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    Middle East
     Mar 15, 2005
Hezbollah power play
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - In 1940, the Muslims of Lebanon complained that president Emile Edde was treating them as second-class citizens. Reportedly, he replied sarcastically to the complaint, saying: "Lebanon is a Christian country. Let the Muslims go live in Mecca." Edde's words describe how hostile some Christians were against the Muslims of Lebanon, and how much they wanted to rid Lebanon of its Muslim community.

Less than 10 years later, in 1946, King Abdullah I of Jordan toyed with the idea of uniting Syria and Jordan under his Hashemite crown in a scheme he called "Greater Syria". He went on a regional tour to drum up support for his plan, and in Lebanon met with the Maronite patriarch Antune Arida. The patriarch made him an offer "he couldn't refuse": Maronite support for the plan, but only if Abdullah would annex the Muslim territories of Lebanon to Greater Syria.

This story, which will be criticized and questioned by many readers, can be found in the memoirs of Prince Adil Arslan (pp 672-679, published in Beirut in 1983). He was a Lebanese Druze statesman who worked in Syria and became minister of foreign affairs in 1949. The feeling of distrust and animosity was mutual, of course, and reciprocated by the Muslims of Lebanon.

In 1976, tension between both parties escalated tremendously, and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad intervened politically, before sending his troops into Lebanon in May 1976, encouraging Lebanese president Sulayman Franjiyyieh to issue a constitutional document giving the Muslims some key concessions they had been demanding since the 1940s: equal representation in parliament, more power and autonomy for the Sunni prime minister, who should be chosen by parliament, and not by the Maronite president, equal access to top civil-service jobs, and reference to Lebanon as an "Arab country".

The proposal was flatly turned down by the Muslims themselves, considering the reforms too little and too late. When Assad met with Kamal Jumblatt for 12 stormy hours on March 27, 1976, he asked: "Why are you escalating the fighting? The constitutional document gives you 95% of what you want. What else are you after?" Jumblatt angrily replied that he wanted to get rid of the Christians "who have been on top of us for 140 years".

This statement was published by British journalist Patrick Seale in his book Assad: Struggle for the Middle East, based on an interview with none other than Walid Jumblatt, who today is part of, and in effect leads, the Christian-dominated opposition in Lebanon.

That in itself shows us how far Lebanon has come since 1976, and how muddled and complex its politics remain. Of course, both the attitudes of Edde and Jumblatt are unacceptable in a diverse and confessional nation like Lebanon. One wonders, had Edde lived on (he died in 1949), what he would have said of the more than half a million marchers, mainly Shi'ite, headed by a militant Shi'ite cleric, on the streets of Beirut on March 8.

This is a Lebanon very different from the one he ruled in 1936-41, and in order to move on with their lives, the Christians of Lebanon must realize that Edde's Lebanon, sadly, no longer exists. This is a Lebanon, whether one likes it or not, whose majority are Shi'ite, not Maronite. They are 40% of the population, and contrary to what is being said, most of them are either members of Hezbollah, or supporters of its secretary general, Hasan Nasrullah. It is a reality - a sad reality, maybe, to some, but a reality nevertheless - than everybody, President George W Bush included, should take into serious consideration before drawing up plans for the Lebanese republic.

The Hezbollah demonstration was one of the largest in Lebanon's modern history. Reassuring as it was to the Syrians and their allies in Lebanon, it was a nightmare for most Christians. It showed the world that the Shi'ites have an extraordinary organizational ability, are dedicated to a unity of purpose with Syria, and opposed to Bush's Middle East agenda.

Within a flash, Nasrullah can cause havoc in Lebanon, yet he is too wise to do that, and havoc among the Shi'ites of Lebanon would send emotions souring among the Shi'ites of Iraq. Bush cannot afford upsetting the Shi'ites of Iraq, who have played a crucial role in calming things down and keeping order in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

Nasrullah was reminding the Americans, and the members of the opposition who had been calling for the implementation of UN Resolution 1559 for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, that the Shi'ites were still there, still visible to the rest of the world, and that they were armed, and came in huge numbers.

The symbolism of the Hezbollah march was great. First, no Hezbollah flags were carried, only flags of Lebanon, to show that the Shi'ites were committed to Lebanon, and not, as their opponents claimed, to pan-Shi'ite loyalties that include Iran, Iraq and Syria. Nasrullah's crowds met on the front lines that separated the Lebanese during the civil war - on the actual location of the trenches. He pointed out that this location had been destroyed by Israel in 1982, and by the Lebanese themselves during the fighting.

Nasrullah did not allow one person to carry a gun, to show how far his followers had come from the 1970s, or fire one shot in the air, insisting that it was a peaceful demonstration aimed only at showing the other side of Lebanon, and thanking Syria.

It echoed the words of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on March 5, where while speaking to Syrian parliament, he said that the anti-Syrian demonstrations were focused on a few demonstrators that were zoomed on by TV cameras. The half a million people that Nasrullah brought out in Beirut needed no zoom lens. Cameras shot images at a distance, and all viewers could see were pro-Syrian citizens in the horizon.

The Hezbollah demonstration worked, and it delivered the required message to the US and the world. The New York Times reported that the United States will deal with Hezbollah in a different manner after the massive demonstration staged in Beirut. The newspaper said: "The [US] administration's shift was described by American, European and United Nations officials as a reluctant recognition that Hezbollah, besides having a militia and sponsoring attacks on Israelis, is an enormous political force in Lebanon that could block Western efforts to get Syria to withdraw its troops."

It quoted an official saying, "The administration has an absolute aversion to admitting that Hezbollah has a role to play in Lebanon, but that is the path we're going down." It added that it was "dangerous" to antagonize Hezbollah and "wiser" to encourage the party to run candidates in Lebanese elections. The European Union, however, held by its views as member states were asked to restrict their activities with Hezbollah, and the European parliament labeled it a "terrorist" organization with a majority of 473 against 33 votes.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to maintain strong talk against the Shi'ite guerrillas, but many viewed that as a media stunt, while Lebanon's Daily Star wrote that "America's stance was softening" to avoid a crisis in Lebanon. The Daily Star went on to quote one State Department official who said, "Any party that can win public support democratically should play a role in Lebanon's future as determined by the Lebanese people."

A spokesperson at the French Foreign Affairs Ministry said, "France's position is clear and unchanged. We realize that Hezbollah is a very important element of Lebanese political life and accordingly we refuse to include it to the list of terrorist organizations, despite growing American and Israeli demands to do so." She pointed out, "We are attached to the stability of Lebanon and we will not take measures which will destabilize the country."

Dr Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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