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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lebanon - dark clouds on the horizon.

When I first started writing this blog six months ago my initial inspiration came from a cluster of events that had all kicked off than the space of a few weeks: the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazzizi, major splits in Israel’s leading political party, a referendum for the partition of the Sudan, an increasingly vocal Egyptian online political community, the growing likelihood of internationally recognized Palestinian nationhood, and the collapse of the Lebanese government.

Interestingly enough, that last incident has been far less of a factor in the Middle East instability than any of the other aforementioned events.

Until now.

Lebanon, no stranger to civil unrest, is finally feeling the impact of the Arab Spring in what promises to be a spectacular, and possibly disastrous fashion.

After more than five months of dithering and ambiguity, a Lebanese government has finally come together.

In early January, the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced that they were on the verge of releasing their findings into the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Most suspected that the finger of blame would be pointed with varying degrees of directness at prominent Lebanese affiliates of Hezbollah, Bashir Assad’s inner circle in Syria, and quite possibly even elements within the Iranian government. Syrian political power and Iranian money are deeply enmeshed in the delicate balance of Lebanese democracy - such a revelation would be unacceptable to certain parties in all three countries.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri (son of the aforementioned assassinated Rafik Hariri) was encouraged to denounce the findings of the UN ICJ commission investigating his own father's assassination, thereby delegitimizing its findings. This was unacceptable to Saad from both a personal standpoint (they killed his Dad!) and a political one (he was the leader of the March 14 alliance, a political coalition committed to Lebanese independence from Syria)

The Lebanese government functions through a delicate balance of power-sharing and checks & balances between ethno-religious demographic groups. In response to Saad’s refusal to denounce the ICJ, ten opposition members of the Lebanese government immediately withdrew from his cabinet. This was the constitutional equivalent of a vote of no-confidence – the government cannot operate legitimately without the participation of the opposition. With their exit, a new mutually agreeable prime minister needed to be selected, effectively removing Saad from his position with a single stroke.

This is where it gets interesting. (Actually, it's already interesting. Lebanese politics are fascinating.)

Something happened.

Actually, something didn’t happen.

Actually, two interesting things didn't happen.

The international Court of Justice didn't release their findings, and the Lebanese cabinet didn’t re-form.

In the meantime, the rest of the Middle East was going haywire. Ousted dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, revolution in Libya, major repression in Bahrain and Yemen, etc.

And in Lebanon, nothing.

Until now.

Like it or not, the history of Lebanon and history of Syria are inextricably linked, and as the Syrian government escalated its campaign of brutality and repression over the past few weeks, it was just a matter of time before Lebanon felt the effects.

In particular, the die was cast when Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, spoke out in support of Bashir Assad as the Syrian army was attacking its citizenry with horrifying violence. This public declaration showed that Hezbollah was on the side of the Syrian regime, and not the Arabs of the Levant.

Two days ago, the Lebanese government suddenly, and without warning, coalesced into functional form (doubtlessly with no small amount of arm-twisting by the Syrian government).

Although not all of the new cabinet members are Shia, much less direct affiliates of Hezbollah, Hezbollah still has a disproportionate amount of influence in this new government.

So, what does this all mean?

It means that Lebanon is on a crash course towards three things:

1. The international Court of Justice. I'm not sure what the reasons were for their protracted period of silence, but even when initial word of the upcoming ICJ pronouncement came out in January it was unclear as to whether they would be revealing their findings in a few weeks or a few months. As it stands, the delay in their announcement is actually a good thing. If they had made their announcement at any point during the last few months it could have effectively been ignored because, well, Lebanon didn't have a government. Now, with an authority structure there also comes an accountability structure, and it is quite likely that certain elements in power will be identified as having been directly or indirectly involved in the assassination of President Rafik Hariri…and someone will probably feel the need to do something about it.

2. Syria. There's not much that can be said about this at this point. President Assad may be able to keep his grip on power for a a few more months, but probably not much more. The Syrian regime is heavily invested in Hezbollah, has held an inordinate degree of control over the Lebanese political apparatus for decades, and their inevitable collapse will create an unstable power vacuum whose impact is virtually impossible to calculate.

3. Hezbollah. Unless they take some drastic measures, Hezbollah is screwed in the long term, although they may be able to consolidate power in the short-term. This is actually pretty scary. Hezbollah’s militia forces in southern Lebanon are better trained and equipped than most of the Lebanese army (this has been a major point of contention in Lebanese politics for many years). If they feel that their power base is threatened by events in Syria or Lebanon they may simply take matters into their own hands and undertake “the continuation of politics by other means.”

What does this add up to?

Nothing good for Lebanon, I’m afraid.
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