanon, of course, the government is a - at the moment - is a very fragile institution, made out of very different interests. And they don't really influence the events now. And to ask them to do anything is like asking them to commit suicide. They don't control the events in the country. This is the Lebanese reality. It's not because of this government. This is the Lebanese system, this is the Lebanese sectarian system.

Mr. JAMIL MROUE (Editor, Daily Star): Today, Lebanon is a theater of operation and a humanitarian crisis, almost disastrous. But where is the government? You are absolutely right.

SUTHERLAND: Jamil Mroue is the editor-in-chief of the English language Daily Star in Beirut. He's almost incandescent in his rage against what Israel is doing to his country. He warns that even if Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is eventually forced to accept disarmament, the group's influence has become cemented by the Israeli attacks.

Mr. MROUE: I can assure you, many Lebanese and many Shia don't want Hezbollah. But today, the shadow of Hassan Nasrallah goes all the way to Mauritania and all the way to Malaysia, even if he is denuded of the last knife.

SUTHERLAND: That influence has hobbled the government, according to Sarkis Naoum. He's a senior columnist at the Nahar newspaper.

Mr. SARKIS NAOUM (Senior Columnist, An Nahar): The government - the majority of the government is, let's say, approve the civil revolution. But the minority in the government have what we call the power of veto, which means if Hezbollah says no, he can block any decision. They can vote and they can decide something, but when they want to implement it, it will be very difficult for them because Hezbollah can go to the streets.

SUTHERLAND: Naoum says this is not the first time one group has tried to dominate Lebanese politics with the help of external powers. Those past attempts ended in disaster for the country.

Mr. NAOUM: The Christians, between the beginning of the war, '75, '76, also they had this and they hoped that they can't govern the country through the Syrians, and after that with the help of the Israelis, and they failed and they lost. The Sunnis thought that with the help of Palestinians would do the same thing. Also they failed and the Palestinians were driven out by Israel in 1982.

SUTHERLAND: And now, he says, it is time for Hezbollah and its backers in Syria and Iran to learn that same lesson.

Lebanon's President, Emile Lahoud, is a staunch ally of Syria who opposed the Cedar Revolution. Today he is quick to praise Hezbollah, saying all of Lebanon is united in resisting what he calls Israeli aggression.

President EMILE LAHOUD (Lebanon): Hezbollah is very strong because they believe in what they're doing.

SUTHERLAND: Just how united Lebanon will remain is still in question. Many Lebanese have rallied behind Hezbollah since the conflict began, but analysts say it is far from certain that unity can last. Equally uncertain, they say, is whether the Lebanese government has the power or the will to forge a consensus once the fighter is over.

J.J. Sutherland, NPR News, Beirut.

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