03/04/2005, 00.00
LEBANON - SYRIA
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Lebanon becomes once again a model for the Middle East

by Samir Khalik Samir
Druze asking Christians for forgiveness; Christians praying for Sunnis: Lebanon's peaceful revolution is a source of hope for democracy in the entire Middle East. The "land of cedars" remains the best example of coexistence in the region. But the international community is needed. Fr Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit, is a professor of the History of Arab Culture and Islamic Studies at Beirut's Saint-Joseph University.

Beirut (AsiaNews) -- Lebanon's peaceful revolution over past days is of great importance for the country and for the future of the Middle East. It could be the catalyst for democratic transformation in the entire region. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lebanon is facing its most favourable period in decades: this is truly an opportunity not to be missed. It is also true that all these signs of change in the region need the firm support of the international community, especially in terms of collaboration between the United States, Europe and the Arab world.

Let's consider, first of all, the significance for Lebanon.

a) over past weeks, conditions have returned to those prior to the 1975 civil war: for the first time in many years, religious divisions have disappeared. The revolution started from Christians, then the Druze joined in; and, following the assassination of Rafic Hariri (a Sunni), the Sunnis also followed suit. Only the Sci'ites, for the moment, remain a bit on the fringes. Faith-based obstacles have disappeared. Everyone has sought to overcome them. For example, Christians went to pray on Rafic Hariri's tomb. They also went to pray in mosques, where attendants distributed a copy of the Koran to everyone. Christians took them and used them. As a sign of inter-religious integration, some held a Cross in one hand, the Koran in the other, while donning a typical Druze hat. Politicians have been displaying the same trend. A month ago, Druze leader Walid Joumblatt came to Saint-Joseph University and asked forgiveness for the Druze massacre of Christians during the war. "When Syria killed Kamal Joumblatt, my father," he said, "we knew you were innocent. But we took advantage of the situation to massacre Christians. We did so and we ask forgiveness.

b) this entire movement has always been peaceful: the opposition had clear ideas, uncompromising firmness, but never resorted to any kind of violence. Even the army sent by the government to block protests went through the motions with little conviction, sympathizing with the people. The government, realizing that it lacked popular support, looked for little compromises. But the opposition stood firm and the government was forced to step down. It was a great victory for the opposition, but also for the Lebanese nation: the result of a national movement -- even though the Sci'ites were missing -- for regaining Lebanese identity.

The need for dialogue

This is truly a unique moment: Iraq is taking steps toward democracy (even if violence is still an issue); in Palestine, new things are happening; Palestine and Israel are making efforts along the path of rationality. The attitude demonstrated by the Lebanese can serve as an example to show that "dialogue brings results", that a solution based on force is useless.  What has been obtained in Lebanon in past days is the result of determination coupled with non-violence. But this required certain conditions:

- an internal condition: We must tackle the Lebanon problem: that everyone gets together to discuss what we want of this country; why there is so much violence; why each group relies on a foreign state, on an external force (Christians on France or Europe; Sunnis on Saudi Arabia; Sci'ites on Iran; the Druze on whoever is strongest -- at one time, Syria, at another, Great Britain, now the United States).  Lebanon needs to find a solution that leaves neither winners nor losers, but that is based on independence.

The problem with Syria must also be tackled. Damascus has yet to recognize Lebanon or its borders; it has never exchanged ambassadors with Beirut. Even telephone systems are unified: a call to Damascus requires just an area code -- no international code. How can a country not be recognized after 60-plus years?  A principle to be implemented is that internationally recognized borders are sacred: Which leads to a third problem.

Israel. There is a great injustice in the East and it is the fact that Israel is occupying Palestinian territory. As long as Israel (and the United States) do not recognize other people's borders, there can never be peace in the Middle East. Syrians say: why should I recognize Lebanon if Israel does not recognize the boundary of others, occupying the Golan Heights, Palestine and the West Bank?  And why doesn't the international community say anything?

In Lebanon, it seems to us that the United States are left too much to their own devices in deciding the world's structure.  There is no sense to the fact that UN decisions apply to only certain states, but not to Israel.  For example, what right does the United States have to say that Iran cannot have the atomic bomb, while the United States can have it? All this suggests that superior strength can dictate law. And Syria follows this "might makes right" law with regard to Lebanon.

