A Step Back, A Step Forth …

13 Jan

Lebanon has entered a new phase of government – and yet one that has never been older.

President Michel Suleiman formally accepted the resignations of eleven cabinet ministers this morning, finalising the dissolution of the government.  He called on the cabinet to continue in a caretaker capacity until a new government has been formed.  Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, son of former PM Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, will continue in his position in the meantime.

Hezbollah, who timed their resignation from the cabinet yesterday to clash with Premier Hariri’s meeting with US President Barack Obama, have called for a new prime minister to take Hariri’s place.  Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Shi’a militant group said that the resignations had taken place because the “expected result of the international tribunal for the former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri is aimed at the resistance [Hezbollah].”

Describing the younger Hariri as “part of the problem, not the solution,” Hezbollah also said that it would not allow him to remain Prime Minister.  “He is not fit to have this responsibility, as experience has proven.”

Nasrallah did, however, discount any chance of a civil war, saying “there will never be a war between the Sunnis and Shi’ites.”

War is indeed unlikely.  The last thing any Lebanese want is a return to the civil strife of 1975-1990.  And the country can function surprisingly well without a government: society do not rely on their politicians to keep things running smoothly.  Lebanon has a history of continuing in spite of its government rather than because of it.

Foreign powers pose the greater threat to peace.  Follwing yesterday’s resignations, the White House released a sharp statement describing the March 8 coalition as “demonstrating their own fear and determination to block the government’s ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people.”

Quite how the US administration can claim to know those aspirations is muddling.  The rhetoric itself is clumsy: “all”? One thing most commentators like to trumpet about Lebanon is that it is ‘sectarian,’ ‘diverse,’ a ‘country of contrasts.’  With a good 30% of the country, if not more, backing Hezbollah, such a statement can only emphasise how little America understands Lebanon’s political and religious complexities; or, worse, how little it is willing to give the impression it understands.  Having long described Hezbollah as a terrorist group, the US has no wish to allow it legitimacy.

Indeed, the statement seems to ignore the fact that Hezbollah were part of the government.  The problem arose from a disagreement within the government as to how to handle the UN tribunal investigating the elder Hariri’s assassination.  Hezbollah wanted Lebanon to withdraw all support; Hariri wanted the tribunal to continue.

While Lebanon may be used to being government-less, this is undeniably a step backwards.  As Arab League chief Secretary General Amr Moussa said today in Doha, “we don’t want Lebanon to get back to square one. We thought we already left this station.”  He was accompanying US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her tour of Doha.

Yesterday Clinton described her tour of the Middle East as an “apology tour” aimed at undoing the damage caused by the Wikileaks release of 250,000 US diplomatic cables.  Wikileaks had revealed that some Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, were urging a tougher line against Iran.  The cables also disclosed Saudi suggestions for a pan-Arab force to crush Hezbollah.

Moussa, however, pointed out that Hezbollah – and indeed many Lebanese – hopes for an Arab resolution are unrealistic.  “All of us, Arabs, Europeans and the United States will have to work together in order to reach a kind of compromise that would maintain the possibility of having a stable government in Lebanon,” he said.  He also called for the tribunal to continue, saying that it should be “above politics.”  “Justice should have its way and Lebanon must have a government,” he added.
 
Today’s As-Safir, a daily Lebanese newspaper, said in an editorial “Lebanon entered a new phase yesterday, an open-ended one characterized by a profound and long-term political and governmental crisis.”  An-Nahar, another daily, agreed that there was “no easy way out of Lebanon’s new political crisis.”  “No one is under the illusion that the open crisis will come to an end anytime soon.”  However, most Lebanese press do agree that full-scale violence is unlikely.

So what next? Hezbollah has a majority in the 128-member Parliament, which enables it to put forward a candidate of its own for prime minister.  Today at noon, pro-Hezbollah MP Mohammed Raad announced that the opposition will name “a personality with a history of national resistance to head the new government.”  Under Lebanon’s constitution, the PM post go to a Sunni.  It is rumoured that Hezbollah will propose the longtime Sunni leader Omar Karami.

With the failure of the previous government, Hezbollah support on the ground is thicker than most assume.  Some are hoping that Hezbollah will assume power and implement its 2009 Manifesto.  Various Lebanese civil society NGO’s have urged Hezbollah to do more for Lebanon’s increasingly fragile environment, as well as fix Lebanon’s water, electricity and infrastructure problems.  The group had also promised to end the corruption in which many of Lebanon’s politicians are involved.  There is also speculation that, if Hezbollah rule, Palestinian refugees will be granted the rights – and the paperwork – to work and own a home.

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