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Navigating Lebanon’s Political Minefield

On the face of it, the donor conference of Western and oil-rich Arab nations in Paris this week merely continues the work of two previous multilateral conferences in 2001 and 2002, aimed at helping Lebanon to rebuild its infrastructure after years of civil war and Israeli occupation and to tackle its massive debt. This time, donors will additionally help offset the $3.5 billion in direct and indirect losses caused by last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah, and the further rise of debt to $40.6 billion, a staggering 180% of Lebanon’s GDP.

The agenda appears straightforward, but “Paris III” has acquired a barely concealed political purpose: to bolster the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in the face of a powerful domestic challenge led by Hezbollah, and by extension to curb the influence of Hezbollah’s regional backers, Syria and Iran.

The West should tread carefully. There is a real risk that it will become entangled as a partisan actor in Lebanese domestic politics. Nor should it seek to play into the regional agendas of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan – hardly paragons of democracy – which are anxious to confront what they portray as a menacing “arc” of Shi’a Muslim power extending from Iran to Lebanon via Syria, and in Iraq.

Consider this. The United States and France, which have taken the West’s lead on Lebanon, have both confirmed the “democratic and constitutional nature” of the Siniora government. This is true, but only up to a point, for Lebanon’s confessional-based political system assigns the Shi’a, who make up close to 40% of the population, only 21% of parliamentary seats. The Sunnis, who comprise at most 20% of the population, are given the state office with the greatest executive power, that of prime minister.