Amid power vacuum, tensions rising in Lebanon


BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon's president, Michel Suleiman, delayed talks aimed at choosing a new prime minister and forming a new government on Monday, prolonging a political crisis that began when 11 Hezbollah ministers walked out last week, forcing the collapse of the ruling coalition.

The delay of the talks, which are expected to be a long and fierce debate over who will be the next prime minister, appears to ensure that the political gridlock plaguing the country will drag on for weeks, or even months.

Tensions, menawhile, are high here, as the political instability edges closer to instability on the streets of Beirut, the capital.

“It’s logical to expect violent actions to occur, making use of the absence of any power on the ground,” said Lebanese journalist and political analyst Hazem Saghieh. “In such a situation -- in a power vacuum and mounting sectarian hatreds -- you can expect the worst to happen.”

At the heart of the crisis is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, an international court set up to investigate the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The court is expected to announce today its findings that Hezbollah was behind the killing.

March 14, the Western-backed ruling political coalition, supports the court. They say the proceedings are the only way to end Lebanon’s long history of political assassinations.

“To support the international tribunal, for us, is to support justice,” said Fares Souaid, the secretary general for March 14.

But the March 8 movement, the opposition that includes Hezbollah, does not support the court. They say the tribunal is a political tool designed to discredit Hezbollah, an increasingly powerful political party and Lebanon’s most powerful military force.

“What’s important for us is justice and truth,” said Alain Aoun, a lawmaker from the Free Patriotic Movement, a powerful, mostly-Christian party, which is part of the March 8 alliance. “Someone is manipulating the investigation for other political goals.”

Those goals, he said, include validating the U.S. and Israel position that Hezbollah, which was formed as a Shiite resistance militia against the Israeli occupation of the 1980s, is a terrorist organization.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to “cut the hand” of anyone who tries to arrest its members in response to the indictments and repeatedly called on the Lebanese people to reject the tribunal.

Nasrallah spoke publicly Sunday night for the first time since the walkout, which forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, to step down. In his highly-anticipated speech, Nasrallah said any new government that is formed would have to withdraw its support for the tribunal.

Nasrallah also accused the court of trying to instigate sectarian violence in Lebanon. He said Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare has been prepared to hand over indictments to the judges for months, but will do it this week, when the country is vulnerable and without a functioning government.

“We refuse the indictment and believe that we are targeted by it,” he said during his speech, which was aired on Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s television station.

Volatility in Lebanon has also worried regional leaders. Leaders from Qatar, Syria and Turkey are expected to meet in Damascus on Monday while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the peace process would have to include strong security measures considering the current instability in Lebanon.

"The region in which we live is an unstable region, everybody can see that today. We see it in several places in the broader Middle East," said Netanyahu, according Agence France Presse.

For March 14, the fear is that if the coalition asserts its political strength to get Hariri back in office, they could be beaten easily in the streets by Hezbollah’s army. In 2008, Hezbollah took over West Beirut in a matter of days.

“In this part of the world political instability is the first step towards security instability,” Souaid said. “We are afraid that Hezbollah [will] use arms again.”

Butros Harb, the minister of labor under Saad Hariri said it would not be in Hezbollah’s interest to take the fight onto the streets.

“I hope things will go democratically,” he said. “And the struggle will be limited strictly through democratic means and ways.”

Residents of Beirut said sectarian tensions were high and worried about what might happen as the political crisis drags on.

Abbas Khaleefe, who works at a cable television shop in a mostly Shiite neighborhood of Beirut, said he fears the day the indictments are made public.

“Then they are going to shoot at this side,” he said. “And then this side is going to shoot at the other side.”