Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Crisis In Lebanon

By Hasan Abu Nimah
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 26/01/2011
The Lebanese crisis has been brewing for months. It turned critical, however, in the last two weeks.

The government of Saad Hariri has been toppled as a result of the resignation of all the opposition ministers: 11 out of a total of 30. The 8th of March Hizbollah-led opposition decided on such action as response to the failure of months-long Syrian-Saudi effort to reconcile what proved to be highly irreconcilable.

As main external key players, Syria, on behalf of Hizbollah, and Saudi Arabia on behalf of the 14th of March Hariri coalition, Future Movement (Tayyar Al Mustakbal), worked closely, actually with promised success, to reach a formula whereby the then expected decision of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) accusing Hizbollah members of having assassinated Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri six years ago would not lead to a dangerous confrontation between the two Lebanese rival factions.

Apparently there were last-minute American pressures on both Hariri and the Saudis not to compromise on the tribunal’s anticipated decision, initially meant to link Hizbollah to the assassinations. Hizbollah had been openly accusing the STL of serving Israeli/American interests in targetting the organisation after other means to destroy it, or at least disarm it, failed.

Lebanon at the moment stands on the threshold of a very explosive situation. Polarisation between the two conflicting currents is at its height.

Until Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, switched sides, last week, announcing his decision to join Syria and the opposition, Hariri, with a 71-seat majority in parliament could still form a new government. This majority is now lost, with Jumblatt’s 11 seats tipping the balance in favour of the opposition, actually giving it the constitutional entitlement to form a new Cabinet.

This sounds alarming to Hariri’s Future Movement. It means that once the Hizbollah coalition assumes power, it will be able to decide on all the controversial matters it tried unsuccessfully to have the toppled government deal with.

The very burning issue relates to the tribunal specifically. Lebanese President Michel Sleiman asked opposition candidate Najib Mikati to form a new Cabinet. Mikati may decide to open the highly explosive case of the STL, which includes the file of the fake witnesses, the withdrawal of the Lebanese judges from the tribunal and the blocking of Lebanese funding, virtually killing the Hariri international court. If this is an immediate major concern for the March 14th coalition, it certainly is not the only one; there are other worries that relate to long-term old-time strategic fears, and they are no less critical.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the powerful secretary general of Hizbollah, has persistently claimed that the tribunal is no more than an expedient political tool in the hands of his enemies, specifically designed to achieve a double goal: protect the real murderers, which Nasrallah openly asserts are the Israelis, and implicate Hizbollah in the Hariri murder case instead.

Implicating Hizbollah would have far-reaching international consequences that may lead in the end to discrediting and delegitimising the entire Shiite Party, with possible damaging UN Security Council sanctions.

Nasrallah also believes that the fake witnesses were brought in first to implicate Syria and, at a later phase, Hizbollah.

Prime minister Hariri had admitted that accusing Syria was a political decision he regretted. There were some indications that Hariri was indeed willing to reach a reasonable compromise on the tribunal’s intention to accuse Hizbollah members. He was the one, some months ago, to confide to Nasrallah that members of his party were targetted. Hariri’s visit to Damascus and his meeting with Bashar Assad were seen as significant signs of a genuine interest in reconciling intense hostilities. He had also responded positively to the Syrian-Saudi mediation efforts until the very last minute. Apparently, internal coalition partner pressures as well as external superpower pressures, as has been loudly alleged, have banned the possibility of an agreement.

The striking reality, however, is that the Hariri group would not accept a situation where it would have to hand government over to the opposition. It still believes, despite Jumblatt’s departure to the other camp, that it is the majority entitled to lead the government.

The other thorny issue for the 14th March group, and its out-of-coalition supporters, is that it has, for long, been opposed to the existence of an armed militia, referring to Hizbollah, as part of the Lebanese political structure, particularly that many other factions in Lebanon consider Hizbollah’s weapons a significant instrument of political power in the internal arena and not necessarily meant for defending the country against foreign aggression. Other militias and huge caches of weapons exist everywhere in Lebanon, but they are not as powerful and as politically effective. If that situation was not easy to tolerate while Hizbollah was in the opposition, it would certainly be much harder to accept if Hizbollah were to lead.

The Lebanese society is deeply divided, not along religious or sectarian lines necessarily. The 14th of March Alliance includes in addition to Sunni Muslims, Shiites, Christians and, until few days ago, Druze.

The same applies to the March 8th opposition group, which is also made up of a large number of big and small parties that include in addition to the Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Druze.

There has always been, however, a delicate equilibrium that kept the Lebanese together in very hard times. The hope is that Lebanon, which despite all odds is a true democracy, will be able to pull out of the crisis without further threat to its stability.

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