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Lebanese Opposition Tries to Sustain Drive

Broad Agenda Includes Pressing President

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page A11

MOUKHTARA, Lebanon, March 1 -- Lebanon's opposition movement, flush with success after the resignation of the country's pro-Syrian government, turned its attention Tuesday to deepening its popular uprising against Syria's presence here.

The abrupt resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami's government Monday night invigorated the broad alliance that has coalesced since the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who had been an increasingly vocal opponent of the long-standing Syrian occupation. But the government's dissolution marks only one step along the path to the opposition's stated goal of driving Syria's 15,000 troops from Lebanon, dismantling intelligence services that many here blame for Hariri's murder and electing a parliament this spring less beholden to the Syrian government.

Lebanese opposed to Syrian influence in their country demonstrate in Beirut. Demonstrations dropped in size following the government's resignation Monday. (Mohamed Azakir -- Reuters)

_____World Opinion_____
Jefferson Morley Lebanon Putting the Squeeze on Syria Syria is fast losing ground in a geopolitical power struggle that its leaders did not see coming.

Opposition leaders began considering their next moves with particular attention to applying pressure on President Emile Lahoud, whose term was extended by parliament last fall under pressure from Syria. Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, is a favorite of Syria's government and still holds significant political influence within Lebanon's power-sharing system. Despite growing calls from demonstrators for Lahoud's resignation, some opposition figures said they believe his departure could leave a potentially dangerous vacuum.

"Lahoud is almost finished," said Walid Jumblatt, the Druze parliamentary leader who has emerged as the de facto head of the opposition. "But it would be better to have a new parliament with elections that would also elect a new president. We need a new president. We cannot stay like this for a couple more years."

The opposition alliance of Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim parties must now make a number of critical decisions on how to engage Lahoud to ensure that an amenable cabinet takes over through parliamentary elections, which must be held before the end of May. But the alliance must do so without appearing to declare an end to the popular rebellion that is gaining momentum here and abroad.

During a half-hour interview at his expansive summer home here in the Chouf Mountains 40 miles southeast of Beirut, Jumblatt said opposition leaders would gather Wednesday to decide whether to meet with Lahoud as he goes about selecting a prime minister. He said the opposition wants a "neutral government" to manage the country through the elections.

Jumblatt, a militia leader during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, has holed up here for the past week behind gates guarded by armed men. He said he fears for his safety, adding, "The time has never been more dangerous."

Jumblatt, who had supported the Syrian military presence here during the Israeli occupation of a swath of southern Lebanon, has become the most strident voice in favor of Syria's withdrawal. Under the agreement that ended the civil war, Syria was required to withdraw its troops to the eastern Bekaa Valley within two years, something it has not done.

"If the Syrians think they can hold Lebanon hostage on this issue, then they are mistaken," Jumblatt said.

Since the hours immediately after Hariri's death in a huge bombing in Beirut, Jumblatt and others have called for the government to resign, a call that appeared to extend to Lahoud as well. Jumblatt said the opposition would continue to demand a full investigation into Hariri's death. He also said the cabinet ministers who have resigned, including Karami, should be held responsible for referring to Hariri and other opposition leaders as "traitors" after a meeting that occurred shortly before Hariri's death.

"We want them tried," Jumblatt said.

After the jubilant demonstration on Martyrs' Square following Karami's resignation, much of the country appeared to pause Tuesday and contemplate the coming days. Stores reopened after a one-day strike, and the streets filled with Lebanese going about everyday tasks. Only a small contingent of demonstrators remained near Hariri's grave, the main stage for the uprising now unfolding.

The alliance of opposition parties, united in large part by their objections to Syria's presence, control roughly a third of Lebanon's 128-seat parliament. Opposition leaders say they expect to gain seats, and perhaps even capture a majority, with the elections.

"There is no other means of changing things in Lebanon except through elections," said Farid El-Khazen, chairman of the political studies department at the American University of Beirut, who is working with the opposition. "But as long as there is Syrian interference, they will never be free or fair. At any rate, the opposition must participate."

Lahoud, the former head of the Lebanese army, has remained largely silent while the political drama has played out on Beirut's streets and on the floor of parliament. But the president will begin consulting members of parliament Wednesday on a new government, a constitutionally required process in which the opposition has yet to decide officially whether it will participate.

Under Lebanon's postwar constitution, the president, prime minister and speaker of parliament govern almost by consensus, though the president maintains command of the Lebanese armed forces. Each post is held by a leader of one of Lebanon's largest religious groups -- the president is a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliamentary speaker a Shiite Muslim. The formula helped end Lebanon's civil war, but has been under severe strain since Syria's intervention last fall in favor of Lahoud's term extension.

Only the Shiites have yet to join the opposition in significant numbers. The Shiite speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who heads the Amal party, will have a large say in the formation of the next government.

The armed political movement Hezbollah, which controls 12 seats, will also have some influence, though it is facing a quandary on how best to proceed.

Hezbollah must decide whether to throw its weight behind what appears to be a strengthening current of anger against Lahoud and his Syrian patrons, a choice that would effectively place it at odds with its longtime patrons in Damascus. Although Hezbollah leaders ruled out joining the opposition only days ago, Jumblatt said the collapse of Karami's government would likely show them "the tide is on our side."

"Hezbollah's future is not in Iran or Iraq or Bahrain or Kuwait," El-Khazen said. "With or without its weapons, its future is here in Lebanon."

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