This week, things turned for the worse in Lebanon, with violence erupting in Beirut. But both the government and the opposition seem to be showing maturity by calling for unity in Lebanon to prevent an outbreak of civil war.

This situation is very indicative of what is going on in Lebanon: the protests of recent months are not opportunistic, but realistic. There is a significant segment of the Lebanese population that dislikes the way the current government is handling the country. And instead doing things un-democratically, through terror, the disenchanted are taking peaceful means to voice their concerns and demands. No one can doubt that Hezbollah, a key player in the protests, is capable of acts of terror (and ones of magnitude). After all, it was Hezbollah that seriously challenged the reputation of the IDF this summer. However, Hezbollah has not been violent. There is no indication that the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, which occurred before the protests began, has been linked to the politically active group.

Nevertheless, some pro-government officials in Lebanon are saying the violence is the responsibility of protesters. Samir Geagea has accused the opposition of trying to take force by “force” and has said that the continuation of protests would lead to “civil war.”

Gaegea has a point, in that if the government continues to dispute protesters’ demands, violence will eventually break out. But it won’t be the fault of the protesters, but Lebanon’s government. Now is not the time to be stubborn. The opposition — and a large number of the Lebanese population — have shown this movement to be more than the Orange revolution, so widely publicized as a triumph for democracy, so it’s time for Prime Minister Siniora to listen and stop demanding.

The PM has refused to negotiate with the opposition until protests cease.

This weekend, the Lebanese Confederation of Trade Unions, the main labour union in Lebanon, called for a sit-in to protest the Siniora government’s economic reforms. The action is said to be a first step that could lead to a strike in the country.

The opposition to the government, which has held protests for over five weeks now, has backed the union and has called on all Lebanese to participate in the sit-in in front of the VAT office, a finance ministry building.

Sami Haddad, Lebanon’s economy and trade minister, has called the protests political and has warned against the damage they can do to the country’s war-torn economy. Haddad finds the timing of the sit-in suspicious. According to the finance minister, no changes are to take place until next year, so its questionable that a sit-in is taking place now.

This latest action is yet another indication of how little support the Siniora government has from its own citizens. The sit-in is being organized by a laic workers’ union and is not a Hezbollah-led act. The fact that Michel Aoun, a Christian leader, and Hezbollah supporters have thrown their support for the sit-in does not mean that this opposition is staging it.

Why would it take place now and not in a year, as Sami Haddad would seem to suggest? Because there is still time for the government to adjust its policies listen to its citizens. Because there is momentum in the country, with the sense that citizens do have a voice. Instead of criticizing the sit-in plans, couldn’t Sami Haddad have asked to meet with union leaders to hear them? As it stands, it seems that the Lebanese government is simply not interested in dialogue.

The sit-in is set to take place tomorrow.

A press conference on Lebanon’s political crisis was held last Wednesday by three Montreal groups.

To listen to what they had to say, press play below:

[odeo=http://odeo.com/audio/3998813/view]

Siniora in Russia

Moscow, Russia — Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is in Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials. The visit comes ahead of Basher Assad’s visit to the Russian capital, and is likely intended to garner Russian influence over Syria.

While Syria was not directly mentioned, President Putin said that Russia would help Lebanon ease the political tension.

Role for Syria?

It is no secret that Russia is in good relations with Syria, both politically and economically, so Putin’s support will be useful to the Siniora government. However, more is needed to solve the political standoff.

The idea that Damascus can stabilize the situation lies on the fact that Hezbollah has been linked to Syria. However, the current protests in Beirut are not a Hezbollah-only project. In fact, several political factions have mobilized to demand a unitary government. According to Ziad Najjar, of the Council of Lebanese Canadian Organizations, Hezbollah represents about a third of protesters.

The Lebanese crisis is not about outside actors, but is about the domestic situation. Domestically, Lebanon’s government has limited support; according to a poll conducted by Al-Akhbar, 7 out of 10 Lebanese favor the formation of a unitary government in Lebanon, something Prime Minister Siniora has been refusing.

Syria can certainly help with the situation, but the solution to the crisis is inside Lebanon.

Montreal, Quebec — On Wednesday, three Montreal organizations called on Canadian media and the Canadian government to look at the situation in Lebanon objectively. Tadamon! Montreal, Al Hidaya Association and the Council of Lebanese Canadian Organizations (COLCO) held a joint press conference explaining the situation in Beirut.

