Editor's note: Salhani's essay published Friday (which he sent from Beirut) about the potential for escalating violence in Lebanon takes special significance with news today of the assassination of Lebanon's Industry Minister and Maronite Christian leader Pierre Gemayel.
In wake of the devastating war with Israel this summer, this pleasant strip of land on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean projects normality, with its fine restaurants and popular watering holes packed to the hilt every night. But with the rhetorical clashing between factions escalating by the day, there are fears that Lebanon could precipitously fall back into the abyss of the nightmarish days of the fifteen-year civil war. Some groups have delivered ominous threats that could prompt a shift from political to street sparring.
Much of the tension revolves around the potential for an international tribunal to judge suspects implicated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri was killed, along with twenty bystanders, in February of last year near Beirut's downtown-an area of the city Hariri had rebuilt, and in which he took great pride.
A UN inquiry into the murder of Hariri and others found a number of senior Lebanese and Syrian security officials implicated in what appears to be a far-reaching conspiracy. Syria denies any involvement in the killings and the tensions surrounding a tribunal reflect the deep divisions in Lebanon regarding Syria's role in the country. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said he will be presenting the Security Council with a plan authorizing the special court. The Bush Administration has called for quick Security Council action to approve the plan.
Syria's Lebanese allies-mainly cabinet ministers representing the Hizballah bloc and their co-religionists from Amal-oppose the tribunal and resigned from the government last week in protest. They have declared the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora-which strongly backs the UN plan-"illegitimate", negating its right to approve a tribunal to judge those allegedly involved in the assassination. President Lahoud has told UN Secretary-General Annan that the plan to establish the tribunal had not received his approval and was therefore "invalid", "null and void" and "non-existent."
Siniora has said he is constitutionally empowered to approve the tribunal, while Lahoud maintains: "The president has the sole authority to lead negotiations on international treaties and to ratify them in coordination with the prime minister."
In Beirut, Hizballah and Christian opposition leader, former general Michel Aoun, have threatened to take their grievances to the streets-a move that would raise the tension yet another notch. The government has responded with its own brinkmanship, warning the opposition that any demonstration "will be considered as an uprising against the government."
The next months, weeks or days could determine if the war-fatigued Lebanese people will allow the political contest to be resolved peacefully, or whether the wounds of the past will be opened anew.
Claude Salhani is an international editor with United Press International and editor of The Middle East Times. Comments may be sent to [email protected]