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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Hint of Orange in Lebanon

CAIRO, Egypt -- With the rallying cry "Lebanon is not Ukraine," Hezbollah's leader this week provided an abrupt reminder that the path to Middle East stability and democracy may not be as simple -- nor inevitable -- as the West has started to hope.

A group the United States calls terrorist made clear it plans a large and powerful role in Lebanon's future -- and that anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment is still a powerful force for rallying people, every bit as much as the desire to stop Syria.

Yet it is also possible to misread the rally Tuesday that drew hundreds of thousands in a seeming show of support for Syria's presence: In part, Hezbollah is merely jockeying for political position within Lebanon in the same way as are the former warlords in the opposition.

Hezbollah may not be tied to Syria so much as simply trying to prove its political power and guarantee a role in Lebanon's government if Syria departs, many experts say.

"In the long run, Hezbollah will run as a Lebanese nationalist party," said Jon Alterman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Why then the anti-American signs, denunciations of Israel and leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's pointed refutation of the people-power Orange Revolution that swept Ukraine's opposition to power? "Lebanon is not Ukraine," the Hezbollah leader told the crowd.

"They needed to remind people, 'Hello, we're here,'" Alterman said. "It was a demonstration of force" -- and he and others noted, the protesters flew Lebanon's flag, not the Hezbollah flag.

In fact, the links between Syria and Hezbollah are mostly a marriage of convenience, and Syria has restricted the number of seats -- now at nine -- that Hezbollah holds in Lebanon's parliament, said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

It also is wrong to say that Hezbollah opposes democracy in Lebanon, she said: "On the contrary, they are all for it, as they are the majority."

Under Lebanon's political system, the 1.2 million Shiite Muslims -- the country's largest single sect from which Hezbollah draws its support -- form only a fraction of the half-Christian, half-Muslim parliament. So even if Hezbollah improves its standing, it will not be able to dominate the country under the current system. Shiites, Sunni Muslims and Druse, also Muslims, make up a majority of the country, however.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah retains the strongest armed militia in Lebanon -- something the United Nations has called for disarming -- and its strength comes in large part from its willingness to attack Israel.

Before he died, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose assassination touched off the anti-Syrian rallies, had said such attacks only hurt Lebanon. So far, the opposition has muted anti-Israeli views but also has tried to pull Hezbollah either into neutrality or into its fold altogether. Such complexities -- and the sharply differing views on display in Beirut's streets in recent days -- have raised fears that Lebanon is headed not toward democracy, but chaos. "This won't be Ukraine of 2004, but maybe Lebanon of 1975," said As'ad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese political science professor at California State University. At that time, the country was wracked by constitutional crises and political disputes that eventually dragged it into a volatile 1975-90 civil war.

n Lebanon's president reappointed pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami on Thursday, 10 days after he resigned amid a storm of anti-Syrian protests in Beirut, Reuters reported. President Emile Lahoud asked the Sunni Muslim politician to form a national unity government after parliament, where Syria's allies have a majority, nominated him for the post on Wednesday.