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Hezbollah Rising: A New Era Begins in Lebanon

The New York Times headline says it all: “Hezbollah Chooses Lebanon’s Next Prime Minister.” Hezbollah’s candidate, Najib Miqati, secured enough support yesterday to form a new government. Supporters of ousted PM Sa’ad Hariri, as seen in this al-Jazeera video, are calling the development a “coup.”

photo by Bilal Hussein, taken in Lebanon yesterday, via the Washington PostHariri, whose government was disintegrated by Hezbollah when he refused to denounce the UN tribunal that is expected to indict members of the group for his father’s assassination, has refused to join a government run by a Hezbollah appointee. Hariri is considered by most Lebanese Sunni Muslims to be their leader, so his absence from the government leaves a large chunk of the population unrepresented and effectively consolidates Hezbollah’s power. Miqati has not yet spoken about the tribunal, but his acceptance of the nomination was allegedly contingent on his agreement to cease all cooperation with it and  halt its funding upon assuming office.

Tensions are rising fast. The Times describes the scene last night:

By nightfall, angry opponents of Hezbollah took to the streets in parts of Beirut, Tripoli and other cities, burning tires, shouting slogans and offering at least an image of what many feared Hezbollah’s victory might unleash: strife among communities in a country almost evenly divided over questions of foreign patrons; posture toward Israel; and the relative power of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims, represented by Hezbollah, and its Sunni foes.

Acrid smoke billowed into a nighttime sky, as barricades temporarily blocked some roads into Beirut before security forces dispersed the demonstrators. Hezbollah’s foes called for “a day of anger in all of Lebanon” on Tuesday, and martial language and cries of treason began punctuating the public discourse.

“Down with Hezbollah! Down with Miqati!” young men shouted in Beirut.

This victory — which depended on the support of Druze leader and gifted political flip-flopper Walid Jumblatt, who became allied with Hezbollah all of a week ago — marks the apotheosis of Hezbollah’s ascension into the mainstream of Lebanese politics. And because Hezbollah is Iran’s obedient offspring, its nominee — the billionaire and soon-to-be-premier Miqati — is being viewed by some as little more than an Iranian proxy. Israeli Vice PM Silvan Shalom, for instance, describes the new situation as “an Iranian government on Israel’s northern border.”

But these events do not (yet) represent a full conquest of Lebanon by Iran. For one thing, the view that Iran is pulling all the strings discounts the great influence Syria continues to have over events. (Syria, not Iran, is believed to have selected Miqati.) As long as Hezbollah remains beholden not only to the mullahs in Teheran but also to the ostensibly secular Syrian dictator, they will be hard-pressed to drag Lebanon into a full-scale theocratic thugocracy. (Of course, all bets are off if Bashar al-Assad gets religion, which in this neighborhood is by no means out of the question.)

And as the protests in the streets suggest, the nation’s people are not yet down for the count. Hezbollah, which has no experience constructing governments, could easily antagonize its Sunni opponents to the point that they are stirred to direct, and possibly organized, confrontation. As the Times suggests, a Sunni militancy could arise as a backlash against Hezbollah, particularly in restive Sunni strongholds like Tripoli. A development of that kind has the potential to backfire badly for Hezbollah, since most of the greater Arab world is Sunni. (Oh, and by the way — lest you think anything about this region is ever simple – Miqati himself, the handpicked candidate of Shiite Hezbollah, is Sunni too. That was almost certainly part of the calculation in choosing him, but Hariri’s Sunni supporters aren’t buying it.)

The US will obviously need to review Lebanon’s status as an ally, particularly if the new government disavows the UN tribunal. (According to al-Jazeera, hints have already been made that the change in government will affect American aid.) Israel remains publicly unruffled by the developments, with one person — IDF general (ret.) and former national security adviser Giora Eiland — spotting a silver lining. “If Hezbollah is behind the government,” he said, “it will be much easier to explain to the international community why we must fight against the State of Lebanon.” (I’m not quite as reassured by this as he is, but it’s something.)

In the meantime, we wait. Today is meant to be the “day of rage.” It’s still morning. I’ll let you know what the day brings.