While there is still some doubt as to what will happen next Monday, when President Michel Sleiman will call for consultations to form a new government, the likelihood is that Saad Hariri will not return as prime minister. If so, this could represent the end of the experiment of 2005, when the Lebanese came out in droves after the assassination of Rafik Hariri to demand a Syrian withdrawal and a sovereign Lebanon in which the rule of law would prevail.
The numbers don’t look good for Hariri. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, has switched sides, evidently under threat from Hezbollah, which reportedly cut off all contacts with him after he declared earlier this week that he would support a Hariri bid. But even if Jumblatt fails to bring his entire bloc over to the opposition, the race is close enough where even a few abstentions by individuals elected on Hariri lists in 2009 – for example Muhammad Safadi, Najib Mikati, Ahmad Karami, and Qassem Abdul Aziz – would ensure victory for an opposition candidate who will have the advantage of unified support.
Where Hariri’s decision to go to consultations may have an impact is in determining which Sunni stands against him. If Omar Karami is the favorite, the former prime minister may yet hesitate to accept the poisoned apple of a contest against the most legitimate of Sunni politicians. The next head of government will have the unenviable task of ending Lebanon’s ties with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and in that way will be perceived by his coreligionists as covering for Rafik Hariri’s assassins. If Karami decides not to run as a consequence, the opposition would have to bring in an even less credible Sunni figure, which would make even trickier and more contentious the measures taken against the tribunal.
The new government, if Hezbollah and its allies win, will be lacking in legitimacy, with a vast majority of Sunnis and a large proportion of Christians opposing it; but it will also enjoy all the advantages that accompany being in power. It will take over state institutions and the army will implement its orders. That this will represent a coup of major magnitude against the Lebanon that had struggled to consolidate itself on the gains of 2005 is obvious. One can also expect that the new team will go a long way toward dismantling what March 14 built up in the years following the Hariri murder.
The new government will almost immediately sever ties with the Special Tribunal, precipitating a crisis with the international community. How the United Nations reacts will be important, because this will have a definite echo in Beirut, where Hariri will seek to portray himself as the leader of a principled opposition unwilling to abandon justice on behalf of the victims of political crimes in the past five years. The standard warnings against Syria will not do the trick. Unless there is a concerted international effort to go to the wall on Lebanon, the country will remain an Iranian outpost with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fronting this state of affairs, because his doing otherwise means surrendering Syria’s Lebanese stakes.
A key indicator will be the economy. While a run on the banks may not happen soon, or at all, overall confidence in the financial management of the Aounists and Hezbollah will almost certainly decline. We can probably assume that Gulf money to bolster the economy will go down, since Saudi Arabia, above all, will think twice before handing the Hezbollah-controlled government an economic lifeline. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Michel Aoun and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah will finally have to put their money, literally, where their mouth is and manage Lebanon’s accounts, though most people would surely prefer not to become their guinea pigs.
If Hezbollah takes effective control in Beirut, this will represent an essential challenge for the international community, above and beyond what it means for the Special Tribunal. Such a development will make very relative Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip. While the new government will try to sell itself more as a Syrian than an Iranian construct, the fact is that it will be propped up by Hezbollah’s bayonets, with Syria facing the discomfort of being blamed for the behavior of a cabinet actually controlled by Tehran. Can the world’s leading states accept a Hezbollah-dominated administration in Beirut? The unfortunate answer is that there may be little they can do against it, at least enough to shake Nasrallah’s determination.
But what about Israel? Can Israel accept a Hezbollah-dominated cabinet in Beirut, whose policy statement will beyond question further reinforce Lebanon’s official endorsement of the party’s weapons? For a time it might if Hezbollah maintains calm along the Lebanese-Israeli border, as the party has an interest in doing. However, we can also expect Israeli military officials to upgrade their contingency plans for Lebanon, this time with American encouragement, so that any future conflict is one that cripples Hezbollah for good.
It’s difficult to see how Damascus gains from this situation. The late Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, sent his soldiers into Lebanon in 1976 to prevent the onset of a Palestine Liberation Organization-ruled Lebanese state, fearing that this would lead to an Israeli-Lebanese war that might draw in a weaker Syria. Yet Bashar al-Assad, unlike his father, is on the verge of consenting to such a situation, and it is Syria, not Iran, that will be in the front lines.
What lies ahead will not be easy for Hezbollah and Syria to manage. Hezbollah’s single-minded focus on undermining the Special Tribunal is compelling it to make mistakes elsewhere. Sponsoring a government against Lebanon’s Sunnis and a large share of the Christians, who despite their decline still represent the economic backbone of the country, is a disaster waiting to happen. Weapons can do many things, but they cannot purchase legitimacy and prosperity.
Lebanon is bound to suffer as the irresistible force of Lebanese sectarianism meets the immovable object of Hezbollah’s weapons. My bet is on sectarianism, but the price paid could be prohibitive.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of the recent The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster).