Lebanon’s Government Collapses (Again). Harbinger of Another Civil War?

Kailash Srinivasan -----

Yesterday, Hezbollah and allied political parties forced the collapse of the Lebanese government as it withdrew 10 ministers from the ruling coalition over the United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The move has precipitated the country's worst political crisis since 2008, with many wondering if the die is being cast for a renewed civil war between the Shi’a militia and the Lebanese Army. Since 2005’s assassination and subsequent investigation, Hezbollah has steadfastly denied both involvement and the UN's right to prosecute its cadres. In contrast, a motley crew of nations—the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and European countries—have rallied to support the probe and Hariri’s son, Lebanese Prime Minister Saud Hariri, condemning Hezbollah’s obstruction. The resignations are, then, just the latest move in a five-year drama. Hezbollah has been a member of a fragile coalition government formed in June 2009, although technically the group is a member of the opposition. Although not the ruling party, it is the single most powerful political force in the country and thus has always viewed the government in line with its strategic calculations, rather than feeling any attachment to the political process. The probe has, then, come to symbolize the greater political struggle facing the country—the worst since its decade-and-a-half civil war from 1975 to 1990. The two main contenders have been a popular grassroots organization with both a legal party with ties to an illegal militia. Since the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from most of Southern Lebanon, and especially after the 2006 war, Hezbollah has emerged as the most popular political force in the country. Its social programs, nationalist rhetoric crossing religious lines, and most importantly, its tough stance on Israel have tapped into deep-seated frustrations the Lebanese people have held for decades. The opposition has, in contrast, been a fragmented and politically disunited cohort ranging from liberals to fringe right-wing groups. Its strong ties to the United States and relatively benign relationship with Israel has alienated many Lebanese, who view it as capitulation toward hostile powers. The probe has become the opposition’s main tool to de-legitimize Hezbollah, with its foreign backers (including the United States) eagerly defending it. President Barack Obama has called the recent decision by Hezbollah one made out of fear. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went further, saying that it was a “"transparent effort by those forces inside Lebanon as well as interests outside Lebanon to subvert justice and undermine Lebanon's stability and progress." The combination of popular militancy versus a domestically weak, but internationally strong, opposition has created a toxic mixture. Since 2008, the Obama Administration has funded the Lebanese Army in an effort to combat Hezbollah. Such foreign backing is creating instability by making opposition forces more likely to turn to civil war as a last option in maintaining control, and helping to give Hezbollah’s hardline rhetoric legitimacy. As long as Hezbollah feels justified in maintaining a non-state militia, it will create a dual-sovereignty within Lebanon that makes the semblance of normalcy a joke. But whatever happens next, one should keep in mind that Hezbollah’s recent decision to end the ruling coalition has been the latest development in an ongoing feud. In 2008, an 18-month feud came to a head in May as the government’s decision to shut down Hezbollah’s telecommunication network provoked a violent response (84 people were killed). The resultant Doha Agreement created a fragile cease-fire which was, rather than a game-changer, just one event in a low-intensity civil war. The opposition can never truly accommodate Hezbollah since it would lose foreign backing without it. At the same time, much of Hezbollah’s popularity comes from its status as a militant organization. There is no party, whether domestic or foreign, which seems to think of diplomacy and political stability in its short-term interest. Another civil war isn't guaranteed, but it wouldn't be surprising.

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