- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Lebanon’s current political upheaval resembles a mirror image of the strife that overwhelmed the country from 2006 to 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies embarked on a two-year effort to topple the government. But this time, the tables have turned: It’s Hezbollah that has mustered the votes to form a government, which will reportedly be headed by former Prime Minister Najib Miqati. Meanwhile, Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his allies are on the outside looking in, left to express their displeasure through street protests and acts of violence.
Lebanon’s political ground rules hold that the president must hail from the Maronite Christian community, the prime minister must be a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament must be a Shiite. A parliamentary majority, therefore, is theoretically able to elevate political figures that have little support within their own community.
But the recent reversal of fortunes has shown that the reality on the ground is somewhat different, and that the only real law in Lebanon is sectarian solidarity. Back in 2008, Hezbollah was appalled and outraged that the ruling coalition would consider replacing its resigned ministers with Shiite figures that had little support in their own community – now they’re preparing to bring to power a Sunni prime minister that can count on only token Sunni support. Meanwhile, Hariri, who had defended the democratic legitimacy of the government when he had a solid parliamentary majority, now denounces the election of a new opposition-friendly government as "virtually a coup d’état."
All signs currently point toward chaos: The new Miqati government, once it is established, will vote to discontinue government support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is expected to implicate Hezbollah members in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. But as Elias Muhanna pointed out in FP last week, it’s hard to see what the opposition gains from this maneuver. As the recent protests have shown, Miqati doesn’t have the credibility to convince his community that the tribunal’s indictments are flawed. And after he moves to disrupt the investigation of a murdered Sunni leader, his already meager support among his own community will likely fall further.
Hariri and his allies may be tempted take some solace in this dynamic. They will point to this fact as evidence that Hezbollah still needs them, and will therefore be forced to compromise. The situation, however, is not nearly so sanguine: Lebanese politics has a tendency to return to equilibrium only after no small degree of bloodshed and lost economic opportunity. Once again, it is the Lebanese people who will bear the cost of their fundamentally tribal and dishonest political system.