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Lebanon: Lipping Peace

Lebanon's parliament elected a new president on May 25, taking a step to stabilise the country after a long, violent political crisis and ushering in a shift in the balance of power in favour of hardline political group Hizbollah.

The election of army chief Michel Suleiman brought palpable relief to ordinary Lebanese who feared in recent weeks that their country was in danger of breaking up in another civil war.

Celebratory gunfire reverberated across the capital Beirut as the election was announced in the early evening of May 25. Glittering fireworks lit the night sky over downtown Beirut a couple of hours later as cars formed motorcades and honked their horns.

One motorcade was adorned with fluttering Qatari flags and pictures of the Emir of Qatar, who brokered the deal that ended an 18-month political deadlock between the Hizbollah-led opposition and the Western-backed government.

Political bickering prevented parliament from electing a president 19 times, leaving the country without a president for six months since Emile Lahoud left office in November.

Suleiman's election is the first tangible step in the deal to end the political crisis, which erupted last month into the worst violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

Beirut is in a festive mood as war-weary Lebanese are cautiously jubilant that their country has stepped back from the brink of an all-out civil war. Downtown is buzzing with life again with restaurants, shops and sidewalk cafes reopening for the first time in a year and a half.

The upscale downtown, a symbol of Beirut's rebirth after it was devastated and rebuilt following the 15 year civil war that ended in 1990, had been turned into a virtual ghost town by a Hizbollah-led sit-in for the past 17 months.

The sit-in scared away thousands of Lebanese and foreign tourists and forced the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in projects.

Today, though, it was like the political deadlock, which just a month ago degenerated into bloodshed, had never happened, and the air is filled with smell of Lebanon's trademark delicious cuisine and the fragrant smoke of water pipes. The restaurants and sidewalk cafes are once again packed as people came to celebrate the new dawn of peace.

"It's the Lebanese miracle," said Elie Karam, 70, a Christian hospital owner, as he sipped his strawberry juice with a retired army general, both looking relaxed and happy. Around them families strolled down the graceful boulevards of the rebuilt 1920s French Mandate-era architecture. "Lebanon is like a phoenix who always rises from the ashes of war," he added.

The Western-backed government and Hizbollah-led opposition sealed an Arab-mediated agreement on May 21 that ended a standoff that had paralyzed government -- and downtown -- before boiling over into the worst violence since the civil war, leaving at least 67 people dead and at least 200 wounded. The factions agreed to form a national unity government and on May 25 the parliament elected a new president -- six months after the old one stepped down.

The deal was a major victory for Hizbollah and its allies, who got their long-standing demand for veto power over all government decisions, but most Lebanese just seem happy that the shadow of war has, at least for now, been lifted. "I am hoping for the best," said Ibrahim Sabbagh, a 66-year-old retired general who marvelled at the speed with which life was returning to normal just days after the streets shook with gunfire and rocket blasts.

Nearby Margaret Gerges, an attractive 23-year-old in a revealing dress, daintily puffed on her water pipe as she played cards with friends -- a sign that at least for now the conservative Hizbollah politicians did not fully rule the streets. "This is Lebanon, the land of surprises," she said with a smile. "Lebanon will never die. I am strongly optimistic that the Doha agreement will pave the way for a final solution to the political crisis."

Already it appears that the economy, battered by violence and uncertainty, is on the upswing. The stock market is up and, according to tourism officials, 750,000 Lebanese expatriates have booked their summer vacations in Lebanon. "Hundreds of Arab and foreign investors are preparing to return with their money to Lebanon after they were searching for a secure place," Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said.

Election of army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman as president, it is hoped, will add further momentum to normalcy and he has pledged to strengthen "reconciliation and understanding" among rival factions.

"Lebanon is a country that deserves much from us. The Lebanese are a people who enjoy life. They have always proved that they are stronger than crises and pitfalls to which they have been subjected and for which they have paid blood, tears and sacrifices," An-Nahar newspaper quoted President Suleiman as saying.

"We have a big challenge ahead of us," he added. That challenge has been especially felt by the restaurateurs in downtown, who are finally seeing a glimmer of hope for their besieged establishments for the first time since the crisis began in December 2006.

"The (opposition's) sit-in has forced some 40 restaurants to close temporarily and pushed 30 others out of business," Paul Ariss, president of the restaurant owners' association, said. He estimated that downtown lost more than US$350 million worth of business during the crisis. So far, though, 40 of the 104 downtown restaurants have reopened, and he is confident that the number would double in the next few days.

Ariss said he was happy now that downtown district was getting back to normal but had a few words to Lebanese leaders: "Solve your political differences to help the country recover. The Lebanese want to live in peace and prosperity."

Agencies


Source: Gulf Today
Posted:08/06/2008


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