Lebanon enters a Tunnel, the End of which can’t be Seen

Jerusalem Post-18/01/2011

The political crisis in Lebanon precipitated by the resignation last week of ministers affiliated with the Hizbullah- led March 8 bloc is now entering its second stage. The countdown has already begun toward the issuing of indictments for the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The indictments are expected to implicate Hizbullah members, including senior movement figures, in the killing.

Hassan Nasrallah, as indicated by his speech earlier this week, is desperately trying to build a Lebanese political fence around his movement, to protect it as much as possible from the impact of its members being indicted for the murder of a popular, mainstream Sunni politician. The March 14 movement of current Prime Minister Saad Hariri is seeking to frustrate this effort by Hizbullah.

At present, the focus of the action is on internal Lebanese political procedure. Hariri has been invited by President Michel Suleiman to stay on as a “caretaker” prime minister. Parliamentary consultations are set to begin to determine the make-up of the next Lebanese government. The result of these consultations is far from certain.

The Hizbullah-led March 8 bloc has made clear that it will be putting forward an alternative candidate for the prime ministership.

Omar Karami, the candidate of this bloc, is a former prime minister, the scion of a prominent Sunni political family in Lebanon, and is closely aligned with the Syrians. Hariri, meanwhile, is at the moment standing firm and looks set to contest the issue.

The March 8 and March 14 (pro-Hariri) blocs are roughly evenly matched in the 128- member Lebanese parliament.

At the moment, therefore, all eyes are on Druse strongman Walid Jumblatt, who controls 11 seats, and who has not yet clearly indicated which side he will support.

The indications are that he will favor Hariri’s leading a renewed “unity” government, although it is not clear if circumstances will make possible the formation of such a government.

If the current consultations fail to produce a quick result, with Hariri continuing as “caretaker” prime minister, then the prospect will open up for increased pressure on the government from Hizbullah. It is at this point that civil unrest, demonstrations and possibly sectarian violence will become a possibility, as Hizbullah seeks to raise the stakes and force Hariri to distance himself from the tribunal.

If, on the other hand, the new government is formed by March 8, this will represent an entirely new situation – namely, the rise to political power of the pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian bloc in Lebanon.

This, however, is widely considered to be a less-likely outcome.

Hizbullah and its backers have little to gain from an open seizure of power. As this issue is decided, international efforts of various kinds are frantically taking place to avoid renewed internecine conflict in Lebanon. Turkey and Qatar are among the regional states involved in these efforts. Saudi-Syrian contacts have not ended, and it is possible that they will yet produce some type of compromise formula.

With all the current maneuvering, two points need to be borne in mind.

First of all, this process is about Hizbullah’s legitimacy, not its physical power. What is at stake is the movement’s attempt to present itself as a patriotic, Arab movement engaged centrally in fighting Israel.

Should it be tainted with the murder of Hariri, the movement will instead come to be seen by millions across the Arab world as an alien, Shia force supported by non-Arab powers and engaging in activities that place it far outside the Arab political consensus.

Hizbullah dreads this outcome, and the possibility of it underlies its present obvious discomfort.

At the same time, what is not at stake is Hizbullah’s real-life dominance of Lebanon.

Whatever the outcome of the present crisis, the undeniable reality that the Iranian-sponsored Shia Islamist movement is the strongest force in the country will remain.

Hizbullah thus finds itself in the unfamiliar position of being without peer in terms of its physical strength, and yet unable to translate this reality at the present time into a situation to its liking politically.

The result is that the irresistible force of Saad Hariri’s (current) refusal to abandon the Tribunal tasked with finding his father’s killers is currently set against the immovable object of Hizbullah’s physical domination of the means of force in Lebanon.

What will be the outcome? As speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri put it in an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, Lebanon is currently entering “a tunnel whose beginning we know but whose end we don’t see.”

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