NOTE: This piece is being updated as the story develops. Updates will be added to the bottom of the post. See below.
The Lebanese opposition led by Hizbullah is expected to resign from PM Saad al-Hariri’s cabinet later today. Coupled with the resignation of one additional “neutral” minister, the Hariri government would be brought down and replaced by a caretaker cabinet until such time as a new premier and cabinet are selected. If history is any judge, such a process is liable to take months, under the best circumstances.
The current crisis has its roots in Hizbullah and AMAL’s cabinet walkout of late 2006, which led to over a year and a half of government paralysis, a huge downtown sit-in and protest, escalating street violence, the May 7 clashes, and, eventually, the Doha Agreement. The opposition’s principal demand at that stage was greater representation in cabinet — the so-called “blocking third” — so as to be able to meaningfully block legislation proposed by Hariri’s majority March 14 coalition. More fundamentally, the opposition was seeking a “nuclear option”: the ability to bring down the government in precisely this kind of situation, whereby Saad al-Hariri and his allies would remain committed to supporting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon all the way until the release of indictments.
If the opposition resigns later today, they will have finally exercised the option that they fought to gain between 2006 and 2008.
Many questions come to mind:
- Why now? What prompted the breakdown of the Saudi-Syrian initiative that was supposedly drawing close to some kind of temporary solution in Lebanon? Did the negotiations fall apart as a result of US pressure (as some are suggesting) or was the whole thing a charade from the beginning?
- Where do the local parties go from here? Will the opposition call for protests and strikes in an effort to display popular support for their call to end Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL? How will March 14th respond?
- When will the STL release its indictments? Rumors suggest that this could be imminent, but we are unlikely to learn the content of the indictments for weeks, given that the pre-trial judge will probably review them privately.
- Finally, and more crassly, who will come out on top in this confrontation between March 14 (and its allies in Washington and Riyadh on one hand) and March 8 (and its allies in Damascus and Tehran)? Are we headed for a “Doha 2” agreement?
Let’s not jump the gun. The opposition still needs to make good on its threat. Until then, the floor is open for discussion.
PS: I’m current traveling and will try to follow the story from the road, but I’m counting on the QN readership to post relevant news items in the comment section in case I am late to provide updates.
Update [5:30PM]: The deed is done. Lebanon’s cabinet opposition has resigned. The eleventh minister (Adnan Sayyed Hussein) is reportedly on his way to Baabda now to tender his resignation to President Suleiman. This was the way that the blocking third mechanism was supposed to work.
It’s a little bit early to get into the speculation game, but my sense is that the opposition’s maneuver was premature. They probably timed it to happen when Saad Hariri was meeting with Obama, so that the symbolism wasn’t lost on anyone. But if that was really the rationale, then I think it was a bit of a boneheaded move. One would have imagined that the opposition would have tried first to pressure Hariri by mobilizing a major public demonstration against the STL in order to give their demands a veneer of popular support, before withdrawing from the government. As is, all they’ve done is ensure that when the indictments do become public, there will almost certainly be no Lebanese government in place to formally denounce them.