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Protests Mark Appointment of New PM in Lebanon

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Jan 25 2011 (IPS) - The appointment of Hezbollah-backed March 8 movement candidate Najib Mikati as Lebanon’s new prime minister set off violence in Tripoli and Beirut Tuesday, with mobs attacking journalists and setting fires.

“We have entered a new phase, one of a long-term political crisis and governance,” says Talal Atrissi, sociology and political science professor at the Lebanese University.

On Jan. 12, 11 of 30 ministers resigned from the Lebanese “coalition” government. The ministers belonged to the March 8 bloc – a pro-Syrian and Iranian movement spearheaded by the Shiite organisation Hezbollah. The resignation was concomitant with the submission of indictments of the Special Tribunal to Lebanon (STL) – established by the United Nations and the Lebanese Republic to prosecute persons responsible for the 2005 attack that resulted in the death of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and in the death or injury of other persons.

In recent months, pressures have been mounting on Hezbollah, which is allegedly accused of participating, along with Syria, in the assassination of Hariri. Indictments – rumoured to name members of Hezbollah – were submitted by prosecutor Daniel Bellemare to the pre-trial STL judge last week.

Around the world, heads of states scurried to find solutions to the ongoing crisis. Two mediation processes, one under Syrian-Saudi sponsorship and another under Qatar and Turkey’s supervision, were abandoned.

In one corner of the conflict there is Hezbollah, which is accusing the STL of being influenced by the U.S. and Israel. The organisation fears indictment of some of its members would significantly damage its national and regional image and has thus requested that the Lebanese government publicly condemn the STL and cease any collaboration with its proceedings.

In the other corner is March 14 alliance, a coalition of parties and independents led by Saad Hariri, Rafiq Hariri’s son. March 14 is clinging to the tribunal in hopes that justice will prevail regarding the spate of killings targeting its leadership since 2005. Since the killing of Rafiq Hariri, over half a dozen March 14 public figures have been assassinated – namely Christian ministers Bassel Fuleihan, Pierre Gemayel, Gebran Tueni, and Antoine Ghanem, as well as Sunni MP Walid Eido.

Polarised views on the situation make it extremely difficult for March 8 and March 14 to reach a compromise, explains Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

“The situation in Lebanon reflects the regional political equation and power play among nations,” says Khashan.

Through proxies, such as Hezbollah, Syria has slowly regained the upper hand in the Lebanese political game. Hezbollah is also enabling Iran, its main backer, to play a larger political role in the Arab region and gain leverage in its nuclear negotiations with the international community.

In parallel, March 14’s position has been endorsed by the West. The U.S. has reiterated its unconditional support of the tribunal, which, in the words of President Barack Obama, must be “allowed to continue its work, free from interference and coercion.”

Last week, Hezbollah was able to reshuffle the cards when it pressured Druze Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblat to join the ranks of the opposition. Joumblat’s support has allowed Hezbollah to secure a parliamentary majority and nominate billionaire Najib Mikati – a close friend and business associate of the Syrian Assad clan – for the post of prime minister, thereby ousting March 14’s nominee, Saad Hariri, from the position.

“Circumventing a main Sunni leader [Saad Hariri] in a country like Lebanon is a disastrous decision that will certainly reflect negatively on Mikati,” says Michael Young, political analyst and author of ‘The Ghost of Martyr’s Square’. “Mikati will be called upon to take a very controversial and serious decision by cancelling the STL, which will devastate the little legitimacy his government may have.”

In spite of the gravity of the crisis, specialists interviewed by IPS were doubtful of a direct military confrontation between March 14 and March 8 occurring in the streets of Beirut.

“For strife to take place, one needs an opponent,” says Atrissi. “I don’t see anyone taking arms, for now, against Hezbollah.”

The Party of God is considered Lebanon’s most powerful military organisation, its clout exceeding that of the Lebanese army.

The danger resides in the reaction of radical Sunni Islamic elements, who could perceive Hezbollah’s actions as an attack against their community. While terrorist attacks against Shiite areas remain a minute possibility, they will be very limited in time and scope should they occur, predicts a Salafi sheikh from the Bekaa, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Warnings have been voiced by both sides, nonetheless. On Jan. 18, Hezbollah deployed supporters wearing black and equipped with hand-held radios around Beirut in what was perceived as a quiet show of force.

On Jan. 25, after it was clear that Mikati won the votes to become prime minister, tires were set ablaze by pro-March 14 protestors voicing their anger in massive demonstrations around Lebanon. Local TV channel Al-Jadeed reported gun shots in some areas of Beirut. A TV truck owned by Al-Jazeera – a news outlet perceived as biased towards Shiites and Iran – was also vandalised in Tripoli.

“Hezbollah has been drawn into the minefield of Lebanese sectarian politics. Lebanon is not Gaza – Iran’s proxy in Palestine. To control a country like Lebanon, one has to respect certain ground rules,” said Young. “Even Syria [which occupied Lebanon for over 20 years] had come to this realisation by placing figures with a certain amount of legitimacy in major political posts related to the Sunnite and Shiite community.”

Adding to the fears of potential unrest, already there is talk of the economic impact of recent events. Growth may be cut by half this year as a result of the political deadlock, which will lead to an increase of the debt to GDP ratio, according to economist Nassib Ghobril.

“This will, in turn, affect the country’s grade, rated at B by Standard and Poor’s, and eventually the state’s access to debt,” underlines Ghobril.

If one is to look at Lebanon’s past, the current tense situation, dovetailed with street protests and sit-ins, could extend over a significant time period, says Khashan. “In 1969, it took Prime Minister Rachid Karameh nine months to form a government.”

The 1969 crisis led to the Cairo agreements, which legitimised the Palestinian presence on Lebanese soil. The accords also resulted in a 15-year-civil war, after which the constitution was amended, allowing an equal division of power between Christians and Muslims.

For both parties, the stakes are high. Hezbollah will undoubtedly fight a possible indictment to the very end, but how far it is able to go depends on how much leeway its Syrian ally will allow, according to analysts. And with March 14 bonded to the tribunal, the fate of the nation will remain a hostage on both sides.

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