1 of 2 | Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks via live video from his hiding place, as clashes between pro-government forces and the Hezbollah-led opposition continue throughout Lebanon for a second day, leaving many parts of Beirut and other towns deserted on May 8, 2008. A general labor strike that was called for yesterday has expanded into armed confrontation between the two groups. (UPI Photo) | License Photo
WASHINGTON, May 12 (UPI) -- Lebanon has always been a country that has stood out from the rest of the Middle East for a number of reasons -- primarily because Lebanon consistently has been a country of many contradictions.
It's the only country in the Arab world with a functioning parliamentary system that is not dependent on and does not answer to the executive; that, however, is true only when Parliament actually functions, a feat it has not been able to accomplish in several months as a result of the inability of the 128 members of Parliament to come to an agreement regarding the election of the next president.
Lebanon is also the only country in the Arab world where the president is elected through a democratic process -- well, sort of. That is when the members of Parliament can fulfill two requirements: first, to fulfill the required quorum to hold an election (something that is not as obvious as it might seem) and second, to vote on the pre-selected candidate. There is usually only one candidate, and the blessings of Damascus are a prerequisite before any election may proceed.
The other anomaly of this tiny country the size of Rhode Island is that it has been the undoing of more than one invading army, as history will attest.
A few miles to the north of Beirut, just before the town of Jounieh, is the Dog River, or Nahr el-Kalb in Arabic. The 19-mile river, which runs from the famous Jeita Grotto to the Mediterranean Sea, served as the demarcation line between Egypt and the Hittites in the 14th century B.C. At its mouth, where the coastal highway crosses the tiny river, are monuments erected by past conquerors; they include Ramses II, Nebuchadnezzar and Marcus Aurelius, as well as mementos left by more recent visitors, modern-day armies of France and Britain.
Lebanon has been a land of contradictions because of its unique composition -- there are 18 religious confessions, and Christians hold much of the power in a region of the world overwhelmingly dominated by Islam.
Lebanon is also a country of contradictions where age-old myths are deconstructed in a manner similar to the way in which one would debunk a child's fairy tale -- except that in Lebanon, that deconstruction is usually carried out in a manner involving the utmost violence.
That was the case last week when clashes broke out in Beirut, leaving a trail of 34 dead and many more wounded. The violence was between the Sunni forces loyal to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who is backed by France, the United States and Washington's Arab allies, and the powerful Shiite Hezbollah organization. Hezbollah receives financial, military, logistics, weapons and munitions support, along with technical advisers, from both Iran and Syria.
In resorting to violence against their fellow Lebanese, something that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah publicly said he would never do, not only did Hezbollah renege on a promise, it also shattered the age-old belief that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Last week's violence, which widened even more the political chasm already separating the various Lebanese parties, has sadly proved that the sword -- or, more precisely in this case, the AK-47 assault rifle, accompanied by the odd rocket-propelled grenade and a wild mob -- can be mightier than the pen. At least in the short term, the final word is far from having been said in this latest dispute.
Indeed, the drastic events that transpired in the Lebanese capital last week amounted to little more than strong-arm tactics to enforce censorship by Hezbollah and to silence a more liberal press that was opposed to their way of thinking.
The Shiite militias' very first action was to neutralize all media outlets belonging to the Future Movement, the political gathering loyal to Saad Hariri, the son and political heir of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The targets included Future TV, al-Mustaqbal newspaper and other media outlets belonging to the Hariri group -- typical targets in any conventional coup d'etat. And, if for the moment neither the Syrians nor the Iranians have left their footprint at the Dog River, the truth is that Damascus and Tehran are aiming for far greater rewards than an obscure monument to join other relics of the past. Their aim, rather, is to leave their imprint on far more real estate than a stopover for tourists. Let us not be fooled by what is transpiring in Lebanon; the stakes are high, far higher than many people realize. At stake is democracy's only foothold in the Arab world. It is imperative, for the sake of the free world, to ensure that Lebanon regains its independence and does not become either an Iranian or a Syrian colony.
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)