Analysis: What's next for Lebanon?


The Lebanese government has collapsed. So what comes next?

This scenario has played out before. In November 2006, after Hezbollah fought a grueling month-long war against Israel, the Shiite ministers in Fouad Siniora’s cabinet, Lebanon's prime minister at the time, resigned, leading to an 18-month political crisis. A Hezbollah-led sit in paralyzed downtown Beirut. Street clashes between Sunnis and Shiites were common. General strikes halted traffic at the airport.

The crisis climaxed in May 2008, when Hezbollah fighters and their allies took over Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut.

The crisis was diffused when a deal brokered by Qatar led to the Doha agreements. The U.S.-backed March 14 movement, of which current Prime Minister Saad Hariri is a key leader, largely gave the more powerful Hezbollah-led opposition what they wanted.

The fruit of those concessions came to bear today, when the opposition used its one-third plus one veto power to bring the government down — a key request made in 2006 and gained in 2008 at Doha.

At the heart of the matter during the 2006-2008 crisis was Hezbollah’s belief that Siniora’s government posed a threat because of its alignment with the United States and, by default, Israel. The climax came when Siniora’s government attempted to cut Hezbollah’s secret telecommunications network and remove one of its allies from the head of the airport. Hezbollah showed they could defeat Siniora and Hariri’s Sunnis on the streets. And the Doha agreement was born.

But, for both sides, the issues in 2008 appear to pale in comparison to the current crisis.

On the one hand, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is poised to indict members of Hezbollah in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Hezbollah views this as an existential threat. Killing the Sunni leader of Lebanon and former prime minister would destroy any claims the group has toward “defending Lebanon” with its massive arsenal of weapons, which Hezbollah says it needs to defend against Israeli aggression.

But the crisis is also existential for Saad Hariri. He cannot give in to Hezbollah’s demand to renounce the tribunal investigating the murder of his father. Lebanon analysts say this would be akin to political and professional suicide.

One of the biggest differences between this latest cabinet resignation and the one in 2006 is that, back then, Hariri and his allies held a parliamentary majority and could form a government without Hezbollah.

Now, it is Hezbollah and its allies who may claim the majority. Some analysts said that if members of parliament allied with Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and one-time March 14 leader, join the opposition, Hezbollah will have the parliamentary majority necessary to form a new government.

If Hezbollah can form a government composed of only its allies, it would allow Hezbollah to possibly withdraw funding for the tribunal, recall Lebanese judges assigned to the case and perhaps reject its findings.

But this tactic doesn't really achieve Hezbollah's goals: They want Hariri to disavow the tribunal, not be in the opposition voicing support for it.

If a government is formed without Hariri, he may play a card Hezbollah used in 2006: accuse the government of being unconstitutional because it does not include him and ministers from his Future Movement, the party representing the Sunni Muslim community in Lebanon’s religion-based political system.

Nor is forming a new government an easy prospect. When Hariri returns to the country today or Thursday from his trip to Washington and a meeting with French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Paris, he will apparently be in charge of a “caretaker” cabinet until a new government can be formed. It will be responsible for day-to-day workings of the state and cannot make policy.

But Lebanese governments, no matter their makeup, do not simply appear out of thin air. It took nearly six months, from June until November 2009 to form the current government.

Hariri may well just bide his time in the opposition until the tribunal’s indictments come out. Besides disavowing them, there is nothing he or Hezbollah or their allies can do to stop the tribunal; the indictments are expected to be transferred to the pre-trial judge in the coming weeks. The judge must then confirm the indictments, which could take several weeks or even months. At that point, the indictments will be revealed publicly.

Hezbollah has hinted at using its arms again on the streets of Beirut as it did in 2008. But it would likely not pursue that move until after an attempt to form a new government amenable to its objectives of discrediting the court in Lebanon and the region.

Nor is it clear what street violence could do at this point besides destabilize the country and further blemish Hezbollah’s image, which is exactly why the group is so focused on trying to get Hariri to disavow the tribunal.

But an indictment that points a finger at Hezbollah, however, could spark clashes.  And Hezbollah has warned that they would “cut the hand” of anyone who attempted to arrest members of the group.

The fall of the government does increase the stakes in Lebanon’s fragile arena of 18 different religious sects. Although the cabinet hasn’t met since Dec. 18 due to the tribunal issue, this government’s collapse can only serve to inflame already simmering tension between the country’s Sunni and Shiites and increases the risk of politically related street violence.

So far, the opposition has used political and constitutional, not violent, means to bring down the government. But, as a precaution, the Lebanese army moved out in force onto the streets of Beirut to try to stymie any clashes.

According to Lebanese in Beirut, many people were staying at home for fear another round of violence is just around the corner. Unfortunately, it’s a situation the Lebanese have often been subjected to during the past six tumultuous years.