Is Prime Minister Hariri’s government about to be toppled? This is the main question on people’s minds in Lebanese policy circles, to gauge from various conversations I had in Washington DC this week.
Certainly, all signs in Beirut point to the brewings of a major clash over the government’s support for the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). Last week, Hizbullah MP Nawwaf al-Mousawi warned that his party would deal with anyone who endorsed an indictment against members of the party as “tools of the US-Israeli invasion…[having] the same fate as the invader.” And yesterday, former minister (and Syrian megaphone) Wi’am Wahhab called on the Lebanese opposition “to resign from the cabinet and topple it as soon as possible.”
There’s no doubt that bringing down this government is perfectly doable, from a constitutional perspective. Thanks to the precedent of the Doha Agreement, the opposition holds one third of the seats in Hariri’s cabinet, and were all of its ministers to resign, it would only take one more defection to bring down the whole thing. That defection could come from one of the President’s minsters, or, more likely, from Jumblatt’s bloc.
However, the question is: what would this achieve? It would not impede the STL’s work, at least not in the short term. It would not halt the issuance of an indictment. And, most importantly, it would not undermine the legitimacy or credibility of the court, which is the main goal of the campaign against it.
Much more likely than an abrupt walk-out, in my opinion, is some kind of slow boil strategy, a wave of demonstrations organized by the opposition as a show of force and a display of public antipathy towards the “conspiracy” against the resistance. Hizbullah knows that it can’t prevent the STL from delivering an indictment: what it is trying to do is render that indictment politically meaningless by tarring the court as an Israeli tool.
Why, then, have we not seen any demonstrations yet? There seems to still be some hope that an agreement can be worked out that avoids a return to the paralysis of 2006-08. The question is: what room is there for negotiation? What the opposition wants from Hariri is very clear, and best summed up by Walid Jumblatt’s regular pronouncements on the subject:
The best way to establish justice in [former Premier Rafik] Hariri’s murder is through a united stance revealing the truth behind false witnesses and dismissing the use of the court by some states in an international game to serve their interests.
In other words, they want him to disavow the STL completely. Hariri has tried to meet the opposition halfway by admitting the existence of false witnesses who misled the investigation, but stopped short of saying that the court had no credibility. If we are to believe Nasrallah, Hariri has also offered to exonerate Hizbullah’s leadership by declaring those indicted members as “rogue elements”.
So far, Hizbullah has made it clear that it is not going to meet Hariri halfway, and so one wonders: why is he bothering to make these half-hearted concessions and send mixed signals about the STL? Is he still hoping that the “Syrian-Saudi agreement” will pressure Hizbullah to find some kind of face-saving solution for everyone involved? To judge from Walid al-Moallem’s comments in New York this week, this also looks unlikely.
If Hariri has a strategy beyond treading water until the indictments are released, its outlines have yet to emerge. What does he plan to do once the STL finally goes public? If arresting Hizbullah members is clearly out of the question (as everyone believes it is), won’t this failure to cooperate with the Tribunal put Lebanon in breach of the Chapter VII agreement that established it?
More on these matters later…
Tomorrow, the Qifa Nabki blog turns two! I’d like to thank you all for making it an engaging space for discussion about Lebanese affairs. While I foresee a lighter posting schedule in the next few months due to my professional obligations, I hope to keep the conversation going. Stay tuned over the next couple of days for my interviews with Thanassis Cambanis (author of a new book about Hizbullah), Andrew Tabler (fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy), and some thoughts on a panel discussion with Ziad Baroud hosted by IFES and USIP.