Stuck between Syria and Hizbollah, Lebanon's new coalition government will have to tread carefully in order to maintain consensus.
Local, not global, consensus, will unite Lebanon's parties
All politics are local. But Lebanon continues to prove that its local politics are regional, and even international. As the country awaits the formation of a new government under prime minister-designate Najib Mikati, a process that has been stalled until now, Lebanon's factions are manoeuvring with one eye fixed on external developments.
At the heart of the government-formation crisis is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, created to put on trial those responsible for the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The previous government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri was brought down by Syria and Hizbollah because of a deep rift between the party and the Hariri-led March 14 coalition over Hizbollah's demand that Beirut end its ties with the tribunal. Last weekend, Mr Mikati's attempts to fashion a consensual government were dashed when March 14 announced that it would not participate, because the prime minister-designate had offered no guarantees that he would protect the tribunal.
The tribunal is expected to indict Hizbollah members, and the party spent months trying to force the Hariri government to denounce the institution as "politicised". Hizbollah says the tribunal will base its indictment on what it calls "false witnesses", in other words witnesses who allegedly lied in their testimony to UN investigators probing the Hariri murder. The party had demanded that the government initiate its own investigation of these false witnesses, and is expected to do the same of a new Mikati government.
The false witnesses charge is a red herring. Only verifiable evidence can be approved for an indictment by the tribunal's pre-trial judge. Hizbollah's real objective, however, is to set up a parallel legal process inside Lebanon in order to erode the legitimacy of the Special Tribunal and protect itself politically. Hizbollah knows that any legal case targeting its members could devastate the party's reputation in Lebanon and the region, not least because a Shiite organisation would be seen as having taken part in the killing of a major Sunni figure.
Such an accusation would not only undermine Hizbollah, but could also render the party less effective as a promoter of Iranian interests and as a military vanguard against Israel. That's because Hizbollah's efforts to intimidate Saad Hariri, the most dominant Lebanese Sunni politician, have exacerbated tensions with Sunnis, so that in a conflict with Israel the party might find itself precariously isolated. Indeed, earlier this week, Mr Hariri declared that Hizbollah's readiness to use its weapons against other Lebanese had become a national problem.
Less clear are Syria's calculations when it comes to the next government. Damascus was instrumental in bolstering Mr Mikati, who is close to the Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Even though a government may well be formed soon, in the past weeks Mr Assad has conspicuously not pushed hard for the rapid establishment of one. There are several reasons for this.
The Syrian leader grasps that acting too hastily in Lebanon might backfire against Syria given the volatility in the Arab world. He must sense that if the formation process drags on until after an indictment is issued by the tribunal, and Syrians are named, it would be preferable then to have a more broadly representative government in Beirut than one controlled by Hizbollah and its like-minded partners.
Conversely, if no Syrians are named, Mr Assad might prefer to address the indictment with a political vacuum in Beirut. This would allow him to exploit Lebanese divisions and enhance Syrian influence over Lebanon's affairs, at the expense of Mr Hariri and Hizbollah.
Mr Assad is also aware that a Hizbollah-dominated government may provoke unease further afield. Friends of Syria, such as Turkey and Qatar, have reportedly told the Syrian president that they are unhappy with the way the Hariri government was brought down and Mr Hariri sidelined. Mr Assad will also have to be cautious and not allow a new government to harm Syria's ties with Saudi Arabia. As for the United States, France and the European Union, they have warned that they would object to Beirut's backtracking on its international commitments, especially those to the tribunal, which was set up under the binding authority of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Syria would gain little by being perceived in foreign capitals as the foremost sponsor of a government covering up an assassination.
But it's not just about Syria. The transformations in the Middle East are obliging everyone involved in Lebanese affairs to recalibrate. Even Hizbollah, and with it Iran, knows that given the regional mood it cannot ride roughshod over Sunni sensibilities by imposing a new non-consensual government that might spawn protests in the streets. This helps explain why the party has also moved prudently, even though negotiations over the new government were delayed by the exorbitant ministerial demands of its ally Michel Aoun on Mr Mikati.
Amid competing regional stakes, it took five months for Mr Hariri to finalise his government following the parliamentary elections of 2009. The government of his predecessor, Fouad Siniora, emerged from another regional compromise embodied in an accord negotiated in Doha. Lebanese governments are difficult to put together, but when they come apart, outside actors usually have something to say about it.
So, when Mr Assad brought about the collapse of the Hariri government recently, he gambled. What you break you own, is the Pottery Barn rule. But in Lebanon what you break others will want to own as well. Mr Mikati may yet succeed in putting together an effective team, but whatever he does will provoke reverberations in the Middle East. But then so many things seem to these days.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster)