Hezbollah-backed leader may bring a new era in Lebanon

Hezbollah’s success served as a stark measure of the shifting constellation of power in this part of West Asia, where the influence of America and its Arab allies is seen by politicians and diplomats as receding, while Iran and Syria have become more assertive.
American diplomats tried to forestall the triumph of Hezbollah’s candidate, Najib Mikati. In the end, Mikati won the decisive vote from a politician who said he had to deal “with the reality on the ground.”

The government that Mikati, a billionaire and former prime minister, forms may in the end look much like past cabinets in this small Mediterranean country. Indeed, Mikati struck a conciliatory tone, calling himself a consensus candidate.

But the symbolism of Hezbollah’s choosing Lebanon’s prime minister was vast, potentially serving as the beginning of a new era for a combustible country whose conflicts have long entangled the United States, Iran and Syria. A practical impact may be the realignment of Lebanon away from the US, which treated the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri as an ally. “The country is moving from one stage to another, from one approach to another,” declared Michel Aoun, a Christian leader and key ally of Hezbollah.

By nightfall, angry opponents of Hezbollah took to the streets in parts of Beirut, Tripoli and other cities, burning tires, shouting slogans and offering at least an image of what many feared Hezbollah’s victory might unleash: strife among communities in a country almost evenly divided over questions of foreign patrons; posture toward Israel; and the relative power of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims, represented by Hezbollah, and its Sunni foes.

Disapproval
Acrid smoke billowed into a nighttime sky, as barricades temporarily blocked some roads into Beirut before security forces dispersed the demonstrators. Hezbollah’s foes called for ‘a day of anger in all of Lebanon’ on Tuesday, and martial language and cries of treason began punctuating the public discourse.

“Down with Hezbollah! Down with Mikati!” young men shouted in Beirut. Like so many crises in Lebanon, this one is maddeningly complex. It revolves around a United Nations-backed tribunal set up in 2007 to investigate the assassination of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who was killed with 22 others in a spectacular bombing along Beirut’s seafront in February 2005.

Hezbollah has denied any role in the killing, but by its own admission, its members were named in indictments handed to a judge last week, though not yet made public. It demanded that the government of Hariri’s son, Saad, end its cooperation with the court. When he refused, Hezbollah and its allies withdrew, forcing the government’s collapse after a 14-month tenure that brought some calm here.

The country is almost evenly split in its attitudes toward the court. Hezbollah’s supporters believe it is hopelessly compromised, amounting to little more than an American-Israeli tool to bludgeon the movement. Hariri’s supporters believe the vehemence of Hezbollah’s reaction only underlines its guilt in the assassination.
To form a new government, one that would denounce the tribunal’s indictments and end Lebanon’s cooperation, Hezbollah needed at least 65 of the 128 parliament members. Diplomats and politicians say they now have that number.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah has pledged to respect the institutions of the state and work towards what he called ‘a partnership government’.But Hariri, who effectively leads the Sunni Muslim community, has insisted he will not join the new government, meaning that a cabinet supposed to be built on consensus will lack representation of one of the country’s main communities.

Though Hariri and Mikati are both Sunnis — by tradition, the sect that occupies the prime minister position — Hariri has far more support among Sunnis.

In a tense city, everyone seemed to have an opinion on what the new government represented. With Mikati’s elevation, the Shiite community that Hezbollah represents has formalised a reality that has been clear since 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies seized parts of Beirut. The movement and, by default, its Shiite constituency are the pre-eminent players in a country still beholden to rules laid down by its Christian and Sunni Muslim representatives.

The new equation was best illustrated by Walid Jumblatt, a mercurial politician who went from being an ally of Hezbollah to one of its most outspoken foes to ally again. ‘No victor, no vanquished’, goes the formula Lebanon has long touted as the key to stability in a country inclined to crisis. On Monday, Jumblatt dismissed its validity. “In Lebanon, there is always a loser,” he said before voting for Mikati.

US intervention
The Obama administration was expected to urge the new government not to work against the tribunal, which Hezbollah contends is being used as an American tool to put pressure on it, along with its allies, Iran and Syria. The US has said the tribunal itself could serve as a way to end a long tradition of having assassination serve as just another weapon in crises here.

“Our expectation is that any new government would continue to live up to its international obligations to support the activities of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” a senior US diplomat said.

Israel, with which Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in 2006, has warned of the implications of the new cabinet. In a radio interview, Israel’s deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom, described it as effectively “an Iranian government on Israel’s northern border.”
Mikati’s elevation represents another turn in the long odyssey of Hezbollah, which was forged with Iranian support in the destruction of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
It has evolved from the clandestine group blamed for two attacks on the American Embassy and the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks here that killed 240, into an expansive movement with an armed militia more powerful than the Lebanese army and a sprawling infrastructure that delivers welfare services to its Shiite constituency.
Over those decades, its political role has grown as well, particularly when it felt vulnerable and felt it needed safeguards in Beirut.

The risks from Mikati’s selection, though, are numerous: from deepening sectarian strife that could tarnish Hezbollah’s formidable reputation in the predominantly Sunni Arab world to the growth of Sunni militancy in resentful locales like Tripoli and the region beyond it.

“Forming a government is not something Hezbollah has been enthusiastic about because they know it exposes them to very serious risks,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “Their preferred mode of operation is in the background.”

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