By Anthony Shadid and Alia Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 22, 2008
BEIRUT, May 21 -- The agreement Wednesday to end an 18-month crisis that brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war has redrawn the map of this fractious country, delivering the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah a decisive say in the country's government and serving as another setback for U.S. allies in the Middle East.
But the deal, reached in five days of negotiations in the Persian Gulf country of Qatar that dragged past dawn Wednesday, was more a respite than a resolution to a crisis that has cut across issues fundamental to the country's destiny: the power of the Shiite community, the country's single largest; the posture toward Israel; and the influence of foreign patrons -- Syria, Iran, the United States or Saudi Arabia -- in Lebanese affairs.
Even before they returned home, leaders began looking toward parliamentary elections next year that are almost sure to guarantee power to the same feuding, sectarian factions, with the same issues unresolved: the status of Hezbollah's weapons and the tendency for Lebanon to serve as an arena for proxy battles in regional struggles.
"One can see this as a long truce. I hope it will last as long as it can because we're fed up with civil war," said Elias Khoury, a columnist and author. But, he added, "we have a very long way to cross before we arrive to a real nation, a secular democratic country. Without that, Lebanon will always be on top of a volcano ready to explode."
Across the political spectrum, leaders were eager to cast the deal as an embodiment of the civil-war-era slogan that, in Lebanon's crises, there should be "no victor and no vanquished." Government leaders acknowledged making compromises but justified them as essential to averting a civil war. In effect, however, they met the very demands that Hezbollah and its allies -- the Shiite movement of Amal and followers of Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and former general -- had made in 2006 after the group emerged from a war with Israel: veto power in the cabinet and what Hezbollah called a government of national unity.
Hezbollah and its allies, angry over decisions that targeted the group, deployed fighters in mostly Muslim West Beirut a week and a half ago, routing militiamen loyal to the government in hours. The fighters' success created a new equation of power here. Hezbollah was adamant in its insistence that its weapons would not be dealt with in the negotiations that followed in Qatar.
They were brought up. But in the end, the communique settled for a vague admonition that groups "pledged to refrain" from taking up weapons to settle disputes and that the "use of arms or violence is forbidden to settle political differences." Despite its ambiguity, government supporters contended that the statement could be the basis for eventual talks on disarming Hezbollah.
The sides also agreed to elect Gen. Michel Suleiman, the army commander, as president Sunday, filling a post vacant since November. Suleiman was originally a candidate of the Hezbollah-led opposition, although he had emerged as a consensus choice in past months.
Saad Hariri, who inherited the mantle of Sunni Muslim leadership from his slain father, former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, seemed to acknowledge that he and his allies were forced to settle for less. "The wound is deep, my wound is deep, but we will get over it," he said in an interview in Qatar's capital, Doha, before returning with others to Beirut on Wednesday evening.
Others were less forgiving. "Why did the government and its allies have to wait for Hezbollah to use force to give an agreement that they could have given a year ago?" asked Karim Makdisi, a professor at the American University of Beirut. "This question has to be asked. It's an issue of accountability."
Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's allies, quickly endorsed the deal. The United States, which seemed caught off guard by the extent and speed with which Hezbollah routed its rivals in Beirut, gave cautious support. It played little role in the talks, which at least twice were saved from collapse by the aggressive mediation of Qatari officials. "This is not the end of the crisis. Lebanon still has to go through implementing this agreement," Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch said.
Across Beirut, residents were quick to invest a resilient optimism in the deal, even if they acknowledged that the crisis probably wasn't settled. To some, it meant averting a civil war that was almost realized this month as well as a welcome break from a series of near-continuous crises that began with the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 and war with Israel in 2006. Others hoped it might improve the capital's snarled traffic, as protesters began dismantling a downtown protest of sprawling tents soon after the announcement.
"If they didn't agree, we were headed for destruction," said Nour Shamaa, the owner of a downtown boutique. "We may have made compromises and we may have lost something, but it's better than losing everything and Lebanon losing everything."
Soon after the deal was announced, in the center of Beirut, workers began removing the detritus of the sit-in: worn mattresses, small butane stoves and cheap Syrian-made heaters.
In Tariq Jdeideh, an ardently Sunni area, many residents cast the agreement as their leaders had in Doha: a necessary deal to save Lebanon from more bloodshed.
"If someone says they won, they are mindless," said Ali Hussein, a 46-year-old mechanic. "You won? How did you win? Tell me. They killed us, we killed them. They're still here, and we're still here."
Hezbollah's opponents had cast its deployment of fighters in Beirut as a coup d'etat. But many analysts believed that the group, despite its position as the most powerful single force in the country, is reluctant to seize actual power, risking as it would international isolation. Rather, it was intent on securing its weapons and ensuring its veto power in any government, to curb what it sees as growing U.S. influence in the country. As the negotiations wore on, even its insistence on veto power became secondary to the law that would organize parliamentary elections in the summer of 2009.
"It's like giving us 1,000 boxes of Panadol when we don't have a headache," said Ali Hamdan, a spokesman for Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker and a Hezbollah ally.
In the talks over that law, Hezbollah and its allies won their demand for smaller constituencies that may bolster their number of seats, which are divided along sectarian lines among Lebanon's 18 religious communities. But they conceded a division of Beirut that will probably help Saad Hariri and his allies. In effect, the law means that the leaders gathered in Doha will likely preserve their power in the next parliament.
After the deal was signed, Berri kissed his rival, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Mohammed Raad, a senior Hezbollah official, embraced Hariri, whose men had battled Hezbollah fighters this month in the worst internal violence since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. "In the end, these guys need each other. They will always go back and agree. It doesn't matter how many people they kill, how many livelihoods they destroy, or the cost to the country," said Makdisi, the professor. "But it doesn't do anything to change the essence of the conflict itself or the flaws of the political system."
Ibrahim reported from Doha.