Lebanese Government Collapses

12 Jan
Coat of arms of Lebanon

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The collapse today of Lebanon’s unity government was the latest development in tensions stemming from the UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The power-sharing government was fourteen-months old and had taken five months to form.  Compiling thirty ministers, a third were needed to resign in order for the collapse to be effected.  Ten ministers allied to Hezbollah handed in their resignation after demanding that current Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri call a Cabinet meeting to discuss the tribunal or face the consequences.  Independent Shia MP Adnan Hussein followed suit shortly afterwards, dissolving Hariri’s government at around 17.00 Beirut time.

Premier Hariri was at the time in New York meeting President Obama.  It is likely that the resignations were timed to coincide with the meeting and cause optimum embarrassment to Hariri, leaving the most powerful man in the world in a meeting with an ex prime-minister.

Hariri will now head a caretaker administration while President Michel Suleiman consults parliamentary blocs to seek agreement on an acceptable new figure.  Hezbollah has called on the president to form a new government.

How did this happen?

One could say that it has been a long time coming.  Speculation has been floating for months about the “crisis” in which Lebanon might soon find itself immersed.  The UN tribunal was likely to find Hezbollah responsible for Rafik Hariri’s death, an indictment that would drastically undermine Hezbollah’s standing as a lawful opposition party with Lebanon’s best interests at heart.

Hezbollah has long called for Lebanese support for the tribunal to be withdrawn, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah dismissing the tribunal as an “Israeli project.”  Hezbollah and its allies – a key one being Christian leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun – see the tribunal as essentially destructive.  They claim that it is a tool for spreading strife in Lebanon and within the Lebanese and as such should be dismissed.

The position is understandable.  Two of the cabinet ministers were members of Hezbollah and a further eight were allied to the Shi’a militant group.  The tribunal was partially funded by the Lebanese government, so that Hezbollah were effectively supporting their accusers or, as they saw it, taking part in their own humiliation.  March 8 wanted the Cabinet to stop payment of Lebanon’s share toward the financing of the STL, withdraw the Lebanese judges from the tribunal, end Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL, and prosecute the “false witnesses” linked to the UN probe into Rafik Hariri’s killing.

For the Western-backed Hariri and for Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, it was a question of dignity.  Sa’ad Hariri could not allow the tribunal to be dissolved because he would be allowing the murderers of his father their freedom; he would also be seen to be shying away from the course of justice.  Hezbollah could not allow the tribunal to continue because it was an insult to their credibility and to their denial of involvement in the elder Hariri’s assassination.  Hezbollah felt that it was a direct statement of accusation from Premier Hariri’s government.

Saudi Arabia and Syria have since July been in talks to reach a settlement that would please both supporters of Hezbollah and of Hariri.  The talks were lauded as the best chance for the conflict to resolve: it would be an Arabic settlement and not a Western one.  Yet on Friday Premier Hariri told Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat that the Saudi-Syrian agreement had been finalised long ago and that Hezbollah had not lived up to its side of the deal.( https://emserrs.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/hariri-%e2%80%9ccommitments%e2%80%9d/)

With the accusation coming while Hariri was in the USA and involved in high-profile talks with the world’s most powerful politicians, among them Obama, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Saudi King Abdullah and UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, Hezbollah seem to have decided that the matter had come to a head.  The involvement of these foreign powers, all of whom support the tribunal and none of whom are sympathetic to Hezbollah, clearly made Hezbollah feel that its significance in the destiny of Lebanon was in danger of being curtailed from outside.  Hezbollah has been on the US State Department’s List of Terrorist Organizations since 1999 and holds little trust for the West in general.  The absence in the talks of its allies, namely Syria and Iran, will not have reassured Hezbollah that its corner, too, is being fought.

On Monday, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television reported that the March 8 coalition had given President Suleiman and Premier Hariri 24 hours to convene a cabinet meeting or it would take action on its own.  A March 8 delegation – including Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh, Amal Movement MP Ali Hassan Khalil, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil and Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s aide Hussein Khalil – had met with Suleiman at Baabda Palace.  Afterwards Hezbollah Minister Mohammad Fneish spoke on behalf of the March 8 opposition and told the media: “After we positively dealt with the Syrian-Saudi initiative and provided it with chances of success, it unfortunately reached a dead end due to US meddling and the other camp’s [Premier Hariri] failure to find a solution.”

