Beirut: Lebanon faces yet another protracted crisis that could degenerate into civil unrest after the powerful Hezbollah forced the collapse of the government, analysts warn.
“We’ve entered into a politically drawn-out period where ... it’s probably going to take many months to form a new government,” said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre.
“I don’t think we have the makings of deliberate Hezbollah military action in Beirut, but we might soon be running the risk of unpredictable events on the street ... which could get out of hand,” Salem told AFP.
In a sweep led by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, 11 ministers withdrew from Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government Wednesday evening, providing the minimum number of resignations to automatically dissolve the 30-member cabinet.
The move was linked to a long-running dispute over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is reportedly set to indict high-ranking Hezbollah operatives in the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad’s father.
The Shiite militant group has warned any such accusation would have grave repercussions in Lebanon and has been pressing the Western-backed Hariri to disavow the tribunal, which it says is a US-Israeli ploy.
Energy minister Gebran Bassil, a Christian ally of Hezbollah who announced the resignations Wednesday, told AFP the next government would be formed under “totally different circumstances,” without elaborating.
Analysts say Wednesday’s move could signal the beginning of complete overhaul of who formally has the upper hand over Lebanon’s frail state institutions.
It could also be aimed at ensuring there is no government to make arrests when the STL issues its indictments, experts say.
“When the indictment comes out, the opposition (Hezbollah and its allies) would have to be in control of state institutions to prevent any ... arrest of suspects,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, research advisor at the Doha Institute’s Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies.
“It has no choice but to be in control of government (or government vacuum), otherwise all hell would break loose,” Saad-Ghorayeb, who authored a book on Hezbollah, told AFP.
“We’d be facing a scenario of civil war, as with what happened in May 2008. So the opposition has to guarantee that security remains in their hands specifically in order to avoid war.”
Wednesday’s cabinet collapse has thrown Lebanon into its worst political turmoil since 2008, when an 18-month government crisis culminated in deadly street fighting and the closure of the Beirut airport.
And while they continue to downplay the likelihood of violence in the immediate future, experts fail to see a viable exit from the growing crisis.
“Given the current polarisations in the country, things could spiral out of control with no prior notice,” said Sahar Atrache, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“The problem in Lebanon, however, is that things go gradually from one escalation to another,” Atrache told AFP.
“Right now we are facing political movement. What perhaps comes next is movement in the streets, and the possibility of violence is always there.
“But I wouldn’t go so far as to talk about civil war.”
President Michel Sleiman should now hold consultations with Lebanon’s 128 MPs on naming a new prime minister, who must be a Sunni Muslim.
While Hariri is the country’s most popular Sunni leader, it remains to be seen whether he will be reappointed given the animosity between his camp and Hezbollah.
Analysts said the appointment of a new premier hinges in part on the reshuffling of parliamentary alliances, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt holding 11 crucial votes in parliament.
Hariri’s coalition holds 60 seats while the rival Hezbollah-led camp comes a close second with 57 seats.
Once Hariri’s staunchest anti-Syrian ally, Jumblatt in 2009 announced he had repositioned himself closer to Hezbollah. Today, his MPs could determine whether a future government secures parliament’s vote of confidence.
“If Hariri refuses Hezbollah’s demands, he will definitely not be named prime minister,” said Saad-Ghorayeb.