BEIRUT, Jul 27 (IPS) – Amidst the rapidly worsening situation in Lebanon, the government finds itself too weak and divided to deal either with the Israel or with Hezbollah.
In turmoil since the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, the government of this tiny country of 3.8 million has been struggling to overcome internal factions. That is despite free and fair legislative elections which brought in a new parliament last summer.
“Our government can help solve this crisis as much as it has helped with so many of our main issues,” a businessman in downtown Beirut told IPS. “And that means they can accomplish exactly nothing.”
Divided along the lines of the fractious population of Lebanon, the government is split primarily on its Syria policy. An inability to bridge this divide has left the government severely weakened as the war grinds into its third week.
Israeli war planes continue to bomb southern Lebanon. At least nine Israeli soldiers were killed in fierce fighting with Hezbollah Wednesday while attempting to take control of the southern Lebanese border town Bint Jbail. Thirteen Israeli soldiers were injured. Hezbollah are believed to have lost 30 men in the battle.
Israeli commanders had claimed earlier that Bint Jbail had been captured. So far at least 18 Israeli soldiers have been killed.
Faced with such fighting, to which it is more a spectator, the government simply cannot meet Israeli demands to control Hezbollah. Hezbollah fighters most likely outnumber the Lebanese Army. And it is widely known that many in the army are themselves Hezbollah members.
Hezbollah has a large following, estimated to be as many as two million Shias, who revere Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. That means that close to 60 percent of the population follows the Hezbollah leader’s every word. Hezbollah can exert enormous pressure on the fractured government.
The government is weakly positioned partly because it was set up with parliamentary representation in proportion to sects based on a 1930s census. Following the end of French colonial rule in 1943, the top government posts were allocated to particular religious groups.
The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim.
The Shia part of the population was far smaller then than today, leading now to disproportionate political representation that has added to the instability and divide.
At present, a Christian-Sunni alliance holds the majority in Parliament, though the two together are outnumbered in the general population.
The position is similar to that in Iraq, where people are invited to vote along sectarian lines, only deepening the divide.
Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud theoretically controls foreign policy and national security. In reality, he is seen as a pawn of Syria, and as little more than a figurehead.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has won little respect in domestic issues, and has found little success on international ones. Nabih Berri, the speaker of the parliament, is widely believed to be pro-Syria and pro-Hezbollah.
The 128-member parliament is split into three main groups.
The largest coalition, Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Tide), is anti-Syrian and led by Rafik Hariri’s son Saad. It is heavily backed by the United States.
The Amal party, with the second highest number of seats, is widely supported by Hezbollah and is the main Shia party in the country. The third and smallest group, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), is led by Michel Aoun, a former prime minister who returned from exile in 2005. The FPM is popular among Christians.
To cap it all, the government faces a 2 billion dollar damage to infrastructure. And income from tourism has dried up. The government continues to call for ceasefire, but it has little means to enforce it. It waits for the rest of the world to do something about the country.