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Is Lebanon Entering A New Era Or A Waiting Period?

Sidon, in south Lebanon
Sidon, in south Lebanon
As a visitor to Beirut wakes up in the morning and observes the congested traffic on every single road in the capital and the heavy smog blanketing the city and the surrounding sea, it is hard to believe that conflict and war have never really stopped in this tiny country.

But the elections in June seem to have brought a new calm and less uncertainty to the deeply divided political scene.

It was not an election in which only the Lebanese voted. It was a contest between regional powers, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and even, indirectly, Israel. It was a contest that brought hundreds of millions of dollars to Lebanon as election campaign assistance by outside patrons. The tiny country, whose economy has suffered badly from more than 30 years of internal conflict, really needed the foreign investment in its elections.

Thousands of Lebanese expatriates were given free air tickets to fly to Lebanon and vote. In crucial districts, sometimes a vote was worth a few thousand dollars, which both electoral blocs were glad to pay: the Hezbollah grouping, including some Christians; and the Sunni-dominated Hariri bloc, supported by Saudi Arabia, and also by a large number of Christians.

Everyone expected the Hezbollah bloc to win, given its perceived success in the 2006 war with Israel and also its reputation for efficient governance. An insider from the Hariri group told me that two weeks before the elections, there was deep uncertainty within that pro-Western, anti-Iranian bloc. Some close aides to Sa'ad Hariri, the son of assassinated politician and billionaire businessman Rafiq Hariri, were seriously thinking of leaving the country after the elections.

Surprise Result

Then the first surprise hit the country. Anti-Hezbollah forces won, essentially by gaining the majority in two large districts. The second surprise followed soon after, when Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, peacefully and calmly conceded the election and accepted the results.

A joint Hezbollah-Amal billboard in south Lebanon
There are all kinds of theories as to how the Hezbollah bloc was out-maneuvered. But one basic question that almost everyone raises is the role of Syria, which has dominated Lebanese politics since 1976, when its tanks crossed the border and moved into Beirut, oddly to support the Christian forces fighting the Palestinians.

Many believe that Syria played a "dirty" game in these elections by not using its influence to help the Hezbollah bloc and thus allowing the pro-Western forces to pull out a rabbit out of their hat.

Certainly Syria had ample reason to do so. Everyone knows about the secret Syrian-Israeli negotiations over the past two years. Moreover, the Obama administration's overtures toward Syria might have given Damascus real hopes of an "honorable" peace with Israel, or at least a strong diplomatic position in the region. So why rock the boat by helping Hezbollah to win?

In addition, if some sort of improvement in relations with Washington and Tel Aviv is in the offing, a victorious Hezbollah in Lebanon could give Iran too much leverage and hinder Syria's diplomacy. Perhaps it was no coincidence that a group of former Lebanese high-ranking army and security officials, who were close to Syria and jailed under suspicion of involvement in the Hariri assassination, were freed during the elections.

New Balance?

Although the Hezbollah bloc did not win a parliamentary majority, it held on to its traditional seats. The Party of God had prepared carefully before the elections, reducing to a minimum the kind of billboards and election posters that could remind voters of its links with Iran.

As I traveled south to the heart of Shiite Lebanon, I saw far fewer reminders of the Iranian connection than in the past. Years ago, the region was full of posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and even current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

This year, on the drive from Beirut to Tyre, I saw only one Khomeini poster. I was also surprised by the degree of Amal's presence, at least in the coastal region. The traditional Shiite party is closely tied to Syria and competes with Hezbollah for the hearts and minds of Lebanese Shiites.

A mock rocket at an intersection in south Lebanon
Does the victory of the pro-Western bloc mean a fundamental change in Lebanese politics? Not really. Hezbollah will still have a veto power in major decisions, based on the policy proclaimed by both sides of governing by consensus. The next two or three years will be more of a waiting game for Lebanon.

Will Syria reach an agreement with Israel, or at least much improved relations with Washington? Will Iran continue to have a strong influence in the region? Will someone provoke Israel to attack targets in Lebanon?

In the meantime, the Lebanese economy is a strange combination of wealth and poverty. The streets are full of luxury cars, and new, multimillion-dollar, seaside apartment buildings are being built. Tourists from rich, oil-producing Arab countries visit, and some end up buying these luxury apartments. Real-estate prices have risen, despite the world financial and economic crisis.

No one knows where all this money comes from. Of course, the gap between the poor and the rich has widened, and many Lebanese struggle to survive on a few hundred dollars a month. But mysterious wealth is visible everywhere -- from expensive restaurants and packed clubs to fashionably dressed men and women who could belong to any religious denomination in the multicultural country. A large number of Lebanese seem to have no inhibitions about spending money and enjoying life to the full.

Welcome to Beirut, the enigma of the Levant.

Mardo Soghom is deputy director of broadcast strategy and operations at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL