No Victors in Lebanon

As the Lebanese government unravels, it's hard to see how anyone comes out on top.


Lebanon’s dysfunctional political system has once again been set back to square one. Months of speculation, rumors, and unconfirmed press reports about a negotiated settlement to the latest crisis came to an abrupt end Jan. 12, when Hezbollah and its allies resigned from Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government, precipitating its collapse. This step sets the stage for a confrontation over the makeup of the next government. And in this showdown, all sides stand to come out losers.

Political divisions over the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is charged with prosecuting those responsible for the 2005 assassination of Saad’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, are the cause of the crisis. A number of explosive leaks to the media have signaled that the tribunal plans to indict members of Hezbollah for the crime. Hezbollah and its allies, in a bid to contain the domestic fallout from this revelation, have demanded that Hariri cut Lebanon’s funding for the tribunal and disavow any indictment issued by the court. Because Hariri refused to give in to their demands, Hezbollah and its allies have now upped the ante by toppling his government.

The opposition’s walkout had an air of inevitability about it, but also one of desperation. Hezbollah now faces the difficult task of bringing to power a new Sunni prime minister — under Lebanon’s political system, the premier must be a Sunni — who would heed its call to end Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL. But even if the Shiite militant group musters the majority in parliament to do so, it’s unclear what the practical effect of its victory would be. The STL indictments will emerge regardless of who sits in the premier’s chair in Beirut, and funding will come from other states even if Lebanon declares that it will no longer contribute financial support to the court.

As has long been recognized, Hariri’s value to Hezbollah was never his ability to disrupt the progress of the investigation of his father’s murder. Hezbollah’s goal was for Hariri to join the party in denouncing the court as a politicized organ whose legitimacy had long been compromised by "false witnesses" bent on misleading the court, or even a vast Zionist-American conspiracy targeting the Lebanese resistance against Israel. The chances of Hariri acceding to Hezbollah’s demands on this score have grown far slimmer now that the party has brought down his government. He has nothing to gain by giving in now.

The opposition’s resignation therefore appears to be an uncharacteristically shortsighted gesture on the part of Hezbollah, which has generally played its cards with great savvy. All Hezbollah has ensured, in effect, is that when the STL indictments do emerge, there will be no Lebanese government in place to denounce them, nor a prime minister with the surname of Hariri to cast doubt on their validity.

Hezbollah partisans will argue that Hariri was never going to denounce the STL, leaving the opposition with no choice but to walk out. Whether this is true is difficult to gauge, but it should be noted that Hariri had already displayed a willingness to publicly exonerate Hezbollah’s leadership from any guilt and help circulate the narrative that the indicted persons were "rogue elements" acting on their own behalf. Today, his ability to make any conciliatory gestures has been compromised by the new zero-sum logic of the opposition’s resignation.

As it stands, Hezbollah is threatening to play hardball. Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad has said that the party plans to form a government under the stewardship of a friendly, "pro-resistance" prime minister. Although such a government could be formed relatively quickly, it would also represent a new strain on Lebanon’s delicate sectarian fabric. By excluding Hariri, who commands the loyalty of much of the Sunni community, the government would almost certainly be viewed as unrepresentative of Lebanon’s main confessional communities — an argument that Hezbollah has used to delegitimize past governments — as well as a pariah by most of the international community.

Even if this is Hezbollah’s real goal, the Party of God will be hard-pressed to overturn the political architecture in Beirut. To elect a friendly premier, Hezbollah will need the help of Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt’s bloc of 11 MPs. However, it is unlikely that Jumblatt — a former staunch ally of Hariri’s who has since forged his own path as an intermediary between Lebanon’s two main political camps — would participate in such a move. Hoping to maintain his renewed relations with Damascus but not burn bridges with Hariri, Jumblatt will likely wait to see how the two blocs position themselves over the next several days before involving himself in mediations.

Meanwhile, Hariri faces the possibility that he will not return as premier, or that he will be forced to make deep concessions to the current opposition in order to be reappointed. If he calls Hezbollah’s bluff and maintains his stance on the inviolability of the STL, he will be taking a gamble on the future of his own political career, at least in the near term.

Therefore, the most likely scenario in the near future is a prolonged stalemate. The last time Lebanon set out to form a government, following the 2009 parliamentary elections, the process took several months — and that was under far more harmonious circumstances. With the STL likely to release its indictments in the coming days and with the collapse of whatever Syrian-Saudi understanding over Lebanon may have existed, there is very little hope that the current crisis will find a quick remedy.

The most important factor affecting the next stage of Lebanon’s political crisis is the content of the STL’s indictments. If they contain strong evidence implicating Hezbollah officials that cannot be disputed by allegations of false testimony or Israeli meddling, Hariri will find it difficult to exonerate Hezbollah’s leadership in the way that he has offered to do in the past. But if the indictments present a weaker case, relying on highly technical and circumstantial evidence, they will find themselves vulnerable in the court of Lebanese public opinion to Hezbollah’s own counternarrative, which could compel Hariri to do the party’s bidding.

Nearly six years after the Hariri assassination inaugurated Lebanon’s tumultuous experiment with self-rule, that event continues to cast its shadow over the political arena. In this latest round of political gamesmanship, the country’s rival political parties may find that there is no winning — just different degrees of losing.

Elias Muhanna is a P.h.D candidate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Harvard University. He writes the Qifa Nabki blog on Lebanese affairs.