Lebanon’s Political Tides
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JIM LEHRER: The Lebanon story: The country’s prime minister left office ten days ago; now he’s back. Pro and anti-Syria demonstrators fill the streets on different days, and 14,000 Syrian troops are still occupying Lebanon, despite calls for them to leave. We get an update from Michael Young, an editor at the Daily Star in Beirut. Margaret Warner talked with him by telephone earlier this evening.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael Young, welcome. This re-appointment of Omar Karami as prime minister is quite a turnaround. How did it come about?
MICHAEL YOUNG: Well, essentially, it seems that it was decided that the president consulted with the various parliamentary blocks, and Karami got 71 votes. But I think more importantly, the Syrians decided they wanted to bring him back.
MARGARET WARNER: And how big a factor was the large demonstration that Hezbollah staged two days ago in Beirut?
MICHAEL YOUNG: Well, I think that was part of it, obviously. It was sort of an effort to bolster the Syrian position. On the other hand, I think we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that there are not many credible Sunnis out there who are willing to take the job, so they essentially decided Karami again. He’s not very credible. But, you know, there are not many alternatives.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain the internal politics of this, though. Presumably, Syria never wanted Karami to be kicked out in the first place. Why was Syria now in a position to be able to exert this kind of influence and have him re-appointed?
MICHAEL YOUNG: Well, we should understand that Karami– because this parliament is mainly made up of — the Syrians can bolster him, the pro-Syrian MP’s can bolster a majority, even when Karami resigned, he could have passed a vote of confidence in parliament.
So he does have a majority. And the Syrians, of course, do continue to control much of political life in the country. So there was never any difficulty for them to name him again, or to have him named again. The fact is, though, that Karami is facing a very skeptical society. That’s really where the real problem lies.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Karami today said he was inviting the opposition to join him in a national unity government. First of all, when he talks about the opposition, who is he really talking to, and why did he do that?
MICHAEL YOUNG: Well, the opposition is basically a coalition of groups who are now united around one thing; it’s that they want the Syrians to leave, the Syrian army and intelligence services. It’s a broad coalition of Christian politicians close to the Marinate patriarch, the Druze leaders, several sort of neo-leftist groups.
It’s a broad coalition. It’s mostly made up– and I should add, of course, the MP’s who were in the block headed by former Prime Minister Hariri. So it’s a fairly broad group, and they have responded to Karami’s invitation by essentially saying, “No, we are not interested in a ministerial post. We want to know the truth about who killed Rafik Hariri.”
MARGARET WARNER: And one, why do you think Karami is inviting them in? Why does he want them to join the government?
MICHAEL YOUNG: Well, I think Karami understands that he has been given, you know, probably the worst job in the world today. I don’t think he had perhaps much of a choice. The Syrians wanted him to come in, he had to accept. But he wanted, I think, and he wants to try to broaden the base of that government; not to be chased out of office for a third time.
He was chased out in 1992 initially. The fact is, though, he realizes that his credibility is very low, that any government is really going to be — to not have a great deal of confidence of the Lebanese public. I think he’s trying to broaden the base. But ultimately, I think he’ll be unsuccessful.
MARGARET WARNER: And what impact does this have potentially on Syria’s role, first of all, on their announced plans to pull back their troops, and more broadly, on their political dominance in Beirut and in Lebanon?
MICHAEL YOUNG: Well, I think the Syrian intention — I mean, I think they’re going to leave, so I think they understand that they’ve got to leave. Their intention now, I think, is to leave behind a Lebanese system that is essentially in their pocket.
And the first step for that, of course, is to create a compliant government that will essentially pass an election law. And I think that will become very important for the Syrians. They would like an election law — they would like, essentially, to manipulate the election law and the elections so that they can then have a majority in parliament for when they leave.
And that’s where, of course, Karami comes in. He will head a government that will pass what the Syrians hope will be an election law that they can use in their favor.
MARGARET WARNER: For the May elections. And finally, have the opposition protesters returned to the street?
MICHAEL YOUNG: No. But I mean, they are in the streets, but next Monday there will be — every Monday there are protests, but next Monday I suspect there will be a very large protest, partly in reaction to Hezbollah, partly also because it will be a month since the death of Hariri. And may I add it will also be the anniversary next week of the death of Kamal Jumlah, the father of the Druze leader Walid Jumlah, who was killed by the Syrians.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael Young, thanks so much.
MICHAEL YOUNG: Thank you.