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Jan 13, 2011

Opposition walkout throws Lebanon into a state of flux

Lebanon’s Hezballah-led Opposition has resigned en masse from the country’s fragile national unity government, triggering its collapse, writes freelance political writer Antoun Issa.

Lebanon’s Hezballah-led Opposition has resigned en masse from the country’s fragile national unity government, triggering its collapse.

Eleven Opposition ministers, including Hezballah’s Christian allies, walked out from their posts as Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington. The resignation follows a dispute over a controversial UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni, in 2005.

Rumours in recent months have intensified that the STL is set to indict members from the Shia Hezballah in the assassination. Hezballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has previously vowed not to co-operate with what he calls a politicised tribunal by Israel and the US set to harm Lebanon’s internal stability.

Hezballah and its allies have been vigorously pushing for Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain former Prime Minister, to denounce the STL and refuse participation.

Hariri and his pro-Western bloc, March 14 — inclusive of Sunnis, Christians and Druze — have rejected Hezballah’s demand, and insist on pursuing justice through the STL. Lebanon has been in deadlock for several months, as local protagonists awaited the outcome of intense negotiations between Syria and Saudi Arabia to resolve the crisis.

Syria and Saudi Arabia each hold significant influence in Lebanon, and are widely seen as patron states to the country’s rival political factions. Syria holds sway over Hezballah and its allies, whilst Saudi Arabia remains close to Hariri.

The two states were at odds following the assassination of Saudi-ally Rafik al-Hariri, as the Saudis — backed by the Bush administration — sought to remove Syrian influence from Lebanon. Damascus and Riyadh have recently reconciled in a bid to co-operate over regional flashpoints, particularly Lebanon.

Following the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement, the Saudis’ local Lebanese allies, including Hariri, re-established friendly ties with Syria, after once accusing Damascus of assassinating his father. As rivals in Lebanon began to forgive and forget, many hoped the latest Syrian-Saudi effort to defuse internal tension over the STL would succeed.

The Opposition’s resignation from the government comes a day after Syria and Saudi Arabia failed to broker an agreement.

It remains unclear what led to the breakdown of the Syrian-Saudi negotiations, but some Lebanese analysts are blaming us pressure, which has insisted the STL go ahead, dismissing Hezballah’s complaints.

What now for Lebanon? It’s not the first time the Hezballah-led opposition bloc has walked out from a national unity government. Indeed, the Shia group resigned from the Siniora government in 2006, paralysing the country for two years until an agreement was reached in Doha, 2008.

Although Hezballah quit cabinet in 2006, it did not trigger the collapse of government as the Opposition did not hold the amount of seats required to bring it down.

Ironically, its key demand in 2006 was that it be given a special veto to do exactly what it is doing now, that is, bringing down the government when it sees fit.

Hezballah and the Opposition now hold the 11 necessary cabinet seats needed to cause a collapse, all of whom have now resigned.

The Opposition’s failure to bring down the government in 2006 led to mass demonstrations and sit-ins by Hezballah and its allies, that subsequently drew counter demonstrations from supporters of Hariri’s March 14 bloc.

Hezballah may again resort to mass demonstrations to further pressure Hariri to drop the STL. Hariri is currently torn between preserving stability in the country, and finding the truth of his father’s murder — with Hezballah and the US tugging in opposite directions.

There is no reason to assume, however, that the government’s collapse will dramatically lead to renewed civil war, as much is contingent on the interests of Syria and Saudi Arabia — neither of which wants to be drawn into another Lebanon conflict.

*Antoun Issa is an Australian-based freelance writer, Global Voices Online author, and commentator on international affairs, with a specific interest in Middle Eastern issues. He blogs at antounissa.com.

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