Praying for stability

"Praying for stability" Continued...

Issue: "Clutching two, dropping four," April 23, 2011

The same is true in Habib Malik's Lebanon, where the street uprising of 2005, known as the Cedar Revolution, is credited with spawning populist protests throughout the region culminating in 2011. Yet steps toward greater democracy in Lebanon have faltered, particularly with the downfall in January of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's coalition government-leaving Hezbollah with greater control.

According to Malik, the shakeup has divided Lebanon's Christian community, which once held a large enough proportion of parliamentary seats to maintain a power-sharing arrangement between the presidency and prime minister's post. Now Christian leaders "are politically divided," said Malik. "Some are outspoken against Hezbollah and others want a political alliance" with the group because they see the militants as the new gatekeepers to power and influence.

Malik sees a silver lining in what looks like a downturn for Christians there. "If all Christians were one bloc it would be easy to revert to the Christian-Muslim divide we had up through the civil war," he said. "Instead we have the Sunni-Shiite divide more prominent." That's also reflective of the growing divide throughout the region, where Muslim faction fights Muslim faction-in some cases dependent upon which influence is greater, Shiite-led Iran or Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.

Malik also believes the shakeups could pave the way for what he calls "a federalist model" to take root in the Middle East: "It was the West, primarily Britain and France, that gave the Middle East the idea of a unitary state. Now we have a chance to offer a different model of the state."

Muslim Sudan's referendum earlier this year, creating the new South Sudan that will be largely Christian, is one indicator of what's possible. Malik foresees the possibility of a Coptic state within greater-and hopefully democratic-Egypt. Iraqi leaders are taking another look at the possibility of creating a semi-autonomous zone for Assyrian Christians in the Nineveh Plains. And Yemen-where U.S. ally President Ali Abdullah Saleh has lost support from the White House and is likely to be forced out of office-could split along Sunni and Shia lines. If the current regime in Syria is forced out, it's likely Assad will leave office only on the condition that Alawites be apportioned a protected enclave, according to Malik.

"Federalism is elastic enough to tailor it to every country," said Malik, but he admits few changes to unitary states would be made without political-and perhaps violent-challenges. He is optimistic, though, that the outcome would create boundaries more supportive of minorities, including Christians.

Democrats' dilemma on Syria

When Gen. Muammar Qaddafi fired on unarmed civilian protesters, the atrocities launched a multinational campaign that led to UN and NATO air strikes and imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. President Bashar al-Assad's attacks on Syrian civilian demonstrators, while appearing less sustained and severe, are unlikely to lead to similar condemnation, though the country occupies a strategic spot bordering Israel and Iraq.

In April 2007 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria since the United States ended bilateral relations in 2003. Her visit defied not only Bush policy toward Syria but existing, comprehensive U.S. sanctions passed by Congress. Her delegation, which included five Democrats and one Republican, met with Assad. Afterward, Pelosi told reporters that Assad was ready to begin peace talks with Israel, something that both the Assad regime and Israel later denounced. Three weeks later Syria sentenced prominent human-rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni to five years in prison for the crime of speaking out against human-rights abuses: "The danger of offering 'friendship' and 'hope' to a ruler such as Mr. Assad is that it will be interpreted as acquiescence by the United States to the policies of dictatorship," read a Washington Post editorial in an unusual denouncement of the House speaker. "Ms. Pelosi's courting of Mr. Assad didn't cause Mr. al-Bunni's prison sentence this week-but it certainly did not discourage it."

Last year the Obama administration lifted travel restrictions for Americans going to Syria in place under the Bush administration. It also eased sanctions. That left Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a quandary when Assad began taking action against demonstrators. "Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer," she said of Assad on Mar. 27-only to backtrack a few days later as confrontations with protesters mounted. Then Clinton said she "was not speaking either for myself or for the administration."
- with reporting by Alisa Harris


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