Last Monday a lone cat sat, unperturbed, in the middle of Place d'Etoile, the main square in the Lebanese capital Beirut. The image was so striking that it was broadcast that evening on every major news station.
Hundreds of police officers had blocked off the area, leaving it as abandoned as it was three months ago when Beirut was under attack by the Israeli air force. "We want dialogue, but not here!" the area's business owners shouted when the first limousines pulled up in the afternoon to pick up the key negotiators.
The mood among the men who had come together for a "national dialogue"-- men whose clans have dominated Lebanon for an eternity -- was a mixture of anger and caution. They included Druze Walid Jumblat, the great tactician among Lebanon's confessional leaders, Christian Michel Aoun, who aspires to be president, and Sunni Saad al-Hariri, the son and political heir of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005. The war with Israel was only a temporary distraction for these three men and seven other clan leaders. And now, as if the war had never happened, they are back to squabbling over power in the country. "Spare us the discord," the Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Sahir demanded with a sense of apprehension.
But one man was missing from Beirut's new inner circle, the only man, aside from Hariri's father, who has ever made an impact beyond the borders of this small Mediterranean country and who became a major figure on the global political stage last summer: Hassan Nasrallah, the son of a vegetable vendor and leader of the Shiite party, Hezbollah, and its militia. Nasrallah gave his last public press conference on July 12, the day his fighters shot eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others. It was an appearance that became stamped in the collective memory of the Arabs for its level-headedness and self-confidence.
Soon afterwards Nasrallah went into hiding, all too aware of the fate of other enemies of Israel who have fallen victim to so-called liquidations. To this day, Israeli air force fighters are constantly circling over Beirut's Shiite suburbs. Two weeks ago they carried out a series of mock attacks that terrorized the local population.
The Hezbollah leader, who has only dared to make one, unannounced appearance since the war, more than makes up for his physical absence with his political presence. In a television interview aired on Hezbollah's own station, Al-Manar, on Nov. 1, Nasrallah issued a challenge to Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. According to Nasrallah, the government, dominated by the anti-Syrian alliance that emerged from the country's March 2005 Cedar Revolution, is "seeking to make UNIFIL (the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) ... occupy Lebanon and disarm the resistance." The Hezbollah leader called it "a dangerous plan and of the sort that could transform Lebanon into another Iraq and another Afghanistan," adding that it stemmed from "an Israeli-American demand."
Puppets of foreign power?
Meanwhile, Nasrallah has withdrawn six Shia ministers and threatened to send his supporters into the streets if the government refuses to grant Hezbollah and its allies six additional cabinet positions. The Lebanese public knows all too well what this means, having witnessed hundreds of thousands take to the streets at the Shiite sheikh's bidding several times in the past few months.
But as much as Nasrallah accuses the current regime of acting as puppets of a foreign power, he could just as easily be charged with the same transgression. Hezbollah's demand that it be given a blocking minority in the government is "clearly an Iranian decision," Sunni leader Hariri angrily told Nasrallah's representative last Tuesday. The Americans are making the same serious accusations, charging that Hezbollah, controlled by Damascus and Tehran, is plotting to overthrow the Lebanese government.
By the second day of what proved to be a confrontational national dialogue, the mood was so charged that parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri promptly interrupted the talks.
Nasrallah has found an unlikely ally in Michel Aoun, a former general during the Lebanese civil war. Aoun fled from the Syrians in 1990 and only returned from exile in Paris in 2005. The former head of the Lebanese army has undergone a remarkable change of heart. Like many Christians, Aoun was once anxious to get rid of the Syrians, but today he supports Hezbollah, Syria's most powerful proxy in Lebanon.
Aoun's about-face is about much more than the current power struggle. Although Lebanon has not had a census since 1932, no one disputes that the number of Christians is on the decline while that of the Shiites is constantly growing. Indeed, the Shiites are estimated to make up close to 40 percent of the Lebanese population today. This explains Aoun's efforts to come to an arrangement with the country's future majority.
