Crisis brewing in Lebanese politics

Yassin Gaber, Thursday 13 Jan 2011

The region braces itself as Lebanon's government collapses and Hariri is asked to stay on as caretaker of an increasingly more fragile system, anxiously awaiting the tribunal's indictment

(Photo: Reuters)

As feelings of general panic and instability spread across the broader Arab world, Lebanese politics was brought back into sharp focus yesterday when the country plunged into political turmoil following the collapse of its national unity government. While Lebanon and the region scrambled to maintain calm, President Michel Suleiman issued a statement calling on Hariri's government to "continue in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed."

The government toppled after Hezbollah and its parliamentary allies pulled 10 ministers from the cabinet. The 11th minister, Adnan Sayyed Hussein, a minister aligned with President Michel Sleiman also quit the 30-member cabinet. His resignation was decisive as it fulfilled the minimum number of resignations required to topple the government – one-third of the cabinet.

Wednesday's dramatic turn of events has been linked to a UN probe into the 2005 assassination of former premier Rafiq Al-Hariri. Hezbollah has for months been pressing Western backed Premier Saad Al-Hariri to withdraw his support for the special tribunal and renounce it as a US-Israeli plot to destabilise the fragile Mediterranean nation.

The tribunal is expected to indict senior Hezbollah members as early as next week.

During Wednesday's evening press conference, Energy Minister Jebran Bassil, along with all 10 opposition MPs, demanded that Hariri decide between "Beirut or Washington, or Beirut and any other capital". The Lebanese premier was, at the time, in Washington for a meeting with US President Barack Obama.

According to a report by AFP, the White House released a statement accusing the Shia party of toppling the government out of "fear" and reaffirmed its complete support of Hariri and the UN tribunal.

In kind, France, Britain and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced their unconditional backing for the controversial probe.

Hariri, who cut his US visit short, travelled to Paris to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to discuss the developing crisis, though he has as yet made no public statement on the matter.

The now paralysed prime minister is expected back in Beirut later on Thursday, as reported by the BBC, "to complete the formalities that will end his government and see him ushered in as a caretaker prime minister."

The process of government formation will most likely drag on for some time, leaving Hariri's and Lebanon's future murky and uncertain at best.

Meanwhile the US has pledged to see the tribunal through as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blames the dissenter's actions "as a transparent subvert justice and undermine Lebanon's stability and progress".

Speaking from the Qatari capital of Doha on Thursday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa expressed his desire to see the slain premier's killers punished, but discouraged "any immediate move to hand down indictments naming Hezbollah", according to a story by Reuters.

"The tribunal should be above politics and justice should have its say and Lebanon must have a government...but since we were waiting for several years, why not six more months of time in order to defuse the situation?" said Moussa, who believes the situation to be "threatening".

There are fears in certain Western circles that yesterday's collapse could spill over into an outbreak of sectarian violence – last seen in 2008 when the country teetered on the brink of civil war. As yet these fears seem largely speculative as the crisis remains locked inside the political sphere. 

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