Syria's man in Beirut.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Aug. 30 2004 11:35 AM

Our Man in Beirut

The Arabic press registers Lebanese rage against a Syrian decision.

A reading of the Arab press showed there was rage in Lebanon Monday morning, two days after the Lebanese Cabinet voted to amend the constitution to allow the president, Emile Lahoud, to extend his term in office. The displeasure came from the fact that almost everybody in the political class opposes the move. Why did it go through? Because Syria's President Bashar Assad imposed it.

The headline in the Lebanese daily Al-Safir summed up the situation best: "A Polyphonic Campaign Opposes an Extension for Lahoud." In the daily Al-Nahar (an English-language summary of which is here), the prominent journalist and publisher Ghassan Tueni said that Assad, when he came to power in July 2000, had brought hope to Lebanon but that "corruption flourished and the mafias grew bigger, overpowering government institutions, undermining the aspirations of the people and eliminating human rights." He directed his diatribe against the heavy-handed way Assad decided in just two weeks to maintain Lahoud in office, even though Lebanese presidents are allowed only one six-year term. By doing this, the Syrian president forced the Lebanese to change their constitution, a document that the authorities, unlike those in most other Arab states, tend to respect. Another prominent Lebanese commentator was equally livid, writing in the London-based Al-Hayat last week, with Syria and Lahoud on his mind, "[O]ne can say that regimes that treat the constitution in such a way are not worthy of being in power."

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Those most opposed to Lahoud's staying on are Syria's closest Lebanese allies. The reason they want the president gone is that Assad sees Lahoud, a former army commander who operates through the military, as a means of marginalizing an often unruly political class. The only problem is that the president achieved little in his term, is unpopular, and helped exacerbate Lebanon's economic woes. His desire to stay on also rests on shaky legal ground. Lebanon's Daily Star quoted a respected constitutional lawyer as saying the process may be challenged by the Constitutional Court: "If it occurs, it is totally null and legally nonexistent. … [It] totally contradicts the right to equality [to run for an election]. What's the use of running for [the] presidency when the right to be a candidate is terminated by the amendment?"

Aside from the domestic furor caused by the Syrian decision, there has been a significant escalation in criticism from abroad. As the Beirut French-language L'Orient-Le Jour put it, the United States, France, Britain, Germany, and the European Union, have all, variously, called in recent days for "the election for six years of a 'new president' in a process that respects the present [un-amended] constitution, without outside interference." The paper went on to suggest that both Washington and Paris were cooking up a U.N. resolution to "condemn the Syrian role in Lebanon—in other words an internationalization of the Syria Accountability [and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration] Act", a piece of U.S. congressional legislation passed this year which, among other things, calls for Syria to pull out of Lebanon.

While a Lebanese presidential election might be of limited importance internationally, it does have major repercussions in the wake of the American war in Iraq: It challenges the United States to put its money where its mouth is on democracy in the region and back a democratic process in one of the few Middle Eastern states where elections are held regularly and presidents do change. It also is a test for the inexperienced Assad, who has blundered into a hornets' nest he didn't anticipate. The United States can use this to increase pressure on the Syrian leader, who has refused to relinquish his support for Lebanon's Hezbollah and Palestinian groups the Bush administration considers terrorist organizations.

How have the Syrians responded? The London-based Saudi Al-Sharq al-Awsat headlined: "Syria Accuses Washington of 'Interference' in Lebanon." That was surely a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but it also ran up against a wall of American annoyance. The Daily Star highlighted the reaction of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who declared on Sunday to the American-funded Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra stations: "I believe that the Syrians are playing a very dangerous game because they are disrespecting and humiliating the people of Lebanon. I think Syria's disdain of the Lebanese people will in the long term hurt Syria's interests."

What's next in Lebanon? According to Al-Nahar, Lebanon's parliament will meet next Monday to endorse the constitutional amendment agreed upon by the Cabinet. The Syrians will likely get their way, as most parliamentarians are too frightened of Damascus to block Lahoud's extension. But what's the larger picture here? Lebanon's Maronite Christian patriarch put it bluntly: "Lebanon is a football kicked around by regional and international interests."

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