Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Lao Tzu in Lebanon?

The Lebanese Prime Minister plays the Taoist sage to Hezbollah's mouth-foaming. Nasrallah bellows; Siniora smiles. The masses chant "Death to America"; the government watches in silence.

The Lebanese watch it all. And do they like what they see?

David Ignatius explores:
The Lebanese not so long ago liked to refer to their gaudy capital as "the Paris of the Orient." But on Sunday afternoon, with more than a half-million pro-Hezbollah demonstrators chanting "Death to America!" and "Death to Israel!" in the heart of downtown, the Lebanese capital seemed more like a vision of Tehran.

The very incongruity of this scene, in the most Westernized city in the Arab world, makes me wonder if Hezbollah is overplaying its hand in its campaign to oust the pro-American government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. America isn't very popular here, after its ally Israel bombed the country's infrastructure last summer in reprisal for Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. But for all their anger at America and Israel, the Lebanese aren't likely to defect to the Iranian camp.

Watching the demonstrations with seeming serenity is Siniora himself, the man the Hezbollah protesters are targeting. When I visited him Monday, he had been holed up in his office for 10 days, surrounded by Lebanese soldiers and acres of barbed wire. During our discussion he was the picture of calm and confidence. That's been his tactic as the protests have mounted: The louder Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, has called for his head, the quieter has been Siniora's response.

Siniora hasn't yet found a way out of the impasse, and the crisis is giving the country a serious case of the jitters. But he did seem to strike a chord with many Lebanese when he said last Friday, after an especially feverish speech by Nasrallah: "You are not our lord. . . . Who made you a judge over us to decide who is a traitor or a nationalist?" He said Nasrallah's supporters were attempting a coup d'etat.

The Lebanese prime minister continued his measured tone in his conversation with me Monday. "I think Nasrallah has become very much tense," he said. "He is between a rock and a hard place. Everybody knows the influence being exercised on Hezbollah by Iran and Syria." He said at another point of Nasrallah, "He has lost the battle."

Iran's proxy overplays its hand. As Mr. Ignatius sees it, Siniora can play Hezbollah's excess into a Sunni street riot--in Lebanon and Syria, Iran's co-conspirator. The Lebanese, meanwhile, remember who started the summer war against Israel. The Sunni, Druzi, and most Christians want a government that represents Lebanon, not Damascus and Tehran.

Mr. Siniora's government will stand. Hezbollah can breast-beat in Beruit all they want. They'll get their photo-op and the pandering of a fretting EU. That's it. In the end, the Lebanese will not allow their Cedar revolution to become hijacked by their enemy within.

Let's hope so!

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