It’s been an almost endless summer in Lebanon, with beach weather and relative political harmony continuing well into November. The only thing marring what could have been a perfect year for a country more accustomed to serving as a battleground in regional power struggles was the fact that Lebanon has had no government since parliamentary elections in June. That was until Monday, when the majority U.S.-backed political bloc and its rivals in the Syria- and Iran-backed minority coalition finally agreed on a new power-sharing Cabinet. But while the deal ends the three-year political crisis that brought the country to the brink of civil war, it doesn’t address the question underlying the dispute: Should Lebanon be a Westward-looking business-oriented tourist playground, or a frontline bastion of resistance to Israel?
Although the Western path edged out the militant posture of Hizballah at the polls in June, Lebanon’s weak political system, structured according to sect, and Hizballah’s status as one of the world’s most dangerous nonstate armies, guarantees that the Shi’ite militia will remain a force to be reckoned with in Lebanese politics.
Ever since it survived a 33-day onslaught by Israel in the summer of 2006, Hizballah has accused the American- and Saudi-backed ruling coalition of doing Israel’s work by seeking to disarm the organization’s armed wing. (The argument by its rivals is that no state can tolerate the existence of private armies independent of the sovereign government.) After the issue provoked more than a year of massive demonstrations and sit-ins in central Beirut, Hizballah tried to settle matters the old-fashioned way in May 2008 by storming pro-government positions in West Beirut. But while its highly trained fighters easily overran the government supporters, the move alienated many Lebanese, and a democratic victory — which would have given Hizballah’s military wing all the political cover it desired — proved to be elusive. While Hizballah and its allies easily carried the Shi’ite vote, the Christian ally it would have needed to form a government was soundly defeated in that community’s polls.
Although it accepted defeat in its effort to win control of the government at the ballot box, Hizballah has since maneuvered behind the scenes to rig the composition of the Cabinet in its favor. First it demanded veto power over all decisions, but eventually it accepted a compromise formula that left the ruling coalition without a large enough majority to make big decisions on its own. Still not content with that, the opposition pushed for control of Lebanon’s telecommunications system, which would give Hizballah added operational security from Israeli intelligence — but could also help it hamper the activities of the U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. That tribunal has implicated Syrian officials in the killing, and much of its evidence comes from telephone records. Though Hizballah has denied wanting to derail the investigation, such pressure on its patron could disrupt the flow of weapons over the Syrian border to the Shi’ite group’s arsenal.
Saad Hariri, son of the murdered former Prime Minister and leader of the ruling coalition, initially balked at Hizballah’s terms, but eventually had no choice but to give in. Lebanon’s longstanding deadly rivalries and the ever present threat of violence have made Lebanese politicians wary of acting unilaterally, which is why Hariri invited Hizballah and its allies into the Cabinet in the first place. And Hariri is increasingly isolated, with none of his allies being prepared to confront Hizballah head-on given the experience of the May 2008 mini–civil war.
While the Bush Administration regarded the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon in 2005 — as a result of international pressure and Lebanese street protests — as one of its biggest successes in the Middle East, the new Obama Administration has been less aggressive in its backing for the pro-U.S. Lebanese government. Lebanese media also suggest that Saudi Arabia was dismayed that Hariri’s Future movement, which had been building a militia with Saudi money, was so easily routed by Hizballah in the May 2008 street fights. Last month, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah traveled to Damascus for a state visit with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in part to bury the hatchet over Lebanon. Even Hariri’s coalition is breaking apart. Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and one of the architects of the anti-Syrian movement (he once told a Washington audience that America should send car bombs to Damascus), has seen which way the wind is blowing and transformed himself into an ardent Syria-phile.
But the government’s caving in to Hizballah and Syria will have its consequences: most importantly it’s a message to those in Lebanon — and the wider Middle East — who put their trust in the U.S. and political reform that guns are still more powerful than votes. Watching the Syrian-backed opposition hamstring the investigation into his father’s murder will have been a bitter pill for Hariri and his followers to swallow. When the time comes to settle scores, they may be more likely to choose bullets rather than ballots to do the job.