Thursday, January 13, 2011

High Noon in Lebanon

by Ryan Mauro

Nobody wanted it. Few expected it. Many are worried it will lead to armed confrontation in the streets of Beirut.

The fall of the government of Prime Minister Said Hariri marks a significant escalation by Hezbollah in their effort to take control of Lebanon; it also ratchets up tensions between Sunnis and Shias that could explode into violence if not checked.

Eleven opposition cabinet ministers resigned on Wednesday, constitutionally causing the government’s collapse. At issue: the Special Tribunal Lebanon’s (STL) imminent announcement of indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. It is widely expected that high ranking members of Hezbollah will be among those named in the crime – a turn of events that obviously doesn’t sit well with the terrorist group/political party. Indictments would tarnish its image in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world as an incorruptible bulwark and “resistance” force against Israel. More importantly, it would weaken its political position in Lebanon, delivering a body blow to the party’s efforts to achieve de facto control of the government.

Hezbollah is demanding that Prime Minister Hariri not only disassociate the government from the STL, but they also want him to issue a public statement declaring the Tribunal to be a Israeli-US controlled device to destroy Hezbollah. Hariri has firmly refused to do so, saying he would not sit in any room with a cabinet that even voted on such measure while Hezbollah has said they won’t sit in a room with a prime minister who refuses to hold such a vote. Therein lies the seeds of the crisis that came to fruition on Wednesday with the opposition ministers resigning.

What appeared to be the last straw was the failure of a joint Syria-Saudi Arabian initiative to broker a compromise between the two parties. Indeed, the issue is so intractable and the positions of the adversaries so set in stone, that a compromise always appeared to be out of reach. When this became obvious on Tuesday night, Hezbollah jacked up the pressure by demanding that the cabinet, which hadn’t met since December 15th of last year, meet to vote on the issue while threatening to walk if this demand was not swiftly met. The majority March 14th party refused to convene a cabinet meeting with a gun to its head, at which point it became just a matter of time before Hezbollah made good on its threat.

The opposition chose the present moment to make their move as Prime Minister Hariri was in Washington meeting with President Obama. The timing could not be coincidental as the opposition ministers announced their resignations at the same time that Hariri and Obama were holding talks. Mustapha Allouch, a senior member of Hariri’s Future Movement, told AFP that the opposition wanted “Hariri to enter the meeting with the US president as an ex-premier or as head of a caretaker government.”

Hariri cut short his visit to Washington and will return to Lebanon to consult with his coalition about what to do next, after stopping off in France for talks with French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

According to the Lebanese constitution, Parliament will now meet and decide on the next prime minister in consultation with the president. It could very well be Hariri, but the wrangling might open the door for another March 14th politician depending on how wedded the coalition is to the continuation of the Tribunal. It may also depend what happens on the streets of Lebanon’s cities.

Tensions have already been high and the collapse of the government may cause an outbreak of violence between Sunnis and Shias; the former see Hezbollah as overstepping its role as the opposition and national “resistance” to Israel, while the Shias see the Sunnis as trying to keep them down. During the last cabinet crisis in 2008, 81 people died in clashes between Sunnis and Shias, with Hezbollah eventually moving into Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut, an act that almost resulted in open civil war. The crisis led to meetings in Doha, Qatar and an agreement where Hezbollah achieved almost all of its goals.

Hariri, or whoever is the next March 14th prime minister, will be faced with the same knotty problem that led to the collapse of government; what to do about the STL. If the next government disavows the Tribunal, it is likely that Sunnis will become enraged at this betrayal, seeing the STL as they do as the only way to achieve justice for the murderers of their beloved Rafiq Hariri. But not disavowing the STL might lead to a coup by Hezbollah if they feel their existence is threatened by the indictments.

The last cabinet crisis saw the majority March 14th forces fold their tents in Doha and give Hezbollah the power of the veto over decisions made by that body. Since then, another parliamentary election was held where the March 14 coalition triumphed. But elections are slippery things in Lebanon, and despite winning a clear majority of seats, the price of stability was once again granting Hezbollah and their allies enough cabinet posts to cause trouble if they chose.

Hezbollah has now chosen, and that choice is a familiar form of brinksmanship where they threaten civil war if they don’t get their way. This is an extremely effective tactic because so many who are alive today in Lebanon remember full well the hell on earth their country endured during 15 years of bloody conflict. No responsible politician in the majority can countenance a return to those terrible days. Hence, despite firm denials to the contrary, it is very possible that Mr. Hariri, or whoever replaces him as prime minister in the new government, will bow to Hezbollah pressure and disavow the STL, humiliating himself again in order to maintain the peace.

And so Lebanon’s descent into the Iran-Syrian orbit continues unabated as Hezbollah’s grip on the throat of the tiny country gets stronger and Syria circles around the carcass like a jackal waiting to pounce once the prey stops struggling. It’s a far cry from the heady days of the “Beirut Spring” just 5 short years ago when such high hopes were ignited by massive protests that kicked the Syrian army out of Lebanon and elections brought independent-loving democrats to power.

Now, many of those politicians are either dead, or cowed by events. And the people of Lebanon are on edge today wondering how long – or if – the peace will last.

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Ryan Mauro

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