Turmoil in Lebanon

Turmoil in Lebanon

Tuesday, 25 January, 2011

The political crisis in Lebanon is deepening following the collapse of the government. The crisis stems from disagreements over the international tribunal probe into the death of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, amid rumours that Hezbollah, one of the two principal Shia parties, has been implicated in the killing.

Susanne Fischer, IWPR’s Middle East programme manager, looks at the likely consequences for the troubled state and the repercussions for a region fraught with complex alliances.

Are the ministerial resignations a temporary setback or have they delivered long-lasting damage to the political status quo in Lebanon?

This depends on how quickly the different parties will be able to form a new government. Even before the collapse of the government, the council of ministers have barely convened, and important decisions were postponed because the two leading political blocs were so caught up in their fight about how to deal with the special tribunal into the death of Rafik Hariri and the resulting indictment – which has been submitted to the pre-trial judge in The Hague who announced he would deal with it by February 7.

There are two main opposing blocs: the March 14 grouping which includes the Sunni Future Movement of caretaker prime minister Saad Hariri, the Christian parties Kataib and Lebanese Forces and some other small groups; and the March 8 opposition movement, which consists of Hezbollah, the other main Shia party, Amal, and the Christian party Free Patriotic Movement of General Aoun. Ten out of the 11 ministers who resigned belonged to this bloc, and the eleventh was one of the five ministers who were appointed by President Michel Suleiman.

A third – and possibly decisive – force in the political game are the Druze of Walid Jumblat, who joined March 14 after the 2009 elections but announced last week that he and his followers would vote with March 8 when they nominate a candidate for prime minister (who, according to the Lebanese political system of power-sharing, has to be Sunni).

Hariri’s Sunni-Christian bloc no longer has a majority to form a new administration after consultations by members of parliament with President Suleiman this week - required by the Lebanese constitution in order to nominate a new prime minister who will then try to form a government - led to a majority for the March 8 candidate, the Sunni Najib Miqati. The billionaire businessman from Tripoli was briefly prime minister in 2005, directly after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. 

Is there any chance that we might see the scenes repeating the violence of 2008?

That is a real risk indeed, and there have already been angry outbursts. However, while in 2008 it was Hezbollah who took to the streets, now it seems the members of March 14 are not willing to accept the changing political situation and are now protesting. They claim that Saad Hariri is the only legitimate Sunni candidate for prime minister and that they will never accept a Hezbollah-nominated leader.

In some places, roadblocks have been set up and tyres burned in angry protests. Dissent is especially strong in Tripoli, where angry Futuresupporters attacked the office of a Sunni deputy who voted against Hariri and in favour of Miqati. There have also been reports of attacks on journalists. There has been little constructive dialogue in the media; if you listen to both sides and how they address each other via their various TV channels and newspapers, the tone is very harsh, accusations fly back and forth, and both sides seem entrenched in their positions, unwilling to compromise.

Several attempts from abroad to mediate have failed, including a Syrian-Saudi initiative and attempts by Turkey and Qatar.

People are very nervous, and memories of 2008 are still fresh. When a TV station reported unconfirmed gatherings of people dressed in black (usually associated with Hezbollah) in various parts of the city last week, several schools closed immediately and sent children home for fear of violence in the streets. This week, too, some schools and universities remained closed and many people did not go to work.

Hezbollah so far has stayed calm though, and its secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has stressed on television that Hezbollah and their allies would participate in the process of trying to form a new government according to the constitution. 

How has this affected popular support for Hezbollah, especially amongst non-Shia groups?

Lebanon is very polarised and one usually hears either high praise or total contempt for Hezbollah. The Christians, for example, are divided between those who support Hezbollah and agree with their view that the special tribunal has been tainted and highly politicised from the beginning, while others accuse Hezbollah of planning a coup d’état.

There seem to be fewer and fewer people who really believe the tribunal is about justice and revealing the truth. Lebanon witnessed many political assassinations in the past, so some ask, “Why all this (international) attention on the killing of this one man in particular?”

Then there were the “false witnesses” whose statements in 2005 seemed to clearly implicate Syria in the Hariri murder and led to the imprisonment of four Lebanese army and intelligence generals for several years.

Their evidence, however, turned out to be lies and Saad Hariri himself recently apologised to Syria for the accusations made against it. It is still not clear who was behind the set-up of the false witnesses, and politicians from March 8 argue that the issue needs to be investigated if the tribunal’s future findings are to be accepted as legitimate.

Some people wonder if the sudden turn of the investigation away from Syria and towards Hezbollah was perhaps politically motivated. They suggest this might be so as to embrace Syria - considered an important player when it comes to the influence on Iran because of its close ties to the Iranian leadership - and to corner Hezbollah, seen as a terrorist organisation by the United States government and other international actors.

Others note that in 2006, Lebanon witnessed a devastating war with Israel in which more than 1,200 Lebanese people died and a large amount of infrastructure was destroyed – without any legal or international consequences. Many perceive this as double standards, and positioning the issue in this light has attracted Hezbollah much popular support from across all groups in Lebanon, even in the Sunni community. 

What are the likely regional repercussions?

It became very obvious during the current crisis how deeply involved the region has become in Lebanese affairs. Each group in Lebanon has a protective regional power: Saudi Arabia strongly supports Hariri and the Sunnis; while Iran is considered the main power behind Hezbollah. Several Lebanese politicians from all sides have shuttled back and forth to Syria in the past days. And of course Israel is closely watching events unfolding in Lebanon. Last week Israeli fighter jets flew repeatedly over the south.

Hariri was visiting the US when the government collapsed, but rather than returning home immediately he first went to France for consultations with President Nicolas Sarkozy and then to Turkey to meet Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.

If March 8 and its allies really manage to form a new government without Hariri, it is hard to predict how the regional powers will react. Even if the process is decided according to the Lebanese constitution, some will undoubtedly claim that Lebanon fell prey to an Islamic force.

In an open letter to President Suleiman, the March 14 bloc stated that Lebanon was in danger and that Hezbollah had ”started its rebellion against the state”.

According to news reports, Israel's deputy prime minister Silvan Shalom has already warned that the formation of a Lebanese government led by Hezbollah would be a “very, very dangerous development because we would in fact have an Iranian government on Israel's northern border”.

In addition, some supporters from Sunni-led countries might withdraw financial support for Lebanon and halt investments, and the US will also probably review its ties with the Lebanese government and reconsider various forms of financial aid.

A crisis in Lebanon is never only a domestic predicament but always involves regional and international players. 

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