Lebanese Seek Strong Government for Future

In the wake of Israel's war with Hezbollah, Lebanon's political system is in turmoil. Hezbollah has gained popularity for its confrontation with Israel. And Prime Minister Fouad Siniora — who's long been an advocate of democratic reform — is on the defensive as opposition leaders call for his resignation.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we turn now to Lebanon. Lebanon takes stock of the damage done by the war between Israel and Hezbollah. It finds it's always complicated political situation has shaken up even more than usual.

After a year of pushing for democratic reforms, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is on the defensive as opposition leaders call for his resignation.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, is riding a wave of popularity for its battle with Israel, and the movement is showing no inclination to turn in its weapons. Analysts say the need to strengthen the Lebanese state is more urgent than ever but no easier.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut.

PETER KENYON reporting:

Since the war started in July, Prime Minister Siniora has seen his popularity rise as Lebanese rallied around their government under the strain of the Israeli military bombardment. Siniora is part of the so-called March 14th Alliance, named for the date of the massive Beirut rally that united the opposition in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.

But in the post-war period, the government has been swamped with the financial and logistical needs of the multibillion-dollar rebuilding project Lebanon now faces. Siniora's critics, meanwhile, are on the attack.

One leading Christian politician, Michel Aoun, who's made an alliance with Hezbollah, is calling for Siniora to resign. Lebanese lawmaker Ibrahim Kenaan, an Aoun supporter, says only a national unity government will have the strength to stand up to the outside players that he says are using Lebanon for their own ends.

Mr. IBRAHIM KENAAN (Lebanese Parliament Member): I think the current government is actually from the past. Yes, there is regional forces that are really fighting on our land - Syria, probably Iran. Israel. And because of the absence of a strong Lebanese state, and because of the absence of a Lebanese vision and a Lebanese program, how can we deal with them?

KENYON: Siniora responded by saying the government had no intention of resigning, and he called on all parties to respect Lebanese sovereignty. But the prime minister has also spoken candidly in recent days about the weakness of the Lebanese state.

On one level, the problems facing Siniora and the March 14th forces were evident well before Hezbollah provoked this war. The anger and grief in the wake of the Rafiq Hariri assassination that united the Druze, Sunni and some Christian parties in the struggle to oust the Syrian military from Lebanon evaporated once the alliance achieved a majority in the government.

Old in-fighting resurfaced and political progress had all but stalled when the war broke out. Now some of the governing alliance fear that with Lebanon in post-war disarray, Syria could try to regain its influence politically if not militarily.

Wael Abu-Faour, a deputy with the March 14th Alliance, believes Damascus will try anything, including toppling the current Lebanese government, to avoid facing an international tribunal in the Rafiq Hariri assassination, currently being investigated by the United Nations.

Prosecutor Serge Brammertz is due to report on his findings in the case next month. Faour says if the Syrians begin to worry that his report will reach high up into the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon may see a return to the explosions and assassinations that were Beirut's nightmare before this latest war.

Mr. WAEL ABU-FAOUR (Druze Parliament Member): They will try to escape this court and to change the majority in Lebanon to make this government doubtful. And I think that the Syrian regime, if they will not succeed in changing the government, they will go back to their scenario of killing.

KENYON: Syria denies any involvement in the Hariri assassination or the killing of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists in Beirut that followed.

Analyst Paul Salem, director-designate of the new Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says the war helped many Lebanese realize that the best thing would be to have a strong state that can speak for Lebanon's Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze communities. But he wonders if Lebanon's eternal fractious political parties are prepared to take advantage of the moment.

Mr. PAUL SALEM (Director-Designate, Carnegie Middle East Center): I think one lesson this war taught the Lebanese is that the Sunnis cannot govern alone. Like the Christians learned, you know, 20 years ago that they could not govern alone, that the Lebanese cannot govern without the Shiites being full partners. War and the after effects of the war make the issue more urgent. Now will the political leadership rise to the challenge? That is a big question.

KENYON: Today, as the Lebanese army takes up positions on the border with Israel for the first time in decades, Lebanese are wondering if it's the beginning of a solution or just a new version of a very old problem.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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