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Disabled Lebanese spoke volumes

Their roadside protest calling for an end to the political crisis helped send a message to bickering leaders.

May 22, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — Wheelchair-bound, they had neither guns nor influence. They lined up last week along the airport road as convoys of tinted-windowed SUVs carrying politicians headed to Qatar to try to break a political deadlock that was dragging Lebanon toward civil war.

They were mostly ignored, except by bodyguards who swung their weapons menacingly toward them.

But the striking image and powerful words of the activists, many hurt in the country's 1975-90 civil war, sent an unmistakable message to leaders of both the pro-West coalition and the Iranian- and Syrian-backed camp led by the Shiite militia Hezbollah.

"If you don't agree, don't come back," said their signs.

On Wednesday, Lebanese politicians began trickling home with a compromise that will finally allow the election of a president but also appears to solidify Hezbollah's status as an armed force overshadowing the power of the state.

The deal, signed after nearly a week of talks in the Qatari capital of Doha, cleared the way for army Chief of Staff Gen. Michel Suleiman to ascend to the presidency in a parliamentary vote Sunday.

He was named to the post last fall, but final approval had been blocked by political infighting, deepening the sense of chaos.

The accord gave Hezbollah and its allies enough Cabinet positions to veto any attempt to take away its formidable arsenal, intelligence assets or communications network.

It also granted the U.S.-backed coalition leader, Saad Hariri, the electoral law he sought, securing a majority of Beirut seats for his loyalists in 2009 parliamentary elections and a promise that Hezbollah will not use its weapons against fellow Lebanese, as it did during an offensive this month that left at least 60 people dead.

The violence showed the limits of Lebanese democracy. Hezbollah's offensive forced the government to negotiate Cabinet allocations and election rules before Suleiman was named president.

The militant movement had not been able to win those concessions through politics or protest.

The fighting also revealed the disparate balance of power between Hezbollah and the government, which was ultimately unable to call upon its armed forces to confront the Shiite militia.

As part of the deal, Hezbollah and its allies Wednesday dismantled an 18-month-old encampment of tents and barriers that had strangled the city's graciously restored downtown. Shares of Solidere, the development firm that runs the renovated area, jumped 15% on the Beirut Stock Exchange as Lebanese merchants anticipated a strong summer of tourism. The spirits of the Lebanese people soared as well.

"I used to have to wear flip-flops to walk the 15 minutes from my car to my job" because of the roadblocks, said Vera Shalhoum, a 28-year-old employee of a downtown financial services firm. "Now I can wear my high heels again."

Some suspected the agreement came about because of a secret deal between foreign capitals that hold sway over the country's various political camps.

But politicians and analysts say that rising public disgust over the shenanigans of Lebanon's political class may also have been key.

In particular, many noted the powerful image of the activists in wheelchairs, whose protest was organized by the 1,200-member Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union.

"I want finally to reassure the people of Lebanon," Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, the Qatari emir who guided the negotiations, said Wednesday. "A group of them went out to address their leaders who came here, telling them not to come back if they didn't agree. They have agreed, and they are now on their way back to start together with their people a new day that we hope will be clear and peaceful."

As he spoke at the televised signing ceremony in Doha, the employees and volunteers at the nonprofit union's second-floor office in Beirut roared with applause.

"It felt like a thank-you," said Sylvana Lakkis, head of the disability group. "It felt great."

The shock of this month's violence prompted members to hold the roadside protest. The simple imperative of their action illustrated the frustration and growing anger of many Lebanese. They became the talk of the town.

"It touched the right chord with the vast majority of people in this country," said Karim Makdisi, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "It really embodies what everyone is feeling deep down."

And the politicians got the message. "None of the Lebanese wanted their leaders to come back with these problems to Beirut," said Nawar Sahili, a pro-Hezbollah member of parliament.

Rarely has Lebanon's ragtag collection of civil society groups had an impact on its entrenched political class, whose members have been wrestling over power for decades. For politicians, Lebanon's fate has been a parlor game to be played quietly in back-room deal making or, if that fails, on the streets with guns.

But rarely have Lebanese been so united in their anger against their leaders.

"We did not expect this reaction," said Imaddedine Raef, spokesman for the disability group, which receives support from the European Union and the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute. "We're used to being ignored."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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