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Lebanese Politics: Fascinating, Frustrating


If you think, and I know you do, Mark, that the U.S. presidential elections feature a lot of foot-dragging, and are we there yet? Take Lebanon. The Syrians did. But so did the Persians, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Ottomans. Poor Lebanon has a history of outside influence, and now they've delayed their own presidential elections nearly 20 times.

You'd imagine that the Lebanese version of "Chris Matthews" has got to be insufferable by now. Actually, when we say "election" in this case, we don't mean the people of Lebanon going to the polls. Parliament picks the president. Lebanon's government reflects its ethnic divisions. The presidency is reserved for a Christian.


The prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim. The speaker of the parliament, a Shia. Lebanese politics are fascinating, and confusing, and often terribly frustrating. Luckily, Deb Amos is here to simplify things. Deborah has covered the Middle East for NPR. You were in Lebanon earlier this month?

DEBORAH AMOS: I was earlier this month, and there's nothing simple. Even I can't make it simple.

PESCA: Well, OK, so you can't actually simplify the politics, but maybe you can give us some definitions and fill in some of these gaps here. Let's start with this. The parliament pretty much agrees on who should be the president, right?

AMOS: Well, that's what they say, but it's not been tested, because we've had 18 times where they haven't got to that vote. So, it's completely possible that the guy that they agree on, they may not.

PESCA: And who is this guy that we think it's going to be?


AMOS: He is now the head of the army. His name is Michel Sulaiman, and he was a compromise candidate in a tiny window of time where they were willing to compromise. So, there is a name that's floating around there.

He meets the criteria. He is a Christian, and he has shown that as the head of the army he can be fair to all sects in the country, all of these 18 different religious affiliations in the country. And so maybe he will be the president when they finally decide.

PESCA: The office of the presidency of Lebanon, is it the most important office of that country?

AMOS: Because of this complex, you know, crazy way that the Lebanese do their politics, where everybody - you know, even when they hang people, they have to do three, a Christian, a Shiite and a Sunni...

PESCA: Oh, that's so nice.

AMOS: And that's not a joke, but that is how they do it. So...

PESCA: How would you like to be that quota guy?

AMOS: Exactly.

PESCA: Well, he really only, you know, stole a bagel.

AMOS: It happened a couple of years ago.

PESCA: Oh, my lord.

AMOS: So, you know, the way that those three top jobs are done is to distribute power to these, you know, three major sects in the country. But that's what the presidential argument is about. It's an argument about power, and redistributing power. The Shiites have felt that the Speaker of the House is not quite enough for them.

You know, they are the fastest growing group in Lebanon, and just like we've seen in Iraq where the Shiites are sort of - it's an uprising against people who have been a bit oppressed. The same thing in Lebanon, and so the presidency is a test of strength, if you will.

PESCA: So, this whole agreement and the apportionment by ethnicity and religion goes back to the end of the Lebanon War, about 1989, I think, is when they made the compromise.

AMOS: It goes all the way back to when the French...


AMOS: Gave Lebanon its independence. And it was a compact at the time, and the idea was that it was the Christians who were being protected in this, you know, Middle East of, you know, a rising Islam faith, and so the deal was the Christians would always be the president, but these other offices would be reserved for the Muslims.

What happened in the civil war is there was an imbalance of power between the Christians at that time and the Sunni Muslims, and they were the emerging power. Now they've become the old power, and they're aligned with part of the Christian community. It's now the Shiites who want their chance. They want to redress what they feel is an imbalance of power for them.

PESCA: Demographically, are the Christians the most popular religion in the country?

AMOS: Definitely not.

PESCA: So that's why their having the presidency would upset the Muslims?

AMOS: Absolutely. And in a system like that, it's like every baby that gets born you've got to redraw how the power works, because it does have a lot to do with demographics.

PESCA: Well, let's remember some more recent Lebanese history. Lebanon was - I don't know if the word you want to use is ruled, heavily influenced by Syrians...

AMOS: Occupied some say.

PESCA: Occupied by Syrians, they had troops in the country as recently as a couple of years ago, and then all indications are the UN came out with a report that Syria assassinated then Lebanese President Rafik Hariri.

AMOS: Didn't say that they did, but said that there was evidence they may have been involved, and there's good reason for that. Of course, the Syrians deny that, but they were in charge of intelligence in Lebanon in 2005 when Rafik Hariri was killed. So, if they didn't do it, then this was a terrible dereliction of duty.

PESCA: Right. Or they - the theory is that if it happened, the Syrians had to have at least OKed it, or know, about it.

AMOS: And many, many Lebanese believe that. Let me give you a little short history.

PESCA: Yeah.

AMOS: The Syrians were invited in in 1976. Lebanon was in the middle of a civil war, and they were part of an Arab peacekeeping force. By the '80s the Lebanese were tired of them, but the Syrians were not tired of this relationship. In the '90s, the U.S. blessed that occupation, and they did so because the Syrians helped the Americans in getting Saddam out of Kuwait, and to have tough old Syria on our side was worth a gift.

And the gift was OK, you get to keep Lebanon for a little bit longer. And they did until 2005, Rafik Hariri is assassinated, a million people come out on the street, and the Syrians - by this time the Syrians are actually ready to go, and they do it fairly quickly.

PESCA: Is the assassination of Hariri, if they did it or if they allowed it to happen, is that seen as them overplaying their hand? Because the Rafik Hariri slate of his party, the Rafik Hariri Martyrs List, was then swept into power.

AMOS: That's true, and there are many people who say that they weren't looking at the calendar, that 9/11 changed so many things in the Middle East. There had been other assassinations that were attributed to the Syrians. Nobody really said much about that, it was just the way the world worked, and it's possible that 9/11 certainly changed things for many people. The Syrians didn't see that if they are implicated in this assassination.

As I say, they always say they were not. But certainly the world did change in Lebanon, that the Lebanese really wanted the Syrians out, and that was the moment that they saw that there was an opening. They went to the street. Even Hezbollah, even - who are backed by the Syrians - even they came in a counter demonstration and said thank you very much Damascus for everything you've done, but you know what, it's time to go.

PESCA: Going to the street was called the "Cedar Revolution." Lebanon's flag has a cedar tree on it. The Bush administration, at the time, praised the Cedar Revolution. It was supposedly part of democracy taking shape all throughout the world. Haven't heard much from the Bush administration since. How much influence can the U.S. have on getting a president in Lebanon?

AMOS: Not very much, because American opinion polls in the Middle East are horrible, 85 percent disapproval. So, when they back the Siniora government, which is the government that is left in power - the Hezbollah backed opposition, they walked out in 2006. But when the U.S. backs part of a government, it's not so good for this government.

In fact, there's been a new opinion poll that came out just last week done by an American, Shibley Telhami at the University of Maryland, only nine percent of Lebanon backs the U.S. backed part of the government. Thirty percent back the Hezbollah part of the opposition. So, here's part of the problem. Nobody wants to lose. So, you can't have this presidential election take place because somebody is going to lose.

PESCA: Well, I don't know if that's simplified, but you helped us a lot. So, thank you very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

PESCA: Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.