“American intervention and the inability of the other side to overcome American pressure” had effectively ended the settlement, he said.  When asked why the talks collapsed, Fneish said: “Ask Mrs Clinton.”

Fneish also emphasised Hezbollah’s “keenness on not letting the country continue to suffer the current paralysis.”  Hezbollah largely defines itself as acting in the interest of Lebanon.  Fneish concluded that the March 8 opposition would take the appropriate decision based on the answer they received from the Hariri.

On the same day MP Aoun announced that the Saudi-Syrian initiative had “reached a dead end”, blaming Hariri’s March 14 alliance for its failure.  He also pointed out that “we [the March 8 coalition] have supported the initiative because we cannot be against efforts seeking good.  But the mediators have cautioned us that we must assume our responsibilities as Lebanese in order to reach a solution.  We demand a Cabinet meeting at which we will propose all the ideas we want.”

Hariri’s response to the demand was an urge to the Lebanese to keep calm.  “Despite the developments of the last few hours, we will use all possible means to keep channels open to all the Lebanese to reach solutions that guarantee stability and calm and preserve national unity,” he said in a statement from New York.  He also said that he and President Suleiman were in talks over Hezbollah’s call for a Cabinet meeting.

However, the Wednesday deadline arrived with no meeting called.  At 17.00 local time – just as Hariri would be shaking hands with Obama – the ten ministers resigned.  They had warned that they would do so in an earlier statement.

“This cabinet has become a burden on the Lebanese, unable to do its work,” Jibran Bassil said.  “We are giving a chance for another government to take over.”  Bassil also said the ministers decided to resign after Hariri “succumbed to foreign and American pressures” and turned his back on the Syrian-Saudi efforts.

Environment Minister Mohammad Rahhal, an ally of Hariri’s, said that Hezbollah’s threat to topple the government was aimed at paralysing the state and forcing Hariri to disavow the tribunal.

Clearly it was the involvement of foreign powers in the governing of Lebanon that had frustrated, and probably insulted, Hezbollah.

Hillary Clinton on Monday described herself as “deeply worried about the efforts to destabilize Lebanon.”  In a statement evidently referring to Iran and Hezbollah, she said, “I’ve also been working with the Saudis, and the French and the Egyptians, and others, to try to make sure we stabilise Lebanon and prevent any outside interest or anyone within Lebanon who is getting direction from outside interests from taking steps that will destabilise Lebanon and perhaps provoke conflict.”  Her allies are sadly lacking in allies of Hezbollah, without whom no settlement can take place.

The attitude exhibited by politicians such as Juan Carlos Gafo, the Spanish ambassador to Lebanon shows a greater awareness of the delicate handling the situation requires.  “There is a general view on these [Saudi-Syrian] negotiations that all parties are committed to coming up with a regional solution,” he said. “This commitment arises from the need to stabilize the region and not to cross any red lines.  There are some points that only Lebanese have to agree on to secure their country’s stability.”  “Only the Lebanese know how to solve their own problems.”

In a similar vein, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams said he welcomed Saudi-Syrian efforts to maintain stability in Lebanon, but stressed that dialogue among Lebanon’s feuding parties was essential to resolve the crisis.

Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, deputy head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, had warned last week of obstruction to peace in Lebanon by the US.  “America’s interest is to deepen internal divisions and drag Lebanon to strife.”  The animosity that Hezbollah so evidently feel towards the US’ involvement in Lebanese internal affairs should perhaps have been borne in mind when a peaceful solution was trying to be reached.  Hezbollah saw American involvement as “meddling” and also, in light of the 2006 war, as offensive.

Aoun said that rival Lebanese factions should work together to reach a Lebanese solution for the crisis. He said the failure of the initiative was not a failure for Syria, Saudi Arabia or the United States. “Rather, it was a Lebanese failure. Therefore, a solution has now become the responsibility of the Lebanese,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hariri thanked Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Assad for their efforts to bolster stability in Lebanon.  “Hope is pinned on all brothers and friends to help Lebanon pull through this difficult phase. Hope is also pinned in the first place on the wisdom of the Lebanese and their leaders. We all have sought to avoid being dragged to reactions,” Hariri said, in a clear reference to the action taken by Hezbollah.

“This phase requires from all of us the highest level of wisdom and responsibility because the primary beneficiary from divisions among the Lebanese is the Israeli enemy,” he added.




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