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Middle East: Lebanon's Cedar Revolution Hangs In The Balance

Displaced Lebanese civilians returning to southern Beirut on August 16 (epa) WASHINGTON, August 17, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution last year led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces and optimism for the country's economic and political future. Now, as the cease-fire takes hold after the month-long war with Israel, that future is clouded by economic and political challenges.

Just as the war damaged Lebanon materially, it also put Lebanon’s fragile domestic political balance under new pressures.

Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations and anthropology at the U.S.-based Boston University and the author of a forthcoming book on Hizballah, says some of this pressure comes from Lebanon’s Shi’ite community, particularly from the approximately 1 million people displaced from their homes.

" The [Shi'ite] community -- [of] which basically a million people were displaced, most of them were [Shi'ite] Muslims -- this is an angry and politicized community," Norton says. "So their voice in the Lebanese government is going to continue, and, if anything, it may increase. I do worry that this government could collapse, and we could go into a kind of chaotic period."

Can Hizballah Channel Shi'ite Anger?

The anger of those displaced comes even as the Shi’ite Hizballah is declaring itself the winner in the war and is moving quickly to compensate victims and rebuild their homes.

"I do worry that this government could collapse, and we could go into a kind of chaotic period."

Some observers say Hizballah will try to channel this anger to position itself as a stronger political force in Lebanon than before. The party already holds two ministerial posts in the government.

But if emotions among Lebanon’s Shi’a -- which form Lebanon’s largest single group at 35 to 40 percent of the population -- have been heightened by the war, so too have those of the non-Shi’ite communities.

Other Communities

Norton says Lebanon's various non-Shi’ite groups -- the Sunni, Druze, and Christians, for example -- also have been angered by the war. And their anger is not directed exclusively at Israel.

He speaks of a "fury against Hizballah for provoking the Israeli attacks."

Lebanese troops crossing the Litani River on August 17 to secure the southern part of the country (epa)

Many non-Shi’a criticize Hizballah for unilaterally launching a cross-border raid to capture two Israeli soldiers. The July 12 seizure of the soldiers and demands for a prisoner exchange precipitated the Israeli attacks on Lebanon.

During the fighting, such criticisms were subdued in the interest of national unity. Now, experts say, they could resurface as rifts in Lebanese society.

Legacy Of The Cedar Revolution

All this contrasts poorly with the heady days of the Cedar Revolution last year, when Lebanese came together by the thousands to press Syria to withdraw its troops from the country and stop interfering in its domestic affairs.

The demonstrations were prompted by the assassination of the anti-Syrian former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005. Many Lebanese blamed Damascus.

But Norton says that even during the Cedar Revolution, deep divisions existed that could now be exacerbated again.

"I was very moved -- not just impressed, I mean moved on an emotional level -- by the fact that 1 million people turned out on the 14th of March last year to demonstrate basically against Syria," Norton says. "That was amazing. But there were also demonstrations -- not quite on that scale, but with 400,000-500,000 people -- mounted by groups that felt very differently. So from the very beginning, it was very clear there were interests here that needed to be accommodated."

One of those groups that “felt very differently” about Syria’s withdrawal was Hizballah -- which is supported by Damascus and Tehran.

Unpredictable Future

But, as Norton notes, nothing is easily predictable in Lebanese politics, where various power groups can form even unlikely alliances to gain or maintain influence against rivals.

"My conclusion after studying Lebanese politics for more than a quarter of a century is that there isn't going to be any single force coalescing," Norton says. "In other words, there are too many tensions within communities. So, for example, many people in the Christian Maronite community are particularly furious at Hizballah, but one of the major Maronite leaders -- a retired general by the name of Michel Aoun, who has a lot of supporters in Lebanon -- is an ally of Hizballah."

Still, if many observers see Lebanon headed for a period of heightened political tensions following the recent conflict, not all see this as necessarily dangerous to the country’s development.

Disarming Hizballah

Robert Rabil, the author of "Syria, The United States, And The War On Terror In The Middle East " and a professor at Florida Atlantic University, says prospects for democracy may now improve because other groups may be more ready to oppose Hizballah.

"Before they would say, 'OK, let's talk with Hizballah. Let's accommodate Hizballah. Let's appease Hizballah. We don't want to have problems. We don't want to create problems. We don't want to have Lebanon -- especially at this time when you have millions of visitors coming to Lebanon -- create problems,'" Rabil says. "But now you have the problems. Lebanon is considered a disaster area. So they have nothing to lose."

Rabil considers the disarming of Hizballah the critical task for the consolidation of the Lebanese state and the strengthening of the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. Failing that, the country could again fall victim to internal divisions and the interference of its neighbors.

Iran, Syria, And Hizballah

Iran, Syria, And Hizballah

Iranians demonstrating in support of Hizballah in Tehran on July 17 (epa)

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