A proportional system of government has been in place in Lebanon for the past 60 years, a system that probably should have ended long ago. Under the system, the president must be a Christian and the prime minister a Sunni. The bone thrown to the Shiites is the position of speaker of parliament. While the Christians are entitled to half of all seats in parliament, the Sunnis, Shiites, Druzes and Alawites must split the other half. But any attempts to rock the boat by challenging this arrangement would be politically explosive. Even Hezbollah is still hesitant to take this last step, which could plunge the country into another civil war.
"It's too early for that," says Dr. Ali al-Miqdad, one of Hezbollah's 14 members of parliament. A neurologist, Miqdad sits in his freshly renovated office in downtown Haret Hreik, the Shiite Beirut suburb that was devastated in the war with Israel. The Israeli air force blew up a bridge only a few hundred meters away. The windows in the high-rise building housing Miqdad's office, destroyed by concussion waves from the attack, have already been replaced.
"Morale is excellent"
There is a poster in his waiting room that explains the causes of depression. "In addition to hereditary factors," the poster reads, "it is primarily traumatic experiences that weigh heavily on emotional balance: serious illnesses, accidents or the death of a close family member."
The war claimed the lives of more than a thousand Lebanese, many of whom died during nightly bombing raids on South Beirut. "I'm surprised that the number of trauma patients has increased by such a small amount since the war," says Miqdad, "not more than three percent."
The reason, he claims, is psychological. Miqdad is convinced that Lebanon's Shiites perceived the war against the Israelis as a fight for survival, and that they waged, and won, it on behalf of the entire nation. As a result, says Miqdad, "people are not going to the doctor, because their morale is excellent. But they also expect to be compensated -- in the form of their fair share of power."
In places where they already make up the majority, the Shiites assumed this power long ago. On South Beirut's side streets, their fighters, sporting smart new uniforms, guide traffic and stop cars as they please. No one dares question their authority, proof positive of the development of a state within a state.
Influence from Syria and Iran
The decision as to whether Hezbollah should be content with the cabinet posts Nasrallah is demanding or should attempt to overturn the outdated proportional system will not only be made in Beirut, but also in Damascus and Tehran. Syria still hasn't overcome the humiliation it suffered when it was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in the spring of 2005, in the wake of the Cedar Revolution. For many Lebanese, Syrian President Bashar Assad's recent call to transform Hezbollah's "military victory into a political victory" was nothing short of encouragement to stage a coup.
"Damascus can only benefit from chaos in Lebanon," says political scientist Paul Salem. Toppling the regime would delay -- if not completely halt -- a number of developments that have Syria deeply concerned: the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate the Hariri murder, the early ouster of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and the disarming of Hezbollah.
But Tehran, Hezbollah's other sponsor, would rather see Nasrallah's forces integrated into Lebanon's fragile power structure. "Iran is pushing for regional dominance," says a diplomat in Beirut. "The mullahs need Hezbollah as a tough lever and a thorn in Israel's side."
The grand project that the United States believed had almost been accomplished in Lebanon a year ago is fast becoming a distant memory. Under the American plan, the democratization of the Middle East was supposed to emanate from Iraq -- a goal no one mentions these days -- and from Lebanon, one of the most difficult and complex countries in the region. According to another diplomat, Lebanon's government is on shaky ground today, partly because despite its having been democratically elected, it is not truly democratic after all. "The majority," says the diplomat, "simply feels unrepresented."
Many politicians say that the sad thing about Lebanon is that this small country is so well suited as a staging ground for the conflicts and wars of foreign powers. But these powers have also been responsible for positive things, and South Beirut, where one of the city's major highway bridges was destroyed, is a case in point. A tentative-looking steel structure built by the engineering corps of the French army now crosses Ghubeiri Square at the spot where traffic bound from Rafik al-Hariri Airport used to emerge before the Israeli bombs struck their target.
But the French have a thing or two to learn when it comes to psychological warfare. Two streets away, Hezbollah has rebuilt a vocational school, apparently with Iranian money. The freshly painted, bright orange building is visible from far away. An enormous sign on the roof proclaims: "The Zionist enemy destroys. The Islamic Republic is rebuilding."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan