Events have moved fast in Lebanon. The country now faces the prospect of a government controlled by Hizbullah and consisting solely of the movement and its allies.
Parts of Lebanon looked in danger of slipping into chaos on Tuesday, as angry Sunnis took to the streets for a “Day of Rage” in protest of what they called Hizbullah’s “coup.”
They were responding to the securing of a parliamentary majority for Hizbullah’s preferred prime ministerial candidate, Najib Mikati. Mikati received the backing of 65 members of the 128-member parliament earlier this week, clearing the way for his appointment as prime minister.
But the protesters’ rage was insufficient to prevent Mikati’s accession. He received the official presidential decree confirming his appointment on Tuesday, even as protesters blocked the Beirut-Saida road and shots were fired in the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli.
This is because the real, currently silent capacity for violence in Lebanon is on Mikati’s side, not that of the demonstrators.
Mikati, 55, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, tried to present himself as a compromise Sunni candidate (Lebanon’s constitution requires that the prime minister hail from the Sunni sect). The candidacy of a previous pro- Hizbullah Sunni, Omar Karami, had been withdrawn because of his too-obvious ties to Syria.
The new prime minister-designate even called on supporters of the March 14 alliance and its leader, incumbent Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to remember his uneventful record as prime minister for a short period following theassassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.
March 14 wasn’t buying. It pointed to Mikati’s close links with Damascus. More importantly, it is clear to all sides that Mikati would never have been put forward by Hizbullah and its allies as a candidate for the premiership were he not fully in line with the movement’s plan to neuter or dismantle the UN tribunal investigating Rafik Hariri’s murder.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah also tried to sound conciliatory this week. He said the new prime minister would form a new unity government in which “everyone participates.”
Nasrallah’s and Mikati’s words were rendered particularly hollow by the means that engineered the parliamentary majority securing Mikati’s nomination.
March 14’s parliamentary majority was removed following the defection of Druse leader Walid Jumblatt’s 11-man faction. This defection, according to Lebanese sources, was obtained by crude and extremely credible threats of violence against Jumblatt personally and against his family and community.
Saad Hariri, meanwhile, has made clear that Mikati is the candidate of the Hizbullah-led camp, while he remains the candidate of March 14. As such, his movement is refusing to join a government led by Mikati. This has led to the very real possibility that a government will be formed under direct Hizbullah domination.
The response of March 14 supporters has been, for the first time in half a decade, to take to the streets.
The demonstrators seen in recent days are not the wellbehaved, idealistic protesters of the period following Hariri’s assassination. This crowd has the unmistakable whiff of sectarian rage about it.
Angry Sunnis in their northern heartland of Tripoli smashed reporters’ cameras. In Tripoli’s Nour Square, the offices of Muhammad Safadi, the MP who proposed Mikati’s candidacy, were burned. Protesters also targeted a transmission van belonging to Al-Jazeera, which they associated with Qatar and support for Hizbullah. The frightened journalists had to be rescued by members of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
The protests look set to continue.
But for all their rage, the Sunnis of northern Lebanon are helpless to prevent the rise of a government openly dominated by the Shi’ite Islamists of Hizbullah and their Iranian creators and backers. And it appears unlikely that the “international community” will be anywhere around to assist them.
The real story behind the coup now under way is that of Iran.
Since 1982, Iran has been engaged in establishing a political and military instrument in Lebanon designed to wage war with Israel. That instrument is Hizbullah. Since late 2006, the movement has been engaged in an ever-more-overt assertion of its political power.
It now looks set to move toward open domination of the government.
This may have profound effects on the way Lebanon is viewed by the world. Certainly, if a new government were openly to impede the work of the tribunal, isolation and even sanctions might follow.
Capital could withdraw from the country.
Hizbullah’s rise to power is the latest victory for the Iranian model of combined political militancy and paramilitary strategy that has also enabled Teheran to split the Palestinian national movement and become the kingmaker in Iraq.
Israel now faces the prospect of two Iran-backed, Islamist entities to its north and south.
From an Israeli point of view, Hizbullah’s move into plain view may also bring advantages. For a long period, the non-Hizbullah “government” of Lebanon functioned for the Shi’ite Islamists as part cloak, part human shield.
The emerging situation looks set to have the virtue, by contrast, of clarity. This would raise the possibility of the next clash between Israel and Hizbullah taking on the unfamiliar dimensions of a stateto- state conflict.
* Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters’ Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He served in a front-line unit of the Israel Defense Forces in 1992-3, and fought in the war in Lebanon in summer 2006. Between 1996 and 2000, Spyer was an employee of the Israel Prime Minister’s Office.