The Grand Serail, an Ottoman-era palace that houses Lebanon’s government, began its life as a garrison for Turkish soldiers. The buff limestone building was restored after this country’s long civil war, and it still looms over downtown Beirut like a hilltop fortress, with its arabesque arches punctuating the façade like so many cannon slits.
In the current political battle for Lebanon, the Serail has become a garrison once again, under siege by an angry army of opposition camped out in white refugee tents in the squares of central Beirut. On Sunday, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators answering Hizballah and its allies’ call for reinvigorated protests to topple the government, the Lebanese Army lined the causeways leading to the Serail with razor-wire barricades and tank columns, while riot police in full black battle armor guarded the citadel’s gates.
The heightened security was one reason why the Prime Minister’s speech from the Serail on Sunday — to mark the anniversary of the car bomb assassination of an anti-Syrian newspaper publisher — was so sparsely attended. In the silent moment before the telecast went live, Fouad Siniora stood at his podium in the chandeliered Great Hall with his back to the windows facing downtown while the sound of the chants and cheers from the miked-up multitude below seeped through the drawn curtains and echoed off the chamber’s marble walls. “Down with Siniora,” the demonstrators have often shouted. “Siniora Out” and sometimes even “Death to Siniora.”
A plan for a compromise solution that would give the opposition greater representation in and effective veto power over a new “National Unity” government is being promoted by an Arab League envoy. There was a time not too long ago that such a deal could perhaps have been enough to assuage Hizballah’s concerns that Siniora and his government are American puppets who are intent on disarming the Shi’ite militia and reshaping the Middle East in Israel’s favor. But the standoff between the Hizballah-led opposition and the government has lately become so raw, and so personal, that it is hard to imagine anything resembling unity returning to Lebanon anytime soon.
The rhetorical battle took a turn for the worse on Thursday, when in a speech that was broadcast to the crowds in Beirut on giant projection screens, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Siniora’s government of collaborating with Israel to destroy Hizballah in this summer’s war with the Jewish state, in part by trying to block supplies from reaching the battlefront of southern Lebanon. Siniora and his allies have responded by saying that Hizballah is acting on orders from Iran and Syria — from whom the group’s military wing receives weapons and other aid — to destabilize Lebanon and mount a coup d’etat.
Though Nasrallah urged demonstrators to remain peaceful, in the violent world of Levantine politics, insinuating that a wartime prime minister collaborated with the enemy is just a few steps away from calling for an assassination. At the very least it complicates any potential for compromise: how can one negotiate with traitors, or for that matter, coup plotters? The accusations of treason are also at odds with how many in Lebanon remember Siniora’s behavior during the war: He broke down in tears on television asking the world, and especially the United States, to push Israel for an immediate cease-fire.
But members of Siniora’s governments have been taking no chances since last month’s killing of Lebanese Minister of Industry Pierre Gemmayel. Several ministers have taken up quarters in the Serail, sleeping in offices and doing laundry in the bathrooms. “It’s surrealistic,” said Jihad Azour, the Minister of Finance, who had spent Saturday night at the Serail as a sign of support for Siniora, who now rarely leaves his government’s headquarters. Dressed in a corduroy jacket and black bowling sneakers, he looked less like a member of the cabinet than someone’s uncle on a tour. “This government was part of the Resistance. I was part of the Resistance. I kept the government functioning during the war. Each of us felt like we were resisting the Israeli occupation. Then three months afterwards to be treated like a traitor. It’s unbelievable.”
Though they are stuck in the Serail, Siniora and ministers still have plenty of support. On the same day that the opposition resumed its mass protests, pro-government counter-demonstrators, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, rallied in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, several miles up the coast. If the pro-Siniora forces lack the organizational clout of Hizballah, most independent observers agree that the country is split nearly even between those who support the government and those who want to bring it down.
The problem is that Hizballah is also fighting for its survival and unlikely to back down. The group’s patron, Syria, is on the run from a UN investigation that has implicated the Assad regime in the car bomb assassination last year of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, an event that led to the end of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. Moreover, UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the summer war with Israel, also placed thousands of new UN soldiers in southern Lebanon, which had been uncontested Hizballah territory since the group drove Israel out in 2000. “Both sides have decided that this is an existential struggle and that they are in it all the way,” said a senior Western diplomat. And the longer the struggle continues, the greater the stakes become.
In his speech on Thursday, Nasrallah declared that unless the government resigned soon, Hizballah would demand even greater concessions than just a blocking veto in the cabinet. Nasrallah also threatened an escalation of tactics to include unspecified acts of civil disobedience, which could range from strikes by government employees who support the opposition, shutdowns at the ports and airport, and a walkout by opposition members of parliament.
Whether or not the two sides reach a compromise, what is clear is that Lebanon contradictory role as the bridge between East and West — both open to foreign investment and the frontline of the Arab struggle against Israel — has been badly damaged. Lebanon is losing some $ 40 million each day the crisis continues, in lost business and from the costs of deploying the army and police round the clock in Beirut, according to government ministers. This is on top of the reconstruction costs from the war with Israel, and from the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, which together have put the country about $40 billion in debt — $9 billion of which comes due next year. But with Syria reportedly re-supplying Hizballah with arms, and Israel threatening to return in greater force this spring, international investors may soon decide that the country’s troubles have just begun. Which means that Lebanon could soon find itself as isolated as its prime minister.