Amid War, How Bad Is Life in Beirut?

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Lebanon has been without a president since November and for the past year and a half the country has been mired in some of the worst violence since the civil war that ended in 1990. Journalist Rami Khouri describes the situation from his base in Beirut.


Lebanon has been without a president since November, and for the past year and a half, the country has been mired in some of the worse violence it's seen since the civil war that ended in 1990. Yesterday, the recent political deadlock appeared to end, as the U.S.-backed government in Lebanon reached a deal with the Hezbollah-led opposition. The two sides agreed to a national unity coalition, and a new parliamentary election scheduled for as soon as this Sunday that will install Lebanese army commander, Michel Suleiman, as the new president of Lebanon.

The deal comes after five days of negotiations in Doha, Qatar, and while Lebanese celebrate an end to the political crisis, perhaps, they're also keeping a wary eye on what a now strengthened Hezbollah means for their future. Joining us now on the phone from Lebanon is Rami Khouri. He's an - the editor at large of the Beirut-based paper the Daily Star. Rami, thanks for being here.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Editor at Large, Daily Star; Director, Fares Public Policy Institute, American University of Beirut): My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: The headline in all of this has been that this deal strengthens Hezbollah's power in the government. How specifically has the Hezbollah-led, Shiite opposition been bolstered through this deal?

Mr. KHOURI: Well, it's actually broader than that. That's the perception of the United States, where the American government and groups close to it have been trying to project this mainly as a Hezbollah issue. It's much broader than that. There's a group of people who are allied to Hezbollah in Lebanon and around the region, some of whom are Christians, especially in Lebanon, (unintelligible) very powerful group, and it's this broad coalition of people who are now more - better represented in the cabinet and will get a more equitable share of parliament that more clearly reflects their real strength in society.

So there is a shift in the balance of power in the institutions of government, which more accurately reflects the real change in society as a whole. And that's the main new development here, and it's a power-sharing national unity government in which Hezbollah and its allies have just over one-third of the seats, so it's not like they run the government or anything. But the key thing is that they can block any move by the government to try to, say, forcibly disarm them, and that's their main interest, and they've achieved that.

MARTIN: They have a new veto power, which they didn't have before.

Mr. KHOURI: Ah, that's right, and this is - part of the tradition of Lebanon, by the way, that you have a consensus-based government in which all the groups are represented, the religious and the ethnic groups, everyone is formally represented in parliament and in the cabinet, and they've traditionally done all major decisions by consensus. This broke down a year and a half ago, partly over the issue of the international court to try the killers who will be charged with killing the late prime minister, Rafik Hariri, partly, also, the move to try to disarm Hezbollah, which has been very much pushed by the Americans, Israelis and some Europeans, and some Arab countries, but this is - these are issues that have historically always been done by consensus, and now that consensus process is more formal again.

MARTIN: So, Rami, then you say that this is now just a codified manifestation of reality, this - now the government actually reflects the true situation in Lebanon. Is that a good thing, then?

Mr. KHOURI: Oh, I think it's a very good thing, because, you know, if you have a - I mean, the whole point of democracy is that the will of the people is reflected in the institutions and the policies of the state, and if democracy is sovereignty of the people, you now have a government system that more clearly reflects the collective will of the Lebanese people. I think it's a very good thing for Lebanon and for the region. The American government doesn't like it and some other people around the world don't like it, but it's a very good thing because it's an agreement that was reached by the Lebanese themselves, with some Arab assistance.

And it's a model, perhaps, for others in the region, in Palestine, Iraq, in other places, Sudan, where you have these stressful situations, ideological conflicts within countries that reflect regional and global tensions, especially American-led groups on one side and Iranian/Syrian-led groups on the other side. These groups have been having proxy fights all over the Middle East, including in Lebanon. Now they're deciding to actually try to resolve these issues without killing each other, but by forming a national unity government. So I think it's a very good thing. It...

MARTIN: But Rami, you yourself have written that there's a problem with the inability to address Hezbollah and its refusal to disarm, and that unless this was on the table in these negotiations, how to disarm Hezbollah, that any future deal would not do anything to secure future political stability, that that had to be a precondition. And that hasn't happened now. That wasn't on the table.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, some of what the news people are saying about the American government and others, I'm not saying myself - what I'm saying is that the relationship between Hezbollah as an armed resistance group and - the Lebanese government, by the way, recognizes Hezbollah as an armed resistance group. It's a government policy. And - but the relationship between this very powerful group and the Lebanese government needs to be clarified. You cannot have two armed groups that - the national armed forces and a group like Hezbollah. You just can't have it for a long period of time.

So this is a huge issue that has to be resolved, but you cannot disarm Hezbollah forcibly, unilaterally, because the American president, the Israelis, the Europeans, or somebody outside says you've got to disarm Hezbollah. It won't work. And the Lebanese themselves are (unintelligible). You can't do it by force. You've got to do it by political agreement. So this is, I think, the important thing for the American people to understand. This is an issue. It's a big issue. It has to be resolved politically and they, hopefully, will get to this, but they've agreed to leave this a little while.

Let's get these institutions of government working again, get the economy moving again, and develop a more consensus-based, realistic, political decision-making process that can address these really tough issues. Because there's other tough issues, like, for instance, the influence of the external players like Syria, Iran, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, these external players interfere in Lebanon a lot and that has to be resolved, that issue of political orientation.

Is Lebanon oriented to the Middle East? Is it oriented to the Islamic world? To the western world? The reform issues, economic corruption issues, these are big issues the need to deal with - that need to be dealt with, and so, hopefully, people'll want to start to address some of these issues now that they have a functioning government again.

MARTIN: Just with our last remaining minute or so, Rami, how is this going down on the streets of Beirut and around the country? Are people welcoming this deal as what you said, describing it as a reflection of the current reality? Or is there apathy, thinking, you know, this is just yet another kind of - it's part of the chaotic ebb and flow of Lebanese politics? How are people really feeling about this deal? Is it significant?

Mr. KHOURI: Oh, yeah, I think there's a huge sigh of relief. People really were scared last week when there was fighting and bullets flying around, and people were getting killed again. There was a terrible fears that we're going to fall back into some kind of Iraqi-style ethnic cleansing between Shiites and Sunnis, mostly. So there was a huge sigh of relief when this agreement was signed.

But people also understand that it resolved the easy issues of the president, the cabinet, the electoral law. The big issues, Hezbollah and the state's relations, et cetera, are still to be addressed. But there's a sense that this is now a functional government again, which has constitutional credibility and legitimacy, and everybody wants it to work. So I think you're going to see a much more mature and realistic attempt to make the system work, and also let it evolve and become more modern and more responsive to the real challenges of reform, of education of economic growth, et cetera.

So there's a sense of great hope and happiness, but at the same time, there is a little bit of skepticism - not skepticism, but people know that there's big issues that still haven't been solved. But they're enjoying this moment, and I think people feel this is going to give us a couple of years, and the best that can be hoped for is you get an economic boom, and the Northern Ireland style process, where economic prosperity and consensual decision-making then lets you deal with the tough issues (unintelligible) as it did in Ireland.

MARTIN: Yeah, it can open up some space to figure out those larger issues. Rami Khouri, the editor at large of the Beirut paper, the Daily Star. Rami, thanks very much. We appreciate you being here.

Mr. KHOURI: My pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: Stay with us. You're listening to the BPP from NPR News.

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