Talk about timing. At about the same time that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was meeting President Obama in Washington on Wednesday morning, trouble was brewing back home: Hizbullah and its allies withdrew 11 ministers from the cabinet, effectively causing Lebanon’s government to collapse. As political hardball goes, this is a pretty difficult move to top.
The core of the dispute is about the United Nations tribunal that’s been set up to investigate the death of Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri. In recent months, leaks from the tribunal have indicated that senior Hizbullah members may be indicted in the case. As a result, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has dismissed the tribunal as an “Israeli project” and refused to allow any of the group’s members to cooperate with its investigations. In a recent NEWSWEEK interview, Hizbullah’s deputy chief, Sheik Naim Qassem, took it a step further. “[The tribunal’s] aim is to get rid of Hizbullah,” he said.
So it’s no surprise that Hizbullah has been putting pressure on Hariri to dismiss the tribunal and its findings before they’re made public. The government ministers allied with Hizbullah had already warned they would crash the government if Hariri didn’t hold a cabinet meeting to discuss the issue, which he refused to do. Their resignation today was the next logical step in this high-stakes brinksmanship.
For Hariri, the dismissal of the tribunal investigating his father’s death is a step too far. He faces a truly Shakespearean dilemma: push for justice in finding his father’s killers or make concessions to his political opponents for the sake of stability. Hariri addressed the issue in another recent NEWSWEEK interview: “Without justice, you won’t have stability,” he said.
It’s difficult to say where things go from here. At the very least, Lebanon is looking at a lengthy political limbo, a situation many Lebanese are all too familiar with. “The collapse simply formalizes an already existing situation,” says Hilal Khashan, a political-science professor at the American University of Beirut. “The cabinet has been in a state of paralysis for months.” If Hizbullah and its allies can rally a majority in Parliament—a big if—they could, theoretically, name a new prime minister.
But in Lebanon’s confessional political system, the prime minister has to be a Sunni. And there’s little chance that any Sunni politician would step forward for the job. There’s also little chance of outside mediation, a common feature of Lebanese politics. Today’s mass resignation came after a Syrian and Saudi initiative to negotiate between Hariri and Hizbullah fell through.
So it all comes back to the same issue: the tribunal. As long as the tribunal isn’t dealt with, the impasse will continue. Guessing the timing of the indictments has been a regular coffeehouse pastime in Lebanon for the past year. But many analysts seem to think the current confrontation is a sign that the tribunal’s indictments are imminent. If the tribunal does point fingers at senior members of Hizbullah, as expected, there is a good chance that clashes will break out between the primarily Shiite supporters of Hizbullah and the primarily Sunni supporters of Hariri. Nasrallah has already warned that the group would “cut off the hand” of anyone who tries to arrest a member of Hizbullah. That kind of rhetoric doesn’t leave much room for negotiation.
Hariri has reportedly cut short his Washington trip and is headed back to Lebanon. The country he’s coming back to is in a darker place than when he left.