Lebanon is on a knife edge
While all eyes have been on Egypt the past three weeks, across in the Arab world another country is going through massive transformations that have a major impact on Western support and influence in the region.
Lebanon is due to form its Hezbollah-backed government in the coming days. The group is officially listed by the United States, Israel and many other European countries as a terrorist group and the formation of such a government has been interpreted by these Western countries as a rise in Iranian influence, effectively hijacking the US-backed government and its influence in the region.
It is this naïve interpretation of events that could serve as a catalyst in sparking violent conflict within the region.
On January 12 the one-year-old unity government of Lebanon collapsed. The next day Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, throwing the country into political disarray. The collapse was triggered by the resignation of the opposition, including the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement.
Hezbollah left government to protest a United Nations court investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (Father of Saad), also known as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
This investigation was triumphed by Saad Hariri as Prime Minister, with the Lebanese government funding nearly half the costs of the investigation. It was Saad’s participation in this tribunal that ultimately lead to Hezbollah resigning from the unity government.
It is believed that this was done be because the investigation would most likely highlight Hezbollah involvement in the assassination and jeopardise the group’s impunity within Lebanon.
Hezbollah is probably the most powerful militia in Lebanon and has the support of much of the Lebanese population…as long as its guns are aimed at defending threats against their nation.
If Hezbollah were to be implicated in the murder of a Lebanese Prime Minister, the group would lose populist support and could be violently forced into hiding. So by withdrawing support and participation in the government the group has effectively put the investigation to a halt.
The shift from a US-backed Prime Minister to a Hezbollah backed one, Najeeb Mikati, is much more complicated than the West has interpreted it.
Israel, justifiably paranoid about the shift, fear a rise in tensions on its Northern border if Hezbollah were to have control of the Lebanese government. Although it is unlikely there would be a similar conflict to the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah is most certainly armed and may pose a threat to Israel.
Importantly, Mikati is not a member of Hezbollah, nor is he backed by Iran. The multi-millionaire has more business ties with Syria than any other nation.
Mikati is keen to distance himself, not only from Hezbollah but also from the previous Hariri government, but in doing so he has almost certainly set himself up for failure in the top job. Each side still holds considerable influence in Lebanese politics and both groups demand to have their allies in a Mikati government to be formed from non-Hariri and non-Hezbollah groups.
If Mikati does what Hezbollah wants and refutes any findings made by the United Nations tribunal, the West, Israel and many of his own countrymen will see him as nothing more than a puppet for the group.
If he doesn’t comply with Hezbollah’s demands, he will surely lose their support and another collapse of government is assured, throwing the country into a stalemate which could ultimately result in violence.
The toppled former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has come out this week saying his party will strongly oppose any cabinet formed by Mikati. This move will insure instability in any government formed, IF Mikati is even able to form one.
Lebanon once again faces the uncertainty it did after the 2009 elections when Hariri formed his unity government. With uprising and revolution throughout the Arab world, the Lebanese people will not stand for a ‘headless’ country for much longer until they begin to voice themselves louder than their politicians.
The result of this transition is still up in the air, the possibility of reigniting civil and cross border conflict remains high and tensions are set to rise if neither side will back down from its position.
The possible conflict also has international implications and could contribute to a further rise of tensions between the US, Israel and Iran. While all-out war is almost definitely off the cards, violence and death is not.
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