x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Lebanon increases security amid crisis

Fears of violence are downplayed, though security on the streets of Beirut is beefed up, as the Lebanese president starts the process of putting together a new government.

BEIRUT // The Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, started the process of putting together a new government yesterday as security on the streets of Beirut was beefed up.

Saad Hariri, who was due to meet Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, in Paris yesterday, was asked to remain as caretaker prime minister and Mr Suleiman said he would consult with parliament on Monday about what steps to take next.

On Wednesday, cabinet members belonging to the Hizbollah-dominated opposition resigned from the coalition, collapsing the government and plunging Lebanon into its worst political crisis since May 2008, when street clashes erupted between fighters loyal to Lebanon's rival political factions.

Yesterday, fears of a return to violence were being downplayed, with Hizbollah standing to lose favour among moderate Arab states and Lebanese citizens if it deploys gunmen on the streets.

"I don't think that Hizbollah will go in the street with its armed men," said Sahar Atrache, a Beirut-based analyst for conflict resolution NGO International Crisis Group. "We'll see some negotiations and Hizbollah can use street demonstrations but from previous experience we don't know where this can lead. These things can go out of control ... skirmishes between Sunni neighbourhoods and Shia neighbourhoods."

It could be months before the Lebanese get a new government and a new prime minister and for many the situation is merely a continuation of the political stalemate that had paralysed the government in recent months.

"I think it's for the better. I didn't like the government anyway," said Mohammed, 31, a doctor in the oncology department of the American University of Beirut Hospital. "There is a threat security-wise but what are Hizbollah going to do? Take over the streets and then what?"

At the heart of the crisis is the contentious and unresolved issue of the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon charged with naming the killers of the former premier Rafiq Hariri, father of the recently deposed prime minister Saad Hariri.

Since rumours surfaced months ago that the tribunal would indict members of Hizbollah for the killing, the Shiite group and its allies have been eager to discredit the process, calling it a US-Israeli ploy against it. Mr Hariri's government was adamant that the tribunal, which has yet to announce its verdict, continue unobstructed.

The timing with which the cabinet members loyal to Hizbollah resigned was symptomatic of the theatre of Lebanese politics. The announcement came just minutes before a scheduled meeting on Wednesday in Washington between Mr Hariri and the US president Barack Obama.

"Hariri Loses Unity Government... At Obama's Doorstep", "Uncertainty Grips Lebanon", and "Open Crisis" were just some of the headlines splashed across Beirut's news kiosks yesterday.

Foreign countries backing both sides of Lebanon's political divide responded rapidly to the collapse. Britain, a key ally of Mr Hariri's pro-western alliance, described the situation as "extremely dangerous," while Hillary Clinton, secretary of state for another key Hariri ally, the United States, said: "Trying to bring the government down as a way to undermine the Special Tribunal [for Lebanon] is an abdication of responsibility, but it will also not work."

Iran, a key patron of Hizbollah, denounced US and "Zionist" interference in efforts to establish consensus in Lebanon about the tribunal.

One attempt to fashion a consensus was a so-called "Saudi-Syrian initiative," being worked out by those key Arab patron countries of Lebanon's rival political camps.

Both sides had come to regard the initiative as their last hope to avoid a crisis before the tribunal indictments were made public. But on Tuesday, it was announced that the initiative had failed, leaving the stalemate squarely in Lebanese hands. Lebanon's fallen government strengthens Syria's influence at America's expense. Syria occupied Lebanon until an uprising sparked by Rafiq Hariri's death in 2005 garnered enough international pressure to cause it to withdraw its troops. It has since exercised influence by proxy through sympathetic Lebanese MPs and client groups such as Hizbollah.

The fall of Lebanon's government is likely to spark a more intensive US involvement in the country.

"For now, I don't think [the US] have a clear strategy. They support the tribunal but they cannot intervene practically for their allies," said Atrache.

A key demand of pro-tribunal stakeholders is the renomination of Mr Hariri as prime minister to the next government but that is something that is far from assured.

The Hizbollah-led opposition bloc now see Mr Hariri as a major obstacle to its goal of discrediting the tribunal. In a press conference yesterday, Mohammed Raad, the head of Hizbollah's parliamentary bloc, said the opposition would suggest a candidate for prime minister who had a "history of national resistance [against Israel]."

Mr Hariri's majority coalition is likely to reject this. Mr Hariri "represents the Sunni majority", said Mohammed Hajjar, an MP allied to the prime minister, in an interview on Lebanese television yesterday. "Whoever wants to violate this will have to bear the responsibility," he warned.