Decree nisi
Al Ahram.-By: Lucy Fielder

November 16/2006

November 16/06: After uneasy cohabitation with the government, Shia ministers have filed for divorce, plunging Lebanon into crisis, reports Lucy Fielder in Beirut

The proxy battle continues within Lebanese domestic politics, three months after US-supported Israeli bombing destroyed swathes of the country. Threats and rhetoric may have replaced the bombs and rockets, but the regional dimensions have emerged clearer than ever, with analysts talking about a new "Cold War" between the US (with Israel) and Iran.

A week of talks between Lebanon's main political players broke down on Saturday, and with them hopes of staving off a political crisis. The war polarised an already deeply divided society, and with its end came bitter recriminations, with Hizbullah threatening to take to the streets in a show of force. Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah has been seeking a greater say in decision-making since it claimed victory in the war with Israel. Together with the Shia Amal Party, Christian leader Michel Aoun and smaller allies, it was pushing for a national unity government that would bring Aoun in from the cold and give the alliance a veto-wielding one-third minority on government decisions.

The "14th March" anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, backed by Washington, was prepared to offer Aoun seats, but not enough for a veto -- a demand Prime Minister Fouad Al-Seniora denounced as "tyranny of the minority" in an interview with Reuters this week. Two Hizbullah and three Amal ministers resigned hours after talks collapsed on Saturday, to be followed a day later by Environment Minister Yacoub Sarraf, a Maronite Christian Lahoud loyalist. The Sunni interior minister resigned in February. None of the resignations had been accepted at the time of writing; nine of the 24 ministers would have to resign to bring down the government.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Centre in Beirut said it was no longer a question of whether Hizbullah would take to the streets to demand early elections but when and where. "They're still organising, which means it's not just one demo," she said. Some predict more resignations from parliament as well as a sustained campaign of protest and civil disobedience that would paralyse the country.

Although it is the only armed non-state party in Lebanon, Hizbullah says the protests will be peaceful. Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud weighed in with a letter to Al-Seniora. The government had lost its legitimacy, he wrote, citing Article Five of the Lebanese constitution, which says that all main sects must be "justly represented" in the cabinet. But he has no power to dissolve parliament, and the government believes its refusal to accept the resignations avoids the problem.
The "14th March" bloc, which holds the parliamentary majority, responded with its own brinkmanship and some sharp rhetoric. Following a meeting on Sunday, the bloc's leader, Saad Al-Hariri, accused resigning ministers of trying to prevent an international court being established to try suspects accused of involvement in the February 2005 assassination of his father, Rafik Al-Hariri. "This is a Syrian-Iranian plan to overthrow the legitimate authority and prevent the formation of the international tribunal," Al-Hariri said, words that echoed earlier White House warnings of a "coup".

"The crippling of the court and the protection of the criminals are the responsibility of a well-known murderous regime," he said, a clear reference to neighbouring Syria, fingered by the UN investigation and blamed by many Lebanese for the assassination. On Monday the remaining three- quarters of the cabinet held an extraordinary session to push through a draft UN plan for the tribunal.

"With this decision we tell the murderers that we will not give up our rights no matter what the difficulties and obstacles are," Al-Seniora said afterwards. The court is expected to comprise Lebanese and international judges and convene in a neutral location, most probably Cyprus. Hizbullah points out that it approved the tribunal in principle during the "National Dialogue" of Lebanese leaders earlier this year and says it has no intention of scuppering the plan.
Saad-Ghorayeb says Hizbullah wants more say over national defence, the scope and mandate of UNIFIL forces in south Lebanon and the running of the Hariri tribunal at a time of heightened US interest in Lebanon. US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has urged Syria to respect the Lebanese government's decision though legal experts on both sides continue to wrangle over the legitimacy of a decision taken in the absence of Shia ministers.

Whatever the outcome of the debate, it seems certain that many Lebanese will view the court as unconstitutional. Signalling an all-out battle for government rather than elusive national unity, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah told supporters in the ruined southern suburbs of Beirut that the government had "zero credibility" and must be replaced by a "clean" one. The government "was in the know about the Israeli aggressions and asked Israel to prolong them," the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar quoted him as saying.

Hizbullah and Aoun both say they have evidence to prove the claim. Although most analysts expect political turmoil rather than civil war, on-going accusations of betrayal and collaboration will make coexistence ever more difficult in Lebanon. While the opposition believes the government tacitly backed Israel in its aggressive bombardment of mainly Shia areas and then blamed their inhabitants for having brought the destruction upon themselves, the 14th March group believes Hizbullah, controlled from Damascus and Tehran, dragged Lebanon into a risky war that has set back its efforts to rebuild by more than a decade.
Lebanon's long-running internal disputes will be hard to resolve in isolation from the Israel/Palestine conflict and a change in the rules of the game between Washington and Tehran. Optimists say the Baker commission, expected to advise the US administration to open up dialogue with Iran, may herald a change.
"This is ultimately an extension of the US-Iran proxy war, whether the domestic players see it like that or not," says Saad- Ghorayeb.