Most sources explained that the Taif agreement, concluded in
October 1989, marked the end of almost 15 years of civil war and brought the
following important changes in the balance of power in the country:
- the allocation of seats in parliament was altered so that half of the seats now go to the Christian side of the house and half to the Muslim side;
- presidential powers were curtailed in favour of the government (Prime Minister).
This brought a shift in the balance of power between the dominant religious groups, with the Muslim section of the population gaining greater political influence. The Maronite Christian hold on the machinery of government, exerted since Lebanon's independence in 1943, was thus broken. Even though the last real population census was held in 1932, the present power-sharing arrangement can be said to give a better reflection of demographic trends in the country since independence, as a result of which Christians today form a clear minority.
The distribution of the top three political posts obtaining since before the Taif agreement still stands, with the president a Maronite (Elias Hraoui), the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim (Rafiq Hariri) and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim (Nabih Berri).
The present government, headed by Rafiq Hariri, was formed in November 1996 following the first proper parliamentary election since the conclusion of the Taif agreement in 1989, the 1992 election having been widely boycotted by Christians.
Hariri, who is neither the leader nor a member of any political party, stood on a Beirut - based list, winning such wide support that he was not only elected himself but also brought a group of supporters (numbering 15 to 20) into the 128-member parliament with him.
According to a report of 7 April 1997 produced by the Foundation for Human and Humani-tarian Rights (Lebanon) (FHHRL), the election was marred by irregularities, mainly affec-ting Lebanon's Christians.
A western embassy wishing to remain anonymous made the point that, regardless of the events of the last 20 years or so, politics in Lebanon is for ordinary people primarily a matter of confessional allegiance. As a result, the Lebanese political system may seem anachronistic to European eyes. That basic fact can be seen throughout society and at all political levels. Political parties are thus, irrespective of where they stand as liberal, conservative, socialist or whatever, primarily mouthpieces for the creed which they repre-sent. Another point to note here is that the once quite common mixed-religion neigh-bourhoods and districts have not been re-established following the civil war. People prefer to live amongst their own ilk. The conclusion to emerge is thus that a full-fledged national identity cannot really be said to have been forged following the civil war.
In general political terms, the embassy took the view that the most significant political groupings in the country are agreed that they must perforce learn to live together and a further war could not bring any other solution. However, that general agreement does not prevent the country's leading political trio (Hariri, Berri and Hraoui) from frequently disagreeing strongly about various political issues. When such disagreements occasionally cannot be resolved domestically, conciliation and mediation meetings are held in Damascus, with Syria acting as a go-between, which as a rule brings a solution.
The reason for the inadequacy of local dispute settlement is largely to be found in the composition of parliament and the government. Parliament is elected to a considerable extent from personal lists of candidates rather than party lists, which means that the house elected inevitably ends up reflecting a large number of individual views, power bases (such as ex-militiamen), alliances and lobbies, not easy for a government to control and not necessarily feeling a loyalty towards any particular political party. Hariri has in fact for the same reason been forced to include in his government some ministers who never turn up for cabinet meetings and regularly vote against the government in parliament.
On the internal situation within individual faiths, the embassy said that Amal and Hezbollah are at present disputing the leadership of Shia Muslims. The trend is, as it has been for some while, for Hezbollah to advance at Amal's expense. The feuding, the most serious form taken by which for quite a long time is described in more detail below, has been especially apparent in campaigning for local elections. The view taken, however, was that such feuding would not be allowed to get completely out of hand. Both official Lebanese and Syrian interests in maintaining the relatively peaceful state of the country outside the Israeli-occupied zone are too great for that.
Among Sunni Muslims, power is spread more widely than for Shias across a number of smaller groups, which do disagree, but not really with the same fierce tension aroused
between them as between Amal and Hezbollah. Hariri is no doubt the strongest Sunni leader at present, but he faces considerable scepticism from his own people, partly because he does not come from one of the country's traditionally influential political families and partly because he is seen by many as a Syrian puppet.
According to the embassy, since the former army commander, Michel Aoun, went into exile and Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces (LF), was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1995, the Christians still do not have any real strong leader figure, nor do they therefore enjoy the influence they might otherwise be expected to. Govern-ment ministers do, it is true, include some Christians, but these are to be regarded as individuals and not as representatives of Christians more generally. There is on the whole a considerable weariness to be perceived among the Christian section of the population as regards engaging in national politics and a tendency to attach greater weight to entirely local matters.
An independent Lebanese source wishing to remain anonymous said that there is in reality a kind of token government and token parliament, with the real decisions being taken in Syria. The Lebanese government enjoys some latitude, especially in domestic politics, but the Syrians may step in at any time and veto decisions or proposals of whatever kind. The source gave the following two examples of such Syrian interference.
The first example concerned the re-election of President Hraoui in 1995. As his elected term was drawing to a close, a lively debate was conducted both in the press and in the political world as to who should succeed him as the country's president. Suddenly an Egyptian newspaper printed an interview with President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, who stat-ed that it looked as though Hraoui was willing to have his term of office extended. Debate in Lebanon thereupon subsided overnight and Hraoui turned out to remain in office, even though this required a constitutional amendment.
The second example concerned a bill to amend matrimonial legislation so as to make it possible to contract a civil marriage. The bill found broad support in parliament, including that of most government ministers. The bill also came in for lively debate in the press. In the midst of this debate the government paid a visit to Damascus. Following that visit, the bill was apparently dropped; at any rate it has never been raised in parliament since.
In foreign policy, the source regarded the Lebanese government as a mere Syrian puppet.