09/19/2008, 00.00
LEBANON
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Lebanese national dialogue conference: a "pastime" or a way out of the crisis?

by Fady Noun
As at the meeting organized two years ago by Berry, the heart of the matter is "security", which specifically means the weapons of Hezbollah. But there are some who see all of this as a way of wasting time in anticipation of the decisive elections next spring.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The dialogue conference that opened on September 16 at the presidential residence is highly uncertain, much more so than the one held between March 8 and June 29 in 2006, under the supervision of the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berry. Berry dwelt on the famous "defense strategy" of Lebanon, a euphemism for the controversial question of the weapons of Hezbollah. After two years, a devastating Israeli war (July, 2006) and an endless political crisis that  led to the brink of civil war, nothing has changed. The positions over what this strategy should be are as opposed as they have ever been.

This may have been what prompted the head of state, the pragmatic president Michel Suleiman, to schedule the second dialogue meeting for November 5. This extended pause of 50 days should permit possible bilateral contacts to produce their results. Also in November, the outlines of the American presidential contest will be more clearly drawn, and the head of state will have had the opportunity to meet with president George Bush (September 25), during the ordinary session of the general assembly of the United Nations.

Many observers think that the dialogue conference is nothing more than a "pastime" in anticipation of the 2009 elections that will permit an uncontested new majority to emerge from the balloting. In their view, everything that is happening now should be seen as part of the electoral campaign of all the parties involved, including the head of state. This is the opinion of one of the ministers of the Siniora government, Ibrahim Chamseddine, who abandoned the government meeting last Thursday to protest the way in which security decisions have been made.

Effectively, after the Hezbollah show of force on May 7, there has been a reawakening of religious and political divisions between Sunnis and Shiites, dragging all of the other political rivalries behind them. The light weaponry in the hands of the population lead to daily exchanges of fire, with casualties and injuries, or the launching of grenades from vehicles in various parts of the country. In many cases, the army is content to watch, or to separate the combatants, without recovering their weapons. This is the case, in particular, in Tripoli and Bekaa, where the Sunnis of Saad Hariri have been outmaneuvered on the right by the Salafi and face the pro-Syrian Alaouites on the one side and the pro-Iranian Shiites on the other.

Chamseddine accuses the government of transforming itself, a little at a time, of resigning itself to "managing the crisis" instead of guiding it, of gradually sliding toward "friendly" security, which the Lebanese know all too well and for which they paid a high price during the civil war. Chamseddine is also afraid that the dialogue conference will replace the government and parliament, which would be reduced to executive instruments. It can also be wondered whether, in the face of the opposition, whose options are perfectly identifiable, the May 14 camp has the means to back up its politics. Of course the majority that is contesting Hezbollah's strategy emphasizes that trying to make Lebanon a country of "confrontation" means swimming against the tide at a moment when indirect negotiations are proceeding between Syria and Israel. And also at a moment in which Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is achieving the impossible in order to reach an agreement with Israel before Bush leaves the White House. But what influence do these speculations have in the face of reality? Who really believes that dialogue will be enough to make Hezbollah give up its weapons, to the advantage of the state and its military capacity? And those who dream of a reinforcement of the army's military capacity, how will they be able to overcome Israel's obstruction of the selling of certain weapons to Lebanon, out of the fear that these could fall into the hands of Hezbollah? These questions have received no answer, and they are no less significant than the contradictions that mark the current scene in Lebanon. This is why the national dialogue conference seems like one of the parts of the Doha accord (May 21, 2008), a joint cease-fire that should result in a new regional equilibrium, which the protagonists have decided - for how much longer? - to talk about, instead of fighting for it.

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