Incumbent Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri will remain in his post as head of a caretaker government in Lebanon, according to a report by the BBC yesterday. Lebanon had been poised to enter a period of political deadlock and uncertainty, and the Arab League described the situation in Lebanon as “tense,” after eleven ministers from Hariri’s ruling coalition resigned last week. The ministers, all of whom have ties to the powerful Hezbollah party, are angry about plans by a United Nations-backed tribunal to indict several of its members for their alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was also the father of current Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. Their decision effectively dismantled the government of national unity [glossary] that had been in place since 2008.
Lebanon appears to be entering a prolonged period of political stalemate which, unlike the longstanding stalemate in Belgium, will likely paralyze the country. The country is sharply divided along religious and sectarian lines and has a history of civil conflict. The National Pact, the informal agreement that has governed Lebanese politics since 1943, mandates that the top three political posts in the country be allocated on the basis of religion, with the country’s president be a Maronite Christian, its Prime Minister be a Sunni Muslim, and its Speaker of the Parliament be a Shi’a Muslim. The Pact also reserves half the parliament for Christian parties and half for Muslim parties.
Further, neighboring powers, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, have regularly intervened in Lebanese affairs.
The current political standoff in Lebanon is more than a simple problem of coalition [glossary] politics. Hezbollah, the favored party of the country’s Shi’a population, is more than an opposition party. It is also the most powerful military force in the country and frequently operates as a government in its own right, operating its own satellite television station and providing social services like subsidized housing and welfare support to people across the country. Internationally, Hezbollah’s paramilitary wing has been a strong opponent of Israel.
If al-Hariri is unable to re-establish a majority coalition in the parliament—a situation that appears highly unlikely, given Hezbollah’s strong opposition to the release of tribunal findings—Lebanon appears likely to remain in a political quagmire. Neither side can form a ruling coalition without the support of the other, but neither side appears willing to compromise.
But concerns also run deeper. Many domestic observers are cautioning that the political standoff could turn violent, rekindling tensions remaining from the Lebanese Civil War. And if that takes place, it is possible that Israel would feel compelled to intervene, as it did most recently in 2006, resulting in the displacement of some 1.5 million people in northern Israel and southern Lebanon More broadly such a conflict would also endanger the ongoing talks with the Palestinians. Unlike the political stalemate in Belgium, which has been unable to form a ruling coalition in its national parliament since elections in July 2010, the political stalemate in Lebanon appears both more fragile and more dangerous.