What’s Going On in Beirut?

Why the Lebanese government collapsed, and why you should care.

BEIRUT—On Wednesday, Hezbollah and its allies abruptly withdrew from the Lebanese Cabinet, forcing the collapse of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government just moments after he finished meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington.

What may seem like mere parliamentary maneuvering in a country about the size and population of Connecticut was actually the climax of a yearslong drama rife with murder, international conspiracy, espionage, backstabbing, and whisper campaigns.

The string of interconnected developments began in February 2005 with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. His murder set off a chain reaction that started with Syria pulling out of Lebanon under massive international and domestic pressure and resulted in the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a U.N. Security Council-backed investigation into Hariri’s murder.

Fast-forward to November 2009. Saad Hariri—Rafik Hariri’s son—formed a “national unity” Cabinet after five months of wrangling between his side, the March 14 coalition, and the opposition March 8 coalition, led by Hezbollah. Things were looking up.

So why did Hezbollah and its allies suddenly decide to pull out of the Cabinet? It’s all about the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Before the dust from the Feb. 14, 2005, car bomb that killed Rafik Hariri had even settled, fingers of blame pointed at Syria. Back then, Syria was still occupying Lebanon and was allegedly behind the assassination of several Lebanese politicians and journalists critical of the regime. Rafik Hariri had resigned months earlier to protest increased Syrian meddling, so it was easy to believe that Syria would take him out. Who else would have the sophistication or motive to carry out such an attack, which would have required smuggling more than 1,000 kilos of TNT into the country? The notion of Hariri’s murder being a Syrian operation gained wide currency and held sway for years.

But by mid-2009, the foundation under the Syria-did-it narrative began to crumble. In May of that year, German newspaper Der Spiegel published an articleclaiming that the special tribunal was preparing to indict members of Hezbollah for Hariri’s assassination; Hezbollah—not Syria—was responsible. The article came out of left field and fell out of the news because of the Lebanese parliamentary elections that month and headline-grabbing uprisings in Iran. As 2009 turned into 2010, however, Hezbollah’s verbal attacks on the tribunal mounted, and rumors about the pending indictment persisted.

Any confusion about Hezbollah’s position was put to rest last July when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that he considered the tribunal an Israeli-U.S. plot to undermine the party and called on the government to pre-emptively disavow its findings, whatever they might be. In August, Hezbollah showed Israeli drone video footage that it said proved Israel had been monitoring the movements of Rafik Hariri, adding one more layer of possible conspiracy to the investigation. In October, it called on all Lebanese to boycott the findings of the tribunal.

In November 2010, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. published an investigation that reached precisely the same conclusions as Der Spiegel’s. But unlike the Germanreport, the Canadians conducted a parallel investigation using the same data that the U.N. tribunal had at its disposal. Its conclusion was the same: Hezbollah operatives had carried out the assassination.

By then, the predominant narrative had changed from “maybe Hezbollah did it” to “what will Hezbollah do when they are indicted?” and “will the Hariri government reject the tribunal’s findings in order to appease Hezbollah and preserve Lebanon’s stability?”

Prime Minister Saad Hariri couldn’t realistically disavow the Special Tribunal for Lebanon without alienating the Sunnis and anti-Syrian coalition he represents or appearing to be a total wimp—after all, he is the dead guy’s son.

So Hariri did not listen to Hezbollah’s demands, and the “unity” Cabinet sessions grew more fractious until it eventually stopped meeting—the last time the Cabinet convened was Dec. 15, 2010.

Faced with Hariri’s refusal to denounce the investigation into his own father’s death, and reports that the tribunal was likely to release its report soon, Hezbollah rallied its March 8 allies and staged a walkout that was nearly perfectly timed to humiliate Hariri in front of Obama. By the time Hariri left Washington, it was already clear that his “national unity” Cabinet had fallen apart.

So why should you care? After all, Lebanon is the size of the Nutmeg State, and the government wasn’t doing much to begin with.

Lebanon has always punched above its weight on the world stage, and it is the place where regional powers have historically flexed their muscles. If there were hedging stakes involved, today would be a day to sell America and Saudi Arabia, and buy Iran and Syria.

Paul Salem, Middle East Center director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace predicts that Lebanon could “drift without a government for months.” He does not predict violence, but he thinks such drifting “might destabilize a part of the world that the U.S. cares about.” Omar Nashabe, a journalist for the pro-opposition newspaper Al-Akhbar agrees, saying Hezbollah “will only resort to violence when [it] fears its weapons are threatened in a direct way.”

However, since Hezbollah lost Syria as its domestic patron in April 2005, it has shown that it excels at consolidating power in periods of instability—with or without violence. And as of Wednesday, instability is the name of the game in Lebanon.

Indeed, Salem thinks it is more slightly likely that the Hezbollah-led March 8 movement will come out on top by winning the support of Walid Jumblatt, the “bellwether” of Lebanese politics. In a symbolic blow to the Hariri government, Jumblatt, who leads the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, left the March 14 camp in spring 2010, recasting himself as an independent after years of supporting the West. Winning his support—which both March 14 and March 8 are likely t0 work very hard to gain—will be key to forming a new government. Salem categorized the scale of the efforts by both sides as “neck and neck.”

What does it mean for the United States if Lebanon has a March 8 government?

Hezbollah’s political style is more confrontational than that of the March 14 movement, but it has learned and adapted since formally entering politics in 2005, and it has not always chosen to pursue violence, as is sometimes portrayed in the West. It remains wholly belligerent toward Israel, and its strength will act as a destabilizing force between the two countries and could eventually ignite a broader regional conflict. But for now?

If Hezbollah and its March 8 coalition do form a government, it will be viewed as the formal end to the March 14 movement, which was forged during the heady days of George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” when American influence in the Levant was at its peak. American influence in Lebanon has been in decline ever since. Even if March 14 is able to maintain its majority in Parliament and form another Cabinet, its power will be greatly diminished. Iran and Syria will have won the day. According to Salem, a Hezbollah-led Cabinet means the United States will “have lost a friend and gained an enemy.”

Ideologically, though, the March 14 movement collapsed long ago. The Cabinet hadn’t met for more than a month, and many of Lebanon’s pressing issues were never really addressed. Its infrastructure is crumbling, there is still widespread political corruption, and the movement’s passionate anti-Syrian core felt let down by the leadership’s various compromises with Damascus. The only real success was holding things together enough to convince foreigners to return to the country and pump money back into the tourism sector.

As to who killed Rafik Hariri … does it even matter at this point?

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