Before dawn on Jan. 18, dozens of men dressed in black and carrying hand-held radios fanned out across the Lebanese capital. They were spotted on major roads from the airport to downtown Beirut. The black-clad men disappeared within a few hours. But by then, anxious parents rushed to pull their children out of school and Beirut residents spent the rest of the day on edge.
Lebanese and foreign media labeled the incident a “show of force” by Hezbollah, the Shiite political party and militia that brought down the Lebanese government two weeks ago. While Hezbollah’s media office coyly refused to confirm that the group had dispatched the black-clad men, one party official told a Lebanese newspaper: “This was just a small message to show that the time for talk is over.”
A day earlier, an international prosecutor issued the first indictment in the case that has set off Lebanon’s latest political crisis: a United Nations tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. While the charges remain sealed, Hezbollah leaders have acknowledged that they expect several party members to be indicted.
For months, Hezbollah has tried to discredit the tribunal, casting doubt on its evidence and witnesses. The group also pressured Saad Hariri — the slain leader’s son who was named prime minister in November 2009 — to end Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal and publicly reject its findings. Backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, the younger Hariri refused to disavow the investigation.
As the indictment neared, Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from the cabinet on Jan. 12, leading to the government’s collapse. Hariri became a caretaker prime minister, and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman was required to consult members of Parliament before appointing a new premier. Hariri’s supporters, who thought they had a slight majority in Parliament, vowed that they would only accept his return as prime minister.
But Hezbollah outmaneuvered Hariri and undermined his parliamentary majority, partly through the militia’s “show of force” last week. Hezbollah’s message was clear to most Lebanese: the tribunal has international support and the authority to issue indictments, but the real power lies on the streets of Lebanon — and Hezbollah dominates that arena with its overwhelming military superiority. The group was also sending a signal to Hariri, that support from the United States and other Western powers will not translate into a new reality on the streets.
In May 2008, Hezbollah proved its military might when it dispatched hundreds of heavily armed fighters into the largely Sunni areas of West Beirut. They quickly routed Sunni militiamen, seized their political offices and shut down media outlets owned by Hariri. At the time, Lebanon was in the midst of another long political stalemate, and Hezbollah acted in response to a government decision outlawing the militia’s underground fiber-optic communication network.
In recent weeks, Hezbollah has used the implicit threat of force and renewed sectarian conflict to persuade some Lebanese leaders that only it can offer stability. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a mercurial politician who had been allied with Hariri since 2005, announced last week that his parliamentary bloc would support Hezbollah’s candidate for prime minister. Jumblatt’s decision doomed Hariri.
On Tuesday, Hezbollah’s candidate — Najib Mikati, a Sunni billionaire who served as premier for three months in 2005 — secured a majority among lawmakers. Mikati won 68 votes, compared to 60 votes for Hariri. Mikati will now be tasked with forming a government, which could take weeks or even months. His selection set off protests across Lebanon by Hariri supporters, who called for a “day of rage.”
Each Lebanese faction accuses the other of serving external masters. Indeed, Lebanon is part of an ongoing proxy war in the region — pitting Iran and Syria (which support Hezbollah and its allies) against the United States, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab regimes (which back Hariri and his coalition of Sunni and Christian parties).
But while external players have a hand in the latest political paralysis, they do not deserve all the blame. The Lebanese need to find a larger political settlement of their own. Otherwise, the Sunni-Shiite rift in Lebanon could explode, especially since it has been fueled by years of sectarian bloodletting in Iraq.
And the U.N. tribunal has become the latest sectarian power keg. Mikati refused to say whether he would end the Lebanese government’s cooperation with the tribunal, but that was surely the price extracted by Hezbollah for supporting his candidacy. The tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, sent the first indictment on Jan. 17 to a pretrial judge, who will decide within six to 10 weeks if there is enough evidence to convene a trial. At that point, the indictment would become public and tribunal officials would formally request that Lebanese authorities arrest any named suspects. The judge could also reject the indictment or request more evidence, and the prosecutor could issue new indictments as the investigation unfolds.
Even if the next Lebanese government cuts off ties with the tribunal and eliminates its funding, the court would continue its work with grants from other Arab or European countries. But it is symbolically important for Hezbollah to convince Hariri to disavow the tribunal. Hezbollah portrays itself as a nationalist and pan-Islamic movement committed to fighting Israel. If the Shiite group is accused of killing Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni leader, then it would become just another sectarian militia in the eyes of the wider Arab and Muslim worlds.
Regardless of those regional calculations, Hezbollah remains the most powerful force in Lebanon — and it has the guns to guarantee that dominance.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.