Speakers for the groups stressed that contrary to media coverage, the popular uprising is not a coup, but is an attempt to form a national unity government, which would accommodate different factions. Moreover, the protest is not a Hezbollah-only enterprise, with Hezbollah representing only a third of protesters.

“We hear about Hezbollah demonstrations, but Hezbollah makes up only a fraction of opposition forces. One of the major forces in the opposition coalition is the CPL which is a laic group largely supported by Christians,” said Ziad Najjar of COLCO.

The groups denounced Canada’s unambiguous support of the Siniora government, saying Canada should stay out of Lebanon’s internal politics and let Lebanon decide its own fate. May Hayder of Al Hidaya spoke of a double standard vis-à-vis Lebanon, comparing the movement in Lebanon to the Cedar Revolution and the Orange Revolution. “On Sunday the 10th…2 million people clogged central Beirut and all the roads and bridges that lead to it,” said Hayder. “Over 40 percent of the population was on the streets — much larger than the ones which toppled their governments in Georgia and Ukraine.”

Finally, Tadamon! Montreal made available a poll by Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which indicated that 73.1% of the Lebanese population desire a national unity government.

A Regional Role for Syria

December 4, 2006

Only a few weeks ago, the West had been criticizing Syria over its alleged meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs. The accusations were raised over the murder of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. With Lebanon’s current political crisis — which has Hezbollah challenging Prime Minister Siniora’s government — the West is now turning to Syria to help alleviate tensions, fearing an all-out civil war in the country.

It is German Foreign Minister Steinmeler who has taken the lead. In a meeting with Syria’s President Assad today, Steinmeler applauded Syria’s recent move to restore diplomatic relations with Iraq, an event which went largely unnoticed nearly two weeks ago. The Foreign Minister urged that Syria act in similar fashion in regards to Lebanon.

The reason for Steinmeler’s appeal is the political standoff between Hezbollah and Prime Minister Siniora, whose government has lost popularity over its handling of the 34-day war with Israel. Hezbollah supporters have assembled in the thousands in Lebanon’s capital to demand that Siniora give Hezbollah more access to the government. While Hezbollah has political seats in Lebanon’s parliament, it is also listed as a terrorist organization by the US government. This makes it difficult for Western states to engage in direct negotiations with the organization. Syria has been linked to Hezbollah and is believed to have influence on the organization.

With its restoration of diplomatic relations with Iraq after a twenty-five year standoff following Syria’s support of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, Syria looks to gain more influence in the region. It has already been reported that a three-way summit between Iran, Syria and Iraq may happen and the Iraq Study Group may also suggest the US work with Syria. If Syria participates in stabilizing the current situation in Lebanon, it may become a regional player.

Syria has already played a stabilizing role in Lebanon — that’s how Syrian troops ended up in Lebanon, where they were initially welcome both by Lebanon and the US. This time, Syria will have to go the diplomatic route, as any troops activity will spur speculation of malicious intent, as Syrian troops retreated from Lebanon last year.

Momentum for Hezbollah

December 2, 2006

Hezbollah has spoken. Actually, its supporters have. And they refuse to be silenced until the government resigns.

For over two days now, the opposition to the current government in Lebanon has assembled in the hundreds of thousands in Lebanon’s capital Beirut. The protesters want the resignation of Prime Minister Siniora’s government. The PM has said he won’t back down to what he calls a coup attempt.

The current action goes to show how much support Hezbollah has gained after this summer’s 34-day war with Israel, a war in which the Lebanese government took a neutral position. It is this neutrality which has cost the government popularity and has made it so easy for Hezbollah to mobilize popular support. Whether the demonstration is successful in unseating the government or not, the damage has already been done: the Western-backed government has failed in regaining the trust of its population. After all, Siniora and his ministers had over three months — since the August 14 ceasefire with Israel — to regain support it lost over the war. It also had a PR advantage with the murder of Pierre Gemayel; without evidence, Hezbollah and Syria have been accused of the murder. The government even had the postponement of the Hezbollah demonstration (because of the Gemayel assassination which took place a day before Hezbollah originally planned its action). And still, Siniora’s government is in a position of disadvantage today. Eight hundred thousand protesters out of a population of under four million is not minor, considering that those are the protesters that were able to make it to Beirut.

Siniora must now make the right decision for his country as well as his government. Whether the West likes it or not, Hezbollah has influence in Lebanon and the ongoing Hezbollah-led demonstration has far-outweighed the pro-government rally held following Gemayel’s assassination.