01/13/2011, 00.00
LEBANON
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As Lebanon’s government collapses, the country’s stability is endangered

by Fady Noun
Led by Hizbollah, opposition ministers resign over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon set up by the United Nations to investigate into the Hariri assassination. Syria, Saudi Arabia, the United States, France and Iran are involved in a diplomatic tug-of-war. With the country on the edge of the abyss, a simple incident might trigger civil war or clashes between Sunnis and Shias.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon’s national unity government led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri collapsed yesterday after 11 ministers in the 30-member cabinet resigned. It was formed in 2008 after months of crisis at a time when the country was also without a president. Outgoing Prime Minister Hariri will handle current affairs until a new cabinet is sworn in. The resignations were announced during Hariri’s meeting with Barack Obama in Washington.

The fall of the Hariri government marks the final split between the two camps that divide the country. The majority camp supports national sovereignty and is pro-Western. The other is in various degrees pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian. In any event, the cabinet itself had been paralysed for the past month and half.

When the end came, it was over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) that investigated the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the foremost leader of the Sunni community.

The Shia- and Hizbollah-dominated opposition wants the government to censure the tribunal set up under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, on grounds that it is politicised, and this even before charges are formally laid.

Hizbollah is well aware that some of its members could be charged in connection with the terrorist attack that killed Rafik Hariri, even if for some people that is hard to believe. In the past three months, Hizbollah has multiplied its verbal attacks against the tribunal and has done everything it can to discredit its possible conclusions, accusing tribunal supporters of being agents for the United States and Israel.

For many, the ongoing political deadlock is likely to bring Lebanon to the brink of what is euphemistically called a “discord”, a civil war in all but in name between Sunnis and Shias. In fact, the threat of discord has been deliberately used by Hizbollah and its allies to put pressures on the majority.

Saudi Arabia, which is Saad Hariri’s main backer, and Syria, the opposition’s main paymaster, have tried to reconcile the two camps.

When opposition ministers resigned, they pulled the rug from under the government. On his visit to the United States, Prime Minister told London-based Al-Hayat that he was not going to take any new step before the “other camp” made a move towards mutual cooperation.

However, the opposition has already shown its cards, calling for a cabinet minister this Sunday in order to attack the STL. As the only item on the agenda, Hariri rejected such a proposal outright.

The Saudi-Syrian deal was secret for a long time. Today some elements are known. To the displeasure of the majority, Saad Hariri told London-based Saudi daily Al Chark el-Awsat that some “false witnesses” misled the STL from the start, with a negative impact on Syrian-Lebanese relations.

However, instead of calming matters, the statement (the first point in the Syrian-Saudi deal) complicated them. In fact, the opposition quickly used it to launch a campaign to have these “false witnesses” put on trial in Lebanon.

The end result is that this issue has taken centre stage at the expense of the investigation into the Hariri murder, which is what provoked the inquiry in the first place. Saad Hariri eventually said that the “other camp backed away from the deal”, thus moving in its direction.

It is now known that the deal included Syrian judicial authorities dropping charges against a number of Lebanese officials close to Hariri and the majority camp who had been indicted in connection with a complaint filed by Jamil Sayyed, former chief of the General Security Directorate, Lebanon’s intelligence agency, in the “false witnesses” case.

What will happen now? What might happen?

To prevent things from erupting into street violence after the expected formal indictment is announced shortly, an eventuality that Parliamentary Speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri said he wants to avoid “at all cost”, a long procession of Arab and foreign leaders might come to Lebanon to help the Lebanese solve their crisis. However, even if the crisis is taking in Lebanon, strings are being pulled elsewhere, in Syria, Iran, Washington and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the diplomatic seesaw could draw in more than one Arab or European capital.

French President Sarkozy has already tried to bring together local, regional and international players, including Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, in order to find a global settlement. This shows that the Lebanese crisis is not strictly speaking local. However, can a solution to the crisis be found without the international tribunal’s involvement? Not according to leading figures in the majority camp. The latter continue to tell those who will listen that the court is a red line that cannot be crossed. In fact, they are waiting for the soon-to-be-made-public revelations that might lead Daniel Bellemare, the current chief UN prosecutor in charge of the Hariri murder, to lay charges.

Will there be a Sunni-Shia conflict? Despite its hardball politics, Hizbollah is trying to avoid such a turn of event because it would discredit the so-called resistance movement.  It is also why mass resignations by opposition ministers were announced in the home of a Christian leader, Michel Aoun, head of an important parliamentary group.

Lebanon’s armed forces and police have their own red line, namely civil peace. Army Chief General Jean Kahwagi, who is well accepted by all factions, firmly said that peace would be preserved.

Will Lebanon stop just short of the abyss? Many observers think so. For them, the crisis will likely find a solution within the country’s institutions despite the opposition’s attempt to undermine the majority by moving closer to the political block led by Druze lawmaker Walid Jumblatt, who himself shifted from the majority camp to that of the president.

Unless . . . something beyond anyone’s control happens, like a serious incident or a clash in the streets. Some observers however exclude this possibility, arguing instead that Lebanon’s crises are always settled when things get “hot”. In this sense, a demonstration against the high cost of living by a Lebanese union close to the opposition on 10 February comes at the right time.

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