Ironically, while Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was meeting with President Obama on Wednesday, his government fell. As one Arab commentator observed, he went into the meeting a prime minister and came back out a civilian.
It is a joke of course. Al-Hariri will be caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed, which could take some time.
The danger is that it won’t take much time, and that the new government could be from the “March 8″ coalition that includes Hizbullah. A Hizbullah-dominated government in Beirut is a different proposition from the recent government of national unity, in which Hizbullah’s power was watered down among 30 cabinet ministers. It is not impossible that such a development, i.e.Hizbullah dominance, could lead to US and Israeli action against the new government, whether a covert action or a military attack.
Al-Hariri, a Sunni Arab backed by Saudi Arabia, is the son of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. An international tribunal is still trying to affix blame in that killing, and last summer the Shiite Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah announced that the Tribunal was leaning toward fingering members of his party-militia as the perpetrators. I was in Beirut in August, when Nasrallah attempted to put the blame on the Israelis, but even he admitted that he could make only a circumstantial case, and aside from his die-hard followers it is unlikely that very many people accepted his suggestion.
Rafiq al-Hariri had stood up to Syrian control of Lebanese politics, and Hizbullah is closely allied with Syria. If his had been a unique case, then a whole range of possible assassins might have suggested themselves (at the time I thought that a radical Sunni al-Qaeda affiliate might have done it.) But then a whole string of Lebanese figures who spoke out against then Syrian troop presence in Lebanon were assassinated or attacked. In the end, it seemed obvious that some pro-Syrian cell was behind all this, whether in the Syrian secret police or in some pro-Syrian organization.
On March 8, 2005, Hizbullah and its allies demonstrated in favor of Syria. On March 14, 2005, there were big anti-Syrian demonstrations, mainly Christian and Sunni. The latter convinced the Syrians to leave. “March 8″ (led by Christian Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and including Hizbullah) and “March 14″ (led by al-Hariri’s Sunni Future Party) became political coalitions. In the elections of 2009, the March 14 group gained 71 seats in a parliament of 130, while the March 8 group gained 57, though the latter won the popular vote. In the end the two formed a government of national unity, which collapsed on Wednesday.
March 8 members of parliament are saying that they now have a majority in parliament (66), though it is unclear where the new 9 seats came from (or even whether the allegation is even true). Presumably it is being alleged that some deputies are defecting from March 14 to March 8. If the allegation is true, President Sulaiman may ask a March 8 leader to attempt to form a new government.
Lebanon is a fragile, divided country with Shiites, Sunni Arabs, Maronite Christians, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, along with Druze and other, smaller sectarian groups. Politics is mostly conducted on the basis of religious ethnicity. Thus, if the Tribunal does point to Hizbullah, it could well provoke Sunni-Shiite violence.
Since last summer Hizbullah has used its presence in the national unity government to press PM Saad al-Hariri to pledge to ignore the tribunal. Al-Hariri declined. Last week Saudi Arabia (patron of al-Hariri) and Syria (patron of Hizbullah) met to attempt to work out a compromise, but they failed.
Saad al-Hariri’s government may have been listening to the Obama administration in being so inflexible. If so, Washington may have hoisted itself by its own petard, since the last thing it wanted was a March 8 government in Beirut.
It is unclear if whatever new government emerges will be acceptable to key Lebanese factions, or to powerful regional neighbors. That is, Lebanon has entered a period of profound instability that could affect the fortunes of the entire Levant.