As Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Barack Obama were smiling in front of the cameras at the White House, back in Beirut the fragile Lebanese unity government collapsed yesterday with the dramatic resignation of all the opposition ministers. The decision, on the part of Hezbollah and its Christian allies, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Michel Aoun, was timed to leave Hariri out in the cold in Washington.
After a similar scenario in 2006, which had opposition ministers back out of the government and their supporters camp out in downtown Beirut, the Lebanese are dragged into the unknown once again. Not that they aren’t philosophical about it. The government has been paralysed for months, so whether they have ministers or not does not make a big difference. Constitutionally the fallen government has a caretaker responsibility until a new cabinet is formed.
The crisis erupted last Tuesday as negotiations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, the two regional powers each backing Hezbollah and Hariri’s pro-western camp respectively, failed to reach an agreement over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Hariri, who will stay on as caretaker prime minister, wants to see the Tribunal investigating his father’s murder go through, while Hezbollah and the FPM are actively trying to derail the investigation, which they see as politically motivated and an Israeli ploy. It is widely believed that members of Hezbollah will be indicted by the Tribunal. In this context, Saudi Arabia and Syria were hoping to negotiate an honorable way out for everyone amidst threats from Hezbollah.
“What has transpired in the last couple of days is that there is no ‘deal’ cooked by the French, Saudis and Syrians that will be imposed on Hariri, forcing him to ‘kill’ the Special Tribunal,” explains Nadim Shehadi, an Associate Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. It’s a scenario the opposition had hoped for.
The abrupt ministerial resignations (interestingly, made from Michel Aoun’s headquarters rather than Hezbollah’s) at a time when unions are calling for national strikes over inflation may just be another attempt on the part of the opposition to try to force Hariri to relent on the Tribunal. “I don’t foresee a civil war. This is just blackmail to make the deal happen,” believes Shehadi. “Blockage is a well-trodden route for the opposition,” adds Andrew Arsan, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
While the pro-western camp waited for Hariri to touch down in Beirut, the bets have begun on how long the power vacuum might last. “In my view we’re looking at stasis and war of attrition, rather than a blitzkrieg,” says Arsan. Shehadi also believes it will take a few months before a new cabinet is formed. “Last time it took us over five months to form a government. The Belgians took six months, I think this time we will beat them.” Fingers crossed, the Lebanese will be patient and resolved until the next deal.