U.S.-Europe collaboration

Lebanon's peaceful revolution could be the catalyst for democratic transformation in the Middle East, on the condition that Lebanon, other countries in the region, the United States and Europe decide to apply internationally the principles they practise internally.

Even if the United States is the strongest nation, we in the Middle East see Europe as being closer. Many people trust Europe more than the United States. To a certain extent, it's a misplaced trust. Europe is floundering in internal problems, in a blurred identity. And not having an army, it ultimately has no choice but to submit to the strongest. With the fall of the USSR, Europe could act as counterbalance to the U.S. We cannot solve the Lebanese, Palestinian or Iraqi problem without Europe's involvement. The only alternative is dictatorship, albeit benevolent, on the part of the Americans. The question is particularly sensitive when it comes to Israel: the United States have always used their veto against scores of UN declarations addressed at Israel. And no government dares say anything. We pay the price for this American and European code of silence. If we want a more democratic Middle East, the international system needs to be more respectful of everyone's rights.

For Syrian withdrawal

All this presupposes a Syrian military and secret service pullout. This is ever more a possibility. Even among Syrians -- where public dissent is not allowed -- many people are reacting well and are against Syria's military presence in Lebanon. Syria itself, realizing that it has no support among the Lebanese, is thinking over its pullout. But withdrawal into Bekaa is not enough. And even if Syria withdraws within its borders, problems would persist: there are always Lebanese who are willing to sell their country for a handful of dollars. This is why I say that the first step is to reinforce national conscience; this should be done through dialogue and not violence. The subsequent step is to establish dialogue with Syria. And it is at this point that the United States and Europe can help: we have no power vis-à-vis Syria. A stronger power is required to force Syria to obey international conventions and enter into dialogue.

All public figures, starting from Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, have stressed that we want Syria to pull out, but we want to remain friends with Syrians. The Druze have said the same. However, to ensure this, international pressure is needed to force Syria into dialogue. And I think it good and right for the international community to take on financial assistance for Syria. All this does not differ from what Israel did with Gaza colonists, asking the U.S. to compensate for their pullout from Gaza. If the search is on for a peaceful solution for the Middle East, this kind of political will is needed. It should be noted that we find ourselves in a favourable period, perhaps the most favourable in decades: this is truly an opportunity not to be missed.

The Arab world and democracy

The Arab world seems to lack courage. Every time it has to take unpopular decisions, it buries its head in the sand. There are many contradictions that get in our way -- perhaps more than those in Europe. Currently in the Middle East, it seems that support for a peaceful solution in Iraq and Palestine is making headway. Those who want violence are Islamic fundamentalists, who threaten even Arab states. The current juncture allows one to perhaps envisage a global project for democracy in the Middle East. But this will be possible only with the concerted efforts of the United States, Europe and the Arab world. Solutions must be found for terrorism, violations and dictatorships. We Arabs all agree that there are too many dictatorships among us: however gentle some may be, nevertheless dictatorships they are. But things are changing: even Egypt has changed its electoral process (allowing for direct elections) and President Mubarak decided -- after 4 legislatures -- to not run for re-election.

Lebanon remains a special and significant case. This is due to a large Christian presence, which creates a pluralism by essence and by constitution, which intertwines religious creed and parliamentary representation. Every once in a while it is said that the confessional system must be abolished, but for now that would be impossible: in the eastern world, the only kind of pluralism that works for the moment is religious pluralism. The Lebanese model, even is small, curtailed, wounded by war, remains a possibility. And the Arab people sense that. There was a full-blown invasion of tourists this year to Lebanon from Persian Gulf countries. This was partly due to difficulties they face in travelling to the U.S. and Europe, because of security checks and difficulties in obtaining visas. But they come to us because, here, they find greater democracy and more freedom, even in mores. They appreciate Lebanon's liberal system in economics and in customs: here a girl can go around with a veil and another, her friend, without one.  The best place to see this plurality in action is Beirut's new centre: in the evening, you find Christian and Muslim families out for a walk, without any distinction being made.  And then along the seashore, where you meet people of all types and religions. Lebanon has not lost this vibrant pluralism and those who ruined it once understand this and take it as an example.

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