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Lebanon Closer To The Brink As Hizballah Asserts Strength

  • Robert Tait

Lebanese soldiers stand guard as supporters of the Future Movement burn tires during a demonstration in support of Saad Hariri in Beirut on January 25.

Lebanese soldiers stand guard as supporters of the Future Movement burn tires during a demonstration in support of Saad Hariri in Beirut on January 25.

Lebanon's smoldering political crisis threatened to ignite into flames as the country's Sunnis staged a day of protests against the anticipated installation of a new Shi'ite-backed prime minister.

Demonstrators turned out in force in Beirut and the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli as it emerged that Nijab Mikati, a billionaire businessman, had narrowly won a majority among MPs to succeed Saad Hariri as premier after two days of parliamentary "consultations." Some protests erupted into violence. Television footage showed crowds attacking a van apparently belonging to satellite news channel Al-Jazeera, while other TV crews reportedly came under attack.

Amid angry scenes, crowds chanted "Saad, Saad" in support of Hariri, whose Western and Saudi-backed government collapsed last week when ministers from the militant Shi'a Hizballah group resigned en masse in protest at the prime his refusal to disavow a United Nations tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafiq Hariri. a former prime minister.

The tribunal is expected to indict members of Hizballah in its findings, which have yet to be made public. Hizballah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, has denounced the UN investigation as politically-motivated and says it is being manipulated by the United States and Israel.

Power Play

Fueling the protests is the widespread belief among Sunnis that Hizballah has staged a coup to form a government of its choice. Mikati, a 55-year-old former prime minister and Harvard graduate, responded with a call for calm.

"As MP from Tripoli, I'm sending this appeal to all my people there for self control and not to be dragged into any trouble," Mikati said. "I extended my hand yesterday to everyone. I don't want to argue about whether what's happening is spontaneous or planned events."

While Mikati is a Sunni -- as required by Lebanon's complex political-confessional system, which reserves the premier's office for Sunnis and other offices for different communities -- suspicions abound that he has been installed to do Hizballah's bidding.

Principally, says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, he will be expected to do what his predecessor would not and renounce the Hariri inquiry.

"The Sunni community is feeling that it is being pushed out of power by the opposition led by Hizballah. They are also very upset at the attempt by Hizballah to force the Lebanese government to cancel Lebanon's relations with the [UN] tribunal," Salem says. "We are in a period of very high tension between the two big communities, the Sunni community and the Shi'ite community."

He adds: "There is also a risk that Hizballah and Syria -- as they gain more power in Lebanon -- will change the make-up of power and seek a return to the situation before the Syrians left -- before 2005 -- in which basically Syria in its alliance with Iran and Hizballah really dominated Lebanon quite completely."

Hariri's government, explains Salem, fell because the former prime minister demanded that his office be turned into a source of real political power independent of Hizballah as a price of rejecting the inquiry into his father's death.

"The negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Syria really wanted a deal," Salem says. "On the one hand, Saudi Arabia would press Saad Hariri to break Lebanon's links with the tribunal; but in exchange, Saudi Arabia and Saad Hariri wanted a number of things, most importantly that Saad Hariri should then be allowed to form a government without a veto power for the opposition in his government. In other words, to allow Saad Hariri to reclaim the power of the Sunni prime minister's office and a dominant role over the government, something the opposition didn't want to accept."

Mikati's expected appointment -- secured with the support of 68 out of Lebanon's 128 parliamentarians -- was aided by the votes of the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, and several members of his 11-strong bloc. Jumblatt has recently been vocally supportive of Hizballah and Syria, having previously fallen out with them.

Avoiding Danger

Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow for Middle East affairs at the London-based Chatham House think tank, says Hizballah's assertion of strength reflects that "U.S. influence in the whole region has been on the slide for a while" but adds that Sunni accusations of a Shiite coup are unjustified.

"The situation in Lebanon reflects this balance of power and the opposition's actions also reflect this; but in a way, the opposition's actions in Lebanon are being done in a very constitutional manner," Shehadi says. "So far, what we are seeing is a constitutional process. It's not really a coup d' etat as some people have been calling it. It's probably the only country in the region where you have to wait for the outcome of the constitutional selection process to know who's going to be prime minister."

At the heart of developments, Shehadi says, is an ongoing struggle for influence between the U.S. and Iran which began in the early 1980s when Hizballah -- backed by Tehran -- forced an American marine contingent to withdraw from Lebanon.

"The overall balance of power and the overall conflict in the region can be seen as an Iranian conflict with the United States over influence and it is no secret that Iran is gaining the upper hand and has been gaining the upper hand since 2003 [when the U.S. led an invasion of Iraq]," Shehadi says. "Lebanon in particular is even more significant because in Lebanon this is round two of the confrontation."

The course of future events in Lebanon, Salem has written, depends on the contents of the UN tribunal report and whether it is made public. A finding concluding that Hariri was killed on the orders of Iran would plunge the nation into all-out crisis, he believes.

Against that backdrop and the confrontation between Tehran and Washington, there is a danger of the Lebanese conflict following a similar course to that in Iraq, Salem says.

He notes "links" between the two conflicts.

"There is a very difficult sectarian issue, which relates to the balance of power and the power-sharing formulas between Sunni and Shi'ite communities. When car bombs go off or suicide bombers kill people on a sectarian basis in Baghdad, that certainly doesn't help matters in Beirut," Salem says. "Iran and Saudi Arabia and Syria are all competing for influence in Iraq as well as in Lebanon. Finally, the U.S and Iran have a lot of conflicting competition sometimes in Iraq and now, over this issue, here it is in Lebanon. Both countries [Lebanon and Iraq] have sectarian problems which are linked to regional issues and do not have enough sovereignty to protect themselves from the competition of outside powers affecting them internally."
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