Lebanon bracing for perfect storm of crises

People cheer during a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a rally in Beirut during which Nasrallah expressed support for uprisings in the Arab world. (AA photo)

Trouble-stricken Lebanon appears to be immune to a “perfect storm” of crises as its region witnesses political turmoil growing day by day.

A political vacuum that has hindered the formation of a new government for months, a long-delayed indictment from an international court investigating a high-profile assassination, ongoing weekly protests demanding a secular system instead of the sectarian-dominated confessional one and the lingering threat of a new flare-up on the streets amid increasingly harsh rhetoric from rival politicians – any of these issues would be more then enough to paralyze any country, but Lebanon seems to take it all in stride.

Life in the tiny but deeply divided country’s capital is still hectic with cafes, pubs and restaurants nearly full at any time, never-ending construction, deconstruction and reconstruction financed by money from the Gulf countries. Locals and foreigners alike rush from one part of the little city to another.

However, it is just the silence before the storm, and the storm will come from many sides, warned Hanin Ghaddar, the managing editor of Internet-based news portal NOW Lebanon. “Lebanon is heading to a sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunnis. Not a Muslim-Christian conflict like during the Civil War, because Christians are divided now, but the country is a ticking bomb,” Hanin told Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.

The government, led by Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri, the son of assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, collapsed in January after the resignations of ministers from the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance over a long-standing dispute on a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. The Shiite militant group and its allies urged Saad al-Hariri to end cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or STL, which is expected to indict some members of Hezbollah. The powerful group has repeatedly denied any involvement in the Hariri murder and denounced the tribunal as an Israeli-American tool.

After the collapse, Najib Mikati, the Hezbollah-backed Sunni telecom tycoon, assumed the tough task of forming a new government in Lebanon while al-Hariri and his pro-Western March 14 alliance declared that they would not take part in the new government and instead stay in opposition ranks.

Untraditional situation

The March 8 alliance toppled the government under the impression that the STL indictment would come out soon, said Ghaddar, adding that Hezbollah and its allies did not expect that the March 14 alliance would decide not to participate in the government. “Now, we know that the indictment will not be released soon and the March 8 alliance prefers to keep the political vacuum instead of having a one-sided government that will not be credible in the eyes of the international community,” she told the Daily News.

According to sources close to the March 8 alliance, the prime minister-designated Mitaki is set to announce his government “within days.” Marlin Dick, an editor at the Beirut-based Daily Star, said once the government is formed, Lebanon would have what it traditionally lacks: a government on the one hand and a real opposition on the other.

National unity governments with the participation of almost every group in Lebanon were cohesive, he said. “Both the March 8 and the March 14 [alliances] have problems even within their alliances. The coalitions are not very strong.”

Regional support

Timur Göksel, a veteran Turkish diplomat and former spokesman of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, told the Daily News that the prime minister-designate had already secured regional support, including from Saudi Arabia, which is traditionally seen as a main backer of the al-Hariri family, even before accepting the task of forming a government. “He [Mitaki] is not in a rush. He has both Damascus’ and Riyadh’s support. If he did not, he would not accept the task in the first place,” he said.

Hazem Saghieh, an author and a columnist for the al-Hayat newspaper, is more skeptical about the new government in Lebanon. “Even if Mikati forms a new government, it will be a fragile government burdened by its own contradictions,” he told the Daily News.

The credibility of the STL has been raising eyebrows in Lebanon amid the allegations of false testimonies, fake evidence and misleading justice. However, Ghaddar still believes the U.N.-backed tribunal is the only choice for Lebanon, while she also admits it is not perfect. 

“The creation of the STL was a political decision but the legal procedure is not political and it is too early to judge the STL. But it deserves a chance, and then its credibility can be questioned,” she said.

Göksel said the tribunal is somehow under political pressure for at least the timing of the indictment release. “Maybe there is no political pressure on the decision mechanism, but the release of the indictment has been postponed several times after political pressure on the timing,” Göksel said.

While Ghaddar totally rules out handing over the Hariri investigation to the Lebanese judiciary, Dick said the March 8 alliance might try to open a local probe in order to dispute the findings of the STL.

“The March 8 [alliance] has political and legal arguments and it has different ways to confront the STL. But if Lebanon somehow stops cooperation with the tribunal, then the March 14 [alliance] will not accept this and Lebanon could see a flare-up on the streets,” he said.

Göksel agreed with him and said renewed violence is likely as the rhetoric of al-Hariri has been growing harsher day by day. “The tensions have been growing lately. Al-Hariri has launched a fierce verbal attack on Hezbollah but the group decided to keep silent. Because Hezbollah members see al-Hariri’s attacks as a plot that aims to put them against the international community.”

Cihan Celik, HDN