Demands by Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite Hezbollah movement for more power and influence are driving the country’s latest political crisis, one that could lead to a renewal of the bloody ethnic and sectarian battles that have long plagued the country.
The crisis deepened in Beirut yesterday as U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora pushed through an endorsement of a special tribunal to try the men suspected in the slaying of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, despite the resignation in the past three days of six Cabinet members linked to Hezbollah and its patron, Syria.
A United Nations investigation has implicated top Syrian intelligence officials in Mr. Hariri’s February 2005 assassination, a watershed event that has upset the traditional balance of power among Lebanon’s various Christian and Muslim communities.
Hezbollah and pro-Syria President Emile Lahoud see the tribunal as a means to undermine Syria’s influence, but Mr. Siniora told reporters yesterday the Hariri panel was crucial to Lebanon’s future.
“Without it, and without knowing the truth, the Lebanese will not rest and we cannot protect our democratic system and political freedom now and in the future,” he said.
Despite the often bewildering crosscurrents and shifting alliances in Lebanese politics, the current crisis turns on two basic questions: power at home and relations with Syria. Damascus retains immense influence over its neighbor despite the popular protests after Mr. Hariri’s death that forced Syrian troops to leave Lebanon after nearly three decades of occupation.
Hezbollah, which receives arms and political support from Damascus, is pushing for a larger say in government against a tactical alliance of Sunni Muslims, Christian groups and Lebanon’s Druse community. While Shi’ites represent a third or more of Lebanon’s population, Hezbollah and its allies had only six seats in Mr. Siniora’s 24-seat Cabinet.
“The [Shi’ite] community composes the [largest minority] of Lebanon’s population, but its role in Lebanese politics does not equal its demographic weight,” according to a recent analysis by the intelligence newsletter Power and Interest News Report.
This past summer’s war against Israel, in which Hezbollah fighters won praise across the Arab world for fighting the superior Israeli army to a draw in Lebanon’s south, has only increased Hezbollah’s appetite for more power. But Walid Jumblatt, a Druse leader and veteran of Lebanon’s sectarian political battles, warned that upsetting the current power-sharing deals could backfire for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
“We have the majority,” Mr. Jumblatt said on a recent Washington visit. “If they topple us, there will be chaos and disorder that could lead anywhere. The danger is for him, not for us.”
Mr. Siniora refused to accept the weekend resignations of the Cabinet’s five Shi’ite Muslim members. A sixth pro-Syrian minister, a Christian ally of Mr. Lahoud, quit before yesterday’s three-hour Cabinet meeting.
Complicating the political drama is the fact that Hezbollah refuses to disarm its militia fighters. Despite a U.N. resolution calling for them to lay down their arms, Hezbollah officials say they need to be able to “defend” their southern Lebanon stronghold against any future Israeli attacks.
“Our problem is not with Hezbollah as a political party, but with Hezbollah as an armed organization,” said Lebanese Christian lawmaker Jawad Boulous, a member of the anti-Syrian “March 14 coalition.”
In the “national dialogue” that began in March, Hezbollah and its allies have pressed for a “national unity” government that would given pro-Syria parties just over a third of the Cabinet posts and an effective veto on major policy decisions.