January 12, 2011
Resignations Deepen Crisis for Lebanon
By NADA BAKRI
Joseph Eid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A poster in Beirut of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, right; Michel Aoun, center; and Nabih Berri, the Parliament speaker.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah and its political allies withdrew from Lebanon’s cabinet on Wednesday, toppling a national unity government that had brought a measure of calm to the troubled Middle Eastern country since 2009 and deepening an emerging crisis over a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of a former prime minister.
In practical terms, however, the turmoil will have little effect, as the government has been paralyzed for months.
The resignations returned Lebanon to familiar terrain. Hezbollah and its foes have wrestled over the direction of the country since the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was killed in a bombing along the Beirut seafront in February 2005.
After a lengthy investigation, the tribunal is now expected to indict members of Hezbollah, a Shiite movement that the United States considers a terrorist organization and the single most powerful force in Lebanon.
Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the attack and denounced the tribunal as an Israeli-American tool. It has further urged Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Mr. Hariri’s son, to end all cooperation with the tribunal and to reject its findings. Otherwise, it has promised to act, with Wednesday’s resignations serving as its first salvo.
In Washington to meet President Obama on Wednesday, Mr. Hariri has so far resisted the pressure, and American officials have sought to rally friendly Arab states to his aid.
For Mr. Obama, the point of the meeting was twofold: not just to ensure that Mr. Hariri did not fold but also to send a message to Syria that its continued backing of Hezbollah and its interference in Lebanon would further erode its already fragile relationship with the United States.
The Obama administration appears to be calculating that even if the prospect of the indictments has led to the collapse of Mr. Hariri’s government, he can continue in an interim capacity long enough for the actual indictments — which it expects to be deeply embarrassing to Hezbollah and Syria — to come out.
“We’re sort of in uncharted territory now,” said Robert Malley, head of Middle East affairs with the International Crisis Group. “We’re in the position where we’re supporting him, but he doesn’t have a government, nor is it clear that he has a parliamentary majority.”
Mr. Hariri left shortly after the meeting for Paris, where he was scheduled to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy before returning to Lebanon on Thursday. France has closer ties to Syria than the United States, and French officials hope to mediate with Syria to avert any violence in Lebanon in the coming days and weeks.
As is often the case with Lebanon, internal crises take on disproportionate importance, given the role that foreign powers habitually play in the country’s domestic affairs. Hezbollah is supported by Iran and Syria, while the United States, France and Saudi Arabia have backed Mr. Hariri’s government.
This crisis has the added danger of offering little room for compromise. For months now, Hezbollah has staked its reputation on having the tribunal discredited. To comply completely with Hezbollah’s demands, Mr. Hariri would probably sacrifice his political career.
“There is no easy solution,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “It is a dilemma. You have two polar-opposite positions, and there is no way that you can reconcile the two camps.”
The unity government had been widely expected to collapse after the tribunal announces the indictments, but few expected it to fall so soon.
Nevertheless, the withdrawal by Hezbollah’s ministers and their allies has almost certainly created the worst crisis in Lebanon since 2008. In that year, an agreement was reached in Qatar to end sectarian clashes that had killed 81 people and brought Lebanon to the brink of a renewal of its 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
The national unity government was a step away from that brink. It was made up of 15 ministers from Mr. Hariri’s bloc and 10 from Hezbollah and its allies. The remaining five were nominated by President Michel Suleiman, under a formula that gave neither side a majority. Hezbollah managed to persuade one of Mr. Suleiman’s nominees, Minister of State Adnan Sayyed Hussein, to submit his resignation, which he did in a statement.
As soon as the government fell, both sides defended their positions.
After a meeting, Mr. Hariri’s bloc released a statement, expressing a willingness to compromise. But the statement, read by Boutros Harb, a lawmaker and minister, added, “There’s no way to compromise on the issue of the court and justice.”
Hezbollah refused to comment until Thursday. But an allied official, Health Minister Mohamad Jawad Khalifeh, said: “We don’t want any escalation. We are committed to the Constitution. We don’t know what commitment the others are talking about.”
In a crisis that pivots on questions of prestige, the resignations provided a hint of theater. The energy minister, Gebran Bassil, flanked by nine other opposition ministers, announced the resignations at the same time that Mr. Hariri was in Washington to meet with Mr. Obama. The opposition had hoped that all 11 ministers would have resigned by the time of the meeting, as a way to embarrass Mr. Hariri, who would have had to enter the meeting as, at best, a caretaker prime minister. In the end, Mr. Hussein, the 11th, did not make it in time.
For months, Hezbollah has warned it would not stand by as its members were accused of involvement in the assassination, sensing that that would damage its reputation and open it to possible international legal action. Though it is technically part of the opposition, its power in Lebanon as a single force is almost uncontested, owing to the maintenance of its alliance with a powerful Christian general and the fracturing of its rivals.
In contrast to 2005, Hezbollah’s adversaries — gathered around Mr. Hariri — have fewer options and less support than they once did, emblematic of the vast changes in Lebanon’s political landscape over the past few years. While the Bush administration wholeheartedly backed Mr. Hariri and his allies then, Mr. Obama has not pledged the same broad support.
Syria, whose influence was waning in 2005, has re-emerged in Lebanon, and even its detractors here have sought some kind of relationship with it. Most Lebanese also vividly recall the speed with which Hezbollah and its allies vanquished their foes in just a few days of street fighting in Beirut in May 2008.
The ministers’ decision to resign came after the collapse of talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria aimed at easing political tension. The two countries have backed rival camps in Lebanon since 2005 and their initiative was seen across the political spectrum as the best chance to end the stalemate. But on Tuesday night, Michel Aoun, a former general and a Christian ally of Hezbollah, announced that the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.
The prospect of the government’s collapse sent a wave of anxiety through the country, which has had only brief periods of calm since Rafik Hariri’s death and has often found itself perched between the competing agendas of Hezbollah allies, namely Iran and Syria, and Mr. Hariri’s supporters, in particular the United States and Saudi Arabia.
A leading opposition newspaper, Al Akhbar, underlined the sense of unease with an editorial headlined “The Beginning of the Unknown.”
Many here fear the unknown the newspaper described could turn bloody, with street clashes in which Hezbollah is likely to prevail.
Other analysts dismiss the prospect of violence, given Hezbollah’s strength and Turkey’s emergence as an influential middleman that neither side wishes to alienate. A more likely situation, they say, is months of political stalemate, not unlike what Lebanon witnessed between 2006 and 2008, before another deal is reached.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Helene Cooper from Tucson.