Lebanon Takes Steps to End Political Stalemate
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The Bush administration says that today Lebanon took a positive step toward ending its political crisis. After an 18-month stalemate, Lebanon's rival political groups reached an agreement. The past year and a half have included periods of deadly street fighting - the worst since Lebanon's devastating civil war, which ended in 1990. This crisis began in November of 2006, when opposition lawmakers resigned from the Lebanese cabinet.
For more on this deal, we turn to Paul Salem. He's the director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. PAUL SALE (Carnegie Endowment): Thank you very much.
NORRIS: Now, can you just briefly remind us who are these two groups, and can you explain the key parts of this deal?
Mr. SALEM: There are two coalitions. One is a pro-Western coalition, which is in government. The other is a pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian opposition in which the main player is Hezbollah. The deal that was reached this morning in Qatar involves three points: the election of a president right away for a six-year term, the formation of a national unity government in which the Hezbollah-led opposition would have a veto power, and the agreement on the outlines of an electoral law in order to go ahead and hold the parliamentary elections early next year.
NORRIS: Were there major concessions from either side?
Mr. SALEM: Well, the major concession is the granting by the pro-Western government of veto power in the government. This actually had been the sticking point for past year and a half. And the fact that the concession has been given partly reflects the military action that Hezbollah took. It occupied Lebanon's capital two weeks ago, and it threatened to go further to bring down the government. And so the government was really thrown on the back foot and was forced to give this comprise.
NORRIS: It would seem that the government, at least in terms of reputation, comes out weaker in this agreement. It might appear to the people in Lebanon that they've capitulated to Hezbollah.
Mr. SALEM: Well, certainly, Hezbollah is stronger. There's no doubt about that. And - but at the same time, the government pro-Western forces have survived this. They will continue to lead the government. They will continue to have a majority. And in actual fact, Hezbollah favors that, because the presence of a pro-Western leadership in the government sort of accords it a bit of protection from any potential Israeli attacks. But it's important to keep in mind that this is all somewhat overshadowed by the announcement today of negotiations between Syria and Israel over peace. Certainly, if that goes through, it will once again change the balance of power in the region and will certainly impact Lebanon and hopefully in a very good way.
NORRIS: Now, as this deal between these rivals within Lebanon, what would be signs that the deal is actually holding up?
Mr. SALEM: The deal is likely to get off to a reasonably good start, because people are exhausted from a long stalemate and from the conflict of the last two weeks. So I think we will have in quick succession of president forming a government and moving forward to preparing for elections. But Lebanon is a very complicated and tense place. I think everybody in the country will be sort of having their finger in the air, looking for which way the wind is blowing. If Syria and Israel are going towards peace, that means that soon Lebanon and Israel will have to go towards peace as well. That will certainly affect the life in Lebanon, and political outlook will also affect Hezbollah in a very big way and it would have to make some very difficult choices.
NORRIS: Paul Salem is the director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. Thank you very much for speaking with us.
Mr. SALEM: Thank you.