BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon was brimming with a new sense of optimism on Thursday following a deal hammered out between rival politicians that brought the country back from the brink of a new civil war.
As life returned to downtown Beirut after the end of a crippling 18-month opposition protest, newspapers hailed the beginning of a new era in the deeply divided country following he agreement signed in Doha on Wednesday.
“Lebanon emerges from the standoff… and Beirut comes back to life,” cried the headline in the pro-opposition newspaper As-Safir.
“The Doha accord opens the door for a new phase… Lebanese relieved and the Arabs satisfied,” added Al-Mustaqbal, a newspaper owned by the family of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri.
The Doha accord will see army chief Michel Sleiman elected as president on Sunday, the formation of a unity government in which the opposition has veto power and a new electoral law for next year’s parliamentary election.
The deal between the mainly Shiite Hezbollah-led opposition and the largely Sunni-led Western backed government was greeted with relief by the Lebanese, weary of years of conflict and political turmoil.
Many people flocked to the capital’s downtown to witness the lifting of an 18-month sit-in protest against the Sunni-led government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora that had crippled business in the area.
Cleaning crews were out in force removing the few remaining tents and debris as curious onlookers walked about while restaurants, nightclubs and cafes frantically prepared to reclaim their status as the hot-spots of Beirut.
Wednesday’s deal followed six days of Arab-mediated crisis talks called to resolve a bitter feud that boiled over into sectarian fighting that left 65 people dead, the worst unrest since the 1975-1990 civil war.
The crisis first erupted in November 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the Siniora cabinet and degenerated into street battles in early May, with fighters from Hezbollah and its allies temporarily seizing control of large swathes of west Beirut from their Sunni rivals.
Newspapers reflecting the views of both factions said that although the deal gave the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition veto power in the new government, it did not represent an all-out victory for one side or the other.
“The opposition got what it wanted most — a blocking minority,” said An-Nahar, which is close to the ruling majority.
“But the majority also got its main demand for parties not to resort to the use of weapons and for a dialogue to be launched on the relation of the Lebanese state with various parties.”
Added As-Safir: “No one comes out of this a winner or vanquished.”
The pro-government French-language L’Orient Le Jour noted that the Lebanese, hungry for normalcy in their life, all wanted to believe that a new page had been turned after fears the country could descend into a new civil war.
“We all want to believe that… Lebanon has not simply guaranteed itself a nice summer, with beaches and hotels full and the downtown area of Beirut teeming once again with people but that for the rest we’ll see.”
Washington, which has given its full backing to the Western-backed ruling majority throughout the political standoff, welcomed the Doha deal while aknowledging Hezbollah’s gains.
“We view this agreement as a positive step towards resolving the current crisis by electing a president, forming a new government, and addressing Lebanon’s electoral law, consistent with the Arab League initiative,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Mohamed Chatah, a senior advisor to Siniora, rejected claims the accord was a triumph for Hezbollah.
“The details of the agreement are meant to unlock the political process and to restore normal functioning of institutions,” Chatah told AFP.
“That is going to happen as a result of this agreement and that in our view is certainly a victory for the state and a victory for the government’s agenda.”