Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati just tendered his resignation, leaving a political vacuum in Beirut. It couldn’t come at a more tense moment, as the sectarian bloodshed in Syria risks spilling over into Lebanon.
The last time a Lebanese government collapsed, it was Jan. 12, 2011, and the Arab Spring promptly broke out — Tunisia would kick out Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in two days, and Egypt was mere weeks from the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak. This time, the government has collapsed among a period of regional and domestic stagnation: The Syrian uprising is grinding on, and the political forces in Beirut found themselves unable to agree on the most basic issues of governance.
Most importantly, the Lebanese Cabinet could not agree to extend the term of Internal Security Forces chief Ashraf Rifi. The police chief is a staunch ally of the March 14 alliance, which is opposed to the Syrian regime — the other major March 14 supporter in the security services, Wissam al-Hassan, was killed by a car bomb in October. Rifi’s exit, then, would leave the March 14 forces defenseless and give President Bashar al-Assad’s allies in Beirut a chance to install a loyalist. For his own political survival, Miqati couldn’t let that happen on his watch.
Security in Lebanon had also begun to fray in recent days. Assad’s warplanes on March 18 bombed the border town of Arsal, which is seen as a hub for the flow of fighters and weapons into Syria. The northern city of Tripoli also erupted in violence on March 21, resulting in the deaths of five people, as the interior minister warned that events there were beyond the state’s ability to control.
Whether anything actually changes in Lebanon because of the government’s collapse, however, remains up in the air. Miqati could limp along as the caretaker prime minister for months as the political forces debate the formation of the next government, or he could be re-nominated as the prime minister, at the head of a unity government. Alternatively, the anti-Assad political coalition could reassert itself and form a government with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri at its head – a move that would put it on a collision course with Hezbollah and its allies.
The swing vote in this process will be Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt. When I profiled him last year, I asked whether anything could convince him to bring the government down: "No, nothing," he said. "I’m staying in the government. So far we have managed with Hezbollah to regulate our differences about Syria peacefully."
What happens in Beirut over the next few weeks will determine whether that still holds true.