The other shoe drops in Lebanon

While a far more riveting drama has been playing out on the streets of Tunis over the past few days, Beirut has been buffeted by a whirlwind of events as well. The prosecutor for the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) delivered long-anticipated indictments to the pre-trial judge today dealing another glancing blow to Lebanon’s ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

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While a far more riveting drama has been playing out on the streets of Tunis over the past few days, Beirut has been buffeted by a whirlwind of events as well. The prosecutor for the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) delivered long-anticipated indictments to the pre-trial judge today dealing another glancing blow to Lebanon's stability on the heels of last week's government collapse. The indictments follow Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's Sunday evening speech where he laid the battle lines for the coming weeks, rejecting the re-nomination of Saad Hariri as Prime Minister, vowing to defend the Shiite movement against the indictments, and calling for a "Lebanese solution" to the crisis, devoid of international interference.

Adding to the frenzy, the Lebanese TV station Al-Jadid broadcast an audiotape of a 2005 meeting in which Saad Hariri, a UN investigator, and a Lebanese security official met with one of the so-called "false witnesses" in the UN investigation. While by no means a "smoking gun" proving that the UN investigation and subsequent tribunal have been manipulated, the taped discussion will cast further doubt on the tribunal's credibility at a key turning point in the UN process.

While a far more riveting drama has been playing out on the streets of Tunis over the past few days, Beirut has been buffeted by a whirlwind of events as well. The prosecutor for the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) delivered long-anticipated indictments to the pre-trial judge today dealing another glancing blow to Lebanon’s stability on the heels of last week’s government collapse. The indictments follow Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s Sunday evening speech where he laid the battle lines for the coming weeks, rejecting the re-nomination of Saad Hariri as Prime Minister, vowing to defend the Shiite movement against the indictments, and calling for a "Lebanese solution" to the crisis, devoid of international interference.

Adding to the frenzy, the Lebanese TV station Al-Jadid broadcast an audiotape of a 2005 meeting in which Saad Hariri, a UN investigator, and a Lebanese security official met with one of the so-called "false witnesses" in the UN investigation. While by no means a "smoking gun" proving that the UN investigation and subsequent tribunal have been manipulated, the taped discussion will cast further doubt on the tribunal’s credibility at a key turning point in the UN process.

The contents of the indictments are sealed, but it is widely speculated that Hezbollah members are implicated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, further deepening sectarian tensions and potentially triggering civil strife in Lebanon. Nasrallah has vowed to "cut the hands" of anyone who tries to arrest his members, warning repeatedly that after the indictments will be "too late" to strike a deal to avoid plunging Lebanon deeper into turmoil. 

If Nasrallah is to be taken at his word, Lebanon could quickly slide into the tumult of street protests, demonstrations and possibly sectarian clashes. With its hardball tactics, Hezbollah already has resorted to political blackmail, bringing the government down when its demands that Prime Minister Hariri denounce the tribunal and cease all cooperation went unmet.

Yet Hezbollah’s ascendancy in Lebanon possesses a distinct double-edged quality. To follow through on its promise to take Lebanon to the brink would invite precisely the damage to its reputation — not only in Lebanon but throughout the Sunni Arab world — that it seeks to avoid from the STL indictments. At the same time, to stand down and allow its threats to wither unfulfilled would doubly undermine Hezbollah’s authority: the indictments would lay bare an image of a sectarian militia and Nasrallah’s empty threats would create an aura of weakness.

Instead, Nasrallah’s speech forecasts a different plan of attack. Unlike the violent rhetoric of his May 7, 2008 speech which led to Hezbollah’s overrunning West Beirut, there was no mention of "cutting hands" or declaring war. Instead, Nasrallah’s repeated use of the terms "democratic," "constitutional," and "legal" suggests a new strategy that eschews street battles for political confrontations — at least for now. Rather than resorting to force, Hezbollah seems poised to play politics, perhaps calculating that their political influence in parliament now trumps that of their rivals.

Nasrallah gave a preview of the themes that he and his March 8th allies will likely use in their political campaign. Beyond the continued accusations of the STL being an "Israeli-American plot," they will harp incessantly on regional and Western pressure against the opposition as an infringement of Lebanese sovereignty. Turning the tables on the issue of foreign interference, Nasrallah noted the American ambassador’s recent meeting in Zahle with a Lebanese MP, reportedly seeking to dissuade him from joining the opposition in the battle over the prime minister nomination. He raised the example after questioning whether forthcoming parliamentary consultations will truly reflect the will of parliamentarians and Lebanon’s "national interest" in the face of foreign pressure. 

The Byzantine back-room trading that typifies the Lebanese political arena has already begun, with the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt emerging as a potential kingmaker. Ever the wily politician, Jumblatt has positioned himself squarely between Hariri’s March 14th coalition and the Hezbollah-allied March 8th camp, consulting with Hariri before meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the weekend. In a sign of continued deadlock, President Michel Suleiman postponed parliamentary consultations to nominate a new prime minister for one week. The March 8th coalition will likely nominate former Prime Minister Omar Karami, while March 14th insists that Prime Minister Saad Hariri is re-nominated. The balance of power between the two contending coalitions remains unclear, with Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc — assuming it remains intact — well-placed to tilt the majority either way. While Nasrallah underscored his party’s staunch opposition to Hariri’s re-nomination, he appeared to leave the door open to that possibility at the end of his speech, an indication that negotiations might yet return Hariri to the Serail.

Once a prime minister is nominated, cobbling together a new government could take weeks if not months. Government formation in Lebanon with its confessional complexities is a torturous process under the best of circumstances. In the current atmosphere, given the STL’s existential stakes for Hezbollah and the Sunni community, the road to a new cabinet will be difficult indeed.  And of course, the longer the process takes, the greater the possibility that heightened sectarian tensions will erupt into violence — potentially leaving Hezbollah’s "democratic confrontation" strategy with a relatively short shelf life.

Mona Yacoubian is director of the Lebanon Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Mona Yacoubian served as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau at USAID from 2014 to 2017.

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