Remember when Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" was the poster child of President Bush's campaign to democratize the Middle East?
One million Lebanese took to the streets on March 14, 2005, to protest the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which most blamed on Syria. The resulting upheaval forced Syria to withdraw thousands of troops that had been occupying the country for 29 years. The "March 14 movement" won elections and set up a new government, led by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Lebanon seemed on the verge of a new era.
Flash forward to November 2007. The bulk of the once-hopeful parliamentarians who won in 2005 are hunkered down in the Phoenicia Hotel near the Beirut seaside, protected by Interior Ministry security guards. Blankets cover the windows to protect against snipers. Tanks guard nearby intersections.
The Phoenicia - once the symbol of Beirut high-life, smashed to rubble in the 1980s civil war, its glamour resurrected during this decade - is now witnessing the last stand of those who once hoped for greater democracy in Lebanon and the Middle East.
More than 40 legislators are holed up there because they want to stay alive long enough to vote for a new president on Wednesday to replace the current pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud. Six of them have been assassinated, with these murders also widely attributed to Syria. Their majority in parliament is now razor thin.
"If they will kill four or five more of us, they will have a majority," I was told by phone by Mesbah Ahdab, a member of parliament from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli who was heading back to the Phoenicia. By "they," he means pro-Syrian agents. "The deputies are living there because there are real threats of assassination."
The more famous or wealthy deputies can hire their own security forces. But, Ahdab told me, "All the members who don't have protection are in the Phoenicia. I don't think (pro-Syrian forces) can blow the hotel up, but there is always the possibility."
The tragedy of Lebanon is that it has once more become the field on which other Middle East nations play out their quarrels. Syria will not easily give up its control of Lebanon, and the Syrian regime is eager to block an international tribunal looking into the murder of Hariri. U.N. investigators have already pointed the finger at Damascus.
Syria's main Lebanese ally, the Shiite Hezbollah movement (which gets Iranian arms via Syria), has besieged Saniora's office for months, paralyzing the government. Hezbollah is demanding a "consensus" president. That's code language for someone sympathetic to Syria's bidding.
The French, the Saudis (who were close to Hariri and are furious at Syria), the Italians, the Americans and the Arab League are frantically trying to mediate as the clock ticks down to the wire. Hezbollah says it won't recognize any new president voted in without its approval - even one picked by a majority of parliament.
Meantime, members of that majority are trying to stay alive until the vote.
Perhaps you wonder why you should care. I will tell you.
Reason One: What happens in Lebanon reflects, and re-enforces the dangerous political and sectarian divides now afflicting the region. If no compromise can be reached inside Lebanon, it bodes ill for hopes of calming such tensions elsewhere in the region.
Reason Two: We owe the Saniora government big time. When Israel went to war with Hezbollah in summer 2006 - after Hezbollahis kidnapped two Israeli soldiers - the White House supported a massive Israeli bombing campaign that destroyed much of the infrastructure Lebanon had rebuilt after its civil war.
Saniora begged Condoleezza Rice to endorse a cease-fire early on, when Lebanese were still furious at Hezbollah for provoking the war. Instead, the White House backed continued bombing, in the vain hope that Israel could defang Hezbollah. Instead, the carnage caused by the bombing turned popular feeling against Israel and us, and undermined Saniora's political strength.
In the coming days leading up to the presidential ballot, the West must demonstrate clearly that it won't abandon a government whose parliamentary members are under daily death threat.
"If the international community won't support us," Ahdab told me as he prepared to move back to the Hotel Phoenica, "then we will have to leave the country and live elsewhere."