Sunday, June 8, 2008

Profile #3: Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora

Thankfully, an emergency summit in late May in Doha, Qatar halted the violent clashes in Lebanon that had broken out earlier in the month between government opponents from Hezbollah and pro-government militias. The Doha accord, reached on May 21, set up the framework for a unity government and prevented a civil war.

The word after the Doha agreement was completed was that Hezbollah had become the ascendant power in Lebanon. (The agreement granted Hezbollah veto power in the new unity government.)

Hezbollah, the militant Shia group based in Southern Lebanon, is backed by Syria and Iran (and clearly more BFF with the Shiite theocrats who run Iran than with Sunni Syria, which is Hezbollah's patron only because it gives Syria a foothold in Lebanon). Hezbollah seems to have two things on its To Do list: Destroy Israel (blah blah blah) and, according to their founding manifesto, establish an Islamic state in Lebanon.

However, there's a man in Hezbollah's way on item #2; a man who's been trying to disarm Hezbollah, Fouad Siniora. Siniora was just elected prime minister of Lebanon's new unity government on May 28th.

In fact, Siniora was the previous prime minister of Lebanon, until Hezbollah and its Shiite allies—demanding Siniora's resignation—quit the unity government in late 2006, crippling Siniora's relevance and the government's authority and legitimacy. Then Hezbollah shut down Beirut by staging an 18-month sit-in, and eventaully routed government allies in armed street battles in May 2008—setting the stage for the Doha agreement which reconstituted the government largely on Hezbollah's terms.

One thing that didn't go Hezbollah's way after Doha: Once the government got set up again in late May, it reappointed Siniora.

"But despite the power sharing deal, the Hezbollah-led opposition and the ruling coalition continue to squabble over the formation of a government of national unity.

Siniora's recent reappointment as Lebanon's prime minister was met with dissatisfaction by members of the opposition."—Al Jazeera, 6/7/08

Fouad Siniora, 65, is the chairman and managing director of a major Lebanese banking group, Groupe Mediterranee. He also served under former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, as finance minister. (Groupe Mediterranne, in fact, is part of the Harari family business empire.)

Siniora's close ties to the now-legendary Hariri are central to Siniora's current position. Rafik Hariri was Lebanon's prime minister from 1992-1998 and from 2000-2004. (Siniora was a minister in all of Hariri's cabinets.)

Hariri was assassinated on February 14, 2005, shortly after resigning office in October 2004. He had resigned out of frustration with Syria's involvement in Lebanon's affairs.

Hariri's assassination led to the "Cedar Revolution"—a broad-based reformist movement. On March 14, 2005, a month after the assassination, and after weeks of escalating demonstrations, a million people took to the streets of Beirut, establishing the Cedar Revolution's March 14 Coalition of Sunnis, Socialists, secularists, Druze, and Christians. They demanded that Syria, widely believed to be responsible for Hariri's murder, withdraw it's 14,000 troops from Lebanon. (Syria had had as many as 30,000 troops in Lebanon in the 90s, meddling in Lebanon's affairs and supporting Hezbollah ever since Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990.)

The government that was in power at the time of Hariri's assassination—Prime Minister Omar Karami's government, which had replaced Hariri's government after Hariri's 2004 resignation—was staunchly pro-Syriaian. Kamari resigned in late February 2005 as the demonstrations gained steam. And then Syria withdrew all of its troops in late April, 2005.

New elections held in the Spring of '05 put the The Future Movement (Hariri's party), which now carried the banner of the March 14 Coalition, into power, with an unprecedented mandate for reform. The March 14 Coalition, its biggest member being the The Future Movement (winning 36 seats), won 72 seats total out of 128 in Parliament. Hezbollah (14 seats) combined with its allies to control 35 oppostion seats.

Siniora, with the support of the March 14 Coalition and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, Rafik's businessman son, became the prime minister in July 2005. He quickly called for the investigation into Rafik Harari's assassination, which was likely to implicate Hezbollah sponsor, Syria.

Eventually, in November '06, Hezbollah quit the government, demanding Siniora's resignation. Without a coalition, there was no way to actually govern. The Future Movement maintained rule over a Lebanon in limbo. (The melting-pot army, under the rule of Michel Suleiman, was the de facto authority).

The shaky calm was formally shattered in mid-May 2008, when the government tried to crack down on Hezbollah's state within a state, attempting to shut down Hezbollah's independent telecommunications network. Hezbollah leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, described the government affront as a "declaration of war" and soon enough armed street fighting broke out between Hezbollah and government surrogates from The Future Movement and Druze Muslims aligned with the government. Hezbollah routed the the pro-government militias, taking control of Beirut.

Qatar hosted peace talks in late May 2008 to end the crisis. Hezbollah got the better end of the deal: They would rejoin the government, but only with veto authority. Another major victory for Hezbollah (and Iran and Syria) in Lebanon.

However, despite getting the veto power in the new 30-member cabinet—which will include 3 appointments by the president (the popular former head of Lebanon's army, Michel Suleiman, a Maronite Christian), 16 representatives from the Western-leaning, Sunni-ish March 14 Coalition majority, and the veto-strong 11 representatives from the opposition (Shia Hezbollah and its allies like the Shiite group, Amal)—Hezbollah's nemesis, Sunni-banker-turned-prime minister, Fouad Siniora, with the popular Future Movement backing him, is the boss. Again.

Lebanon's constitution requires that the President be Maronite Christian, the PM be Sunni, and the Speaker of Parliament be Shiite. Nabih Berri, a member of Amal, a de facto Hezbollah ally in the opposition ranks, is the Speaker.

(Religion is a touchy issue in Lebanon. This was tragically demonstrated during Lebanon's complicated 15-year civil year between 1975 and 1990. It's so touchy that the government hasn't done a census since 1932. It's estimated, though, that Lebanon has a 69/39 Muslim/Christian split with, of course, dicey subsets within those two groups.)

One final note on Siniora and Hezbollah: A major event during Siniora's first go round as PM in 2005 and 2006 was the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon in July '06. (Hezbollah was still part of the government at this point.) Siniora praised Hezbollah, condemned Israel's "criminal" attack, and led the fight for an unconditional cease fire. Afterwards, however, he accused Hezbollah of staging a coup in Lebanon, and he pressed to disarm Hezbollah. Although, he said his government would and could not do that on its own. (Disarming Hezbollah was one part of the August 2006 U.N. Security Council agreement that ended the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Resolution 1701, that never happened).

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