You have to hand it to Lebanon's veteran parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri. In a country politically paralyzed for months as bickering politicians fail to elect a new President, and burdened by a lifeless economy and the ever-present specter of sectarian and factional violence, Berri last week arranged for a circular wooden table and 14 chairs to be placed on the second floor of the parliament building in central Beirut. He wasn't just moving the furniture around; he was mounting an optimistic bid to bring the nation's feuding leaders together for a fence-mending dialogue.
The chance that roundtable talks will lead to a breakthrough appears remote, however. Government supporters have already dismissed the proposal, and most Lebanese have resigned themselves to a prolonged political stalemate. Many glumly predict that the United States will have a new President before Lebanon does. And there may be more to that comment than simply a January benchmark: Lebanon's political battle has become a proxy war for foreign powers locked into a struggle to shape the Middle East the U.S., Saudi Arabia and France support the government; Iran and Syria back the opposition led by Hizballah .
"Without the regional balances clearing a little bit, the major external players in Lebanon will not facilitate a breakthrough," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center. "Unfortunately, the domestic players in Lebanon are under too much external influence to make a deal among themselves."
Many of the region's traumas and tragedies reverberate in Lebanon's politics: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the plight of Palestinian refugees, al-Qaeda-inspired militancy, Syria's sour relations with leading Arab states and the West, the spread of Iran's influence, and the Sunni-Shi'ite tensions stoked by events in Iraq. That's quite a plateful for a country two-thirds the size of Connecticut and with a population of 4 million, many of whom are seeking to emigrate to more stable environments. Although there are no official statistics available (in a country whose ethnic and sectarian balances are so politically charged that a population census hasn't been taken since 1932), one estimate last year claimed that a quarter of the population had left in the year following the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah.
Still, Lebanon's lawmakers continue to go through the motions. On Tuesday, they gathered in parliament for their 18th scheduled attempt to elect a new head of state since President Emile Lahoud left office last November. Berri, one of Lebanon's wiliest politicians, surprised lawmakers with his decision to hold the session instead of postponing it as he has done in the past. Politicians from the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition that dominates the government hurried to parliament, along with opposition counterparts, to see if quorum would be reached to hold a vote.
The parties all know the outcome of the vote, of course. It was agreed months ago that the commander of Lebanon's army, General Michel Suleiman, will be the next President. Suleiman is a consensus candidate, acceptable to the March 14 coalition and the opposition, and would hold the balance of power in a government of national unity to be formed after he is elected. But the Hizballah-led opposition refuses to allow Suleiman to be voted into office until it is guaranteed a veto-wielding one-third share of the next government. While the opposition in all likelihood represents even more than a third of the population, a one-third share of the government would allow the Hizballah-led opposition to block decisions it opposes, such as moves to dismantle the movement's military wing. So, the March 14 bloc rejects the opposition demand, suspecting that it will be used to further Syrian and Iranian interests in Lebanon at the expense of its own U.S. and Saudi backers.
There was no surprise, then, when Berri postponed Tuesday's parliamentary vote not enough legislators had shown up to create a quorum. Instead of setting a date for a new session, he repeated his call for dialogue among the top leaders. "Let us undertake dialogue instead of trying to one-up each other, because doing this has become dangerous," he told reporters. Indeed, fears of violent clashes have resurged since the weekend when two members of the government-allied Phalange party were gunned down at a checkpoint in the Christian town of Zahle in the Bekaa Valley. The alleged assailants were supporters of a local opposition MP. Police are hunting the gunmen amid calls for revenge and accusations that the opposition is protecting the killers.
In another unwelcome sign of potential instability, al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has promised that Lebanon will play a "pivotal role" in the battle against the "Crusaders and Jews".
"Lebanon is a Muslim frontline fort," he said in an audiotape released Tuesday. "I call upon the jihadist generation in Lebanon to prepare to reach Palestine and to banish the invading crusader forces which are claimed to be peacekeeping forces in Lebanon," he added, referring to the United Nations troops deployed in south Lebanon. Given that grim forecast on top of the country's other woes, small wonder that the ambition of so many Lebanese simply is to leave the country.