BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Qatari-mediated deal to defuse Lebanon’s political crisis has averted civil war and will calm tensions until next year’s parliamentary poll, but leaves the country’s deep-seated divisions unhealed.
The pact signed by rival Lebanese leaders on Wednesday after six days of talks in Doha meets the Hezbollah-led opposition’s persistent demand for veto power in the cabinet, resolves a dispute over the electoral law and will enable parliament to elect army chief Michel Suleiman as head of state on Sunday.
“There had been a major risk that the country would go up in flames and that has been averted,” said Sami Baroudi, a political scientist at the Lebanese American University.
“This stabilises things and gives a breathing space for everyone to reconsider their positions and engage in dialogue.”
Lebanon’s 18-month political crisis turned violent this month when Hezbollah and its allies, angered by two cabinet decisions, executed a swift military offensive in and around Beirut that routed Sunni and Druze partisans of the government.
The humiliation suffered by the Western-backed government forced it to concede the opposition’s insistence on a big enough share of cabinet seats to veto decisions it dislikes.
“It’s not a proper solution by any means and doesn’t address the root causes or grievances that led to this crisis in the first place,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an expert on Hezbollah.
“The deal was a product of the armed clashes, which clearly tilted the political balance in favour of the opposition.”
For now, Lebanon can breathe a huge sigh of relief because the agreement unblocks an impasse that had left it without a president since November, without a functioning parliament and without a government recognised by all sides as legitimate.
“This allows the mechanisms of governance to work again, which is critically important for the economy, for people’s well-being and psychological feelings,” Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri said. “But they could have done this a year ago.”
He predicted one or two years of relative calm, but warned that explosive issues remained, such as Hezbollah’s weaponry and Lebanon’s need to transcend outside rivalries pitting Iran and Syria against the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The United States, which views anti-Israel Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, will not drop its demand for the Shi’ite group to be disarmed and is likely to be uncomfortable with the opposition’s new ability to veto strategic cabinet decisions.
Under the Qatar deal, the next president is to convene a dialogue on Hezbollah’s arsenal and the powerful group’s curious status within the Lebanese state, but Saad-Ghorayeb said she doubted this would succeed where previous talks had failed.
“The issue of Hezbollah’s arms will remain a sticking point and a major concern for the Bush administration and hence for March 14,” she said, referring to the anti-Syrian majority bloc.
“Secondly for Hezbollah, there will continue to be the main problem of foreign allegiances, so Lebanon will remain in this tug-of-war between the United States and Saudi Arabia on one hand and Iran and Syria on the other,” Saad-Ghorayeb added.
The Doha deal, forged under the aegis of the Arab League, has won wide international support, with Iran, Syria and France voicing support. There was no immediate U.S. reaction.
Jamil Mroue, editor of the English-language Daily Star hailed Qatar’s role in helping Lebanon step back from the violence that had revived memories of its 1975-90 civil war.
“All credit to the Qataris who found the needle in the haystack,” he told Reuters in Doha. “The onus now is on the Lebanese and their leaders to let the Lebanese state emerge as a healthy arena for political differences.”
The political battle will resume over the 2009 election, whose outcome has already been partly pre-determined by the electoral constituencies redrawn in Doha, Saad-Ghorayeb said.
“It’s a settlement that came at the expense of democracy,” she said, noting that the electoral divisions agreed for Beirut ensured that only one of the city’s three constituencies in the 2009 parliamentary election would really be contested.
She said Hezbollah had effectively struck an electoral deal with Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri in Beirut, which she suggested was no service to democracy but would at least help to minimise tensions in the Lebanese capital during next year’s polls.
Election law tinkering hides a deeper malaise in Lebanon’s complex power-sharing system between Christian, Sunni, Shi’ite, Druze and other communities whose relative numbers have changed drastically since the country last held a census in 1932.
“Issues like adjusting the political balance to reflect the demographic balance or tackling corruption and administrative reform are sensitive, but they must be addressed,” Khouri said.
Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki in Doha; editing by Sami Aboudi