Lebanon’s entry into the unknown means that the questions are multiplying, while the answers are becoming fewer, if not disappearing entirely. Among the many questions: do the current developments in Lebanon resemble those of the phase that preceded the dispute over the extension of the mandate of President Emile Lahoud? This period resulted in the issuing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, as events then moved toward the assassination of former Premier Rafiq Hariri. Or, has Lebanon entered a phase such as that which preceded the political struggle and long-term tent-city protest in Downtown Beirut, which led to the military actions of 7 May 2008, to change the political balance of power that had been produced by the post-Hariri assassination period? Does the chain of events, after the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri was brought down, signal the end of the regional-international understanding over Lebanon, with the small country set now to see waves of crisis, and Arab and international efforts, such as those that led to failure after failure following the eruption of civil war in 1975? This was followed by Israeli wars against Lebanon, domestic wars, occupations, areas of influence, and the division of state institutions by force.
There are no clear answers to any of these questions. The phase of the unknown that Lebanon has just entered might be a mix of all of these scenarios. One single scenario – from among those experienced by Lebanon over various phases during the civil war, and after it, and after 2004-2005 – might not be valid. There have been changes in the identity of the players, in the circumstances, and in the regional and international balances of power; there have been changes in the factors that govern how Lebanon overlaps with the leading issues and crises in the Middle East.
As we await answers about the coming phase of the unknown, we should note some ironies that are related to what has happened, and what will happen.
First: the two local sides in the struggle were aware that the failure of the Saudi-Syrian initiative would lead to the fall of Hariri’s government. They knew that Hariri was aware of this, and did not rule it out, and that Syria and its allies, particularly Hezbollah, had specified the steps that Hariri should take before the “S-S” effort (Saudi Arabia and Syria) became active. This is why the Hariri camp does not seemed frightened by the fall of his government, and why Hezbollah and Syria’s allies do not seem tense; instead, they appear sure of themselves, as Damascus behaves uncharacteristically calmly.
Second: the crisis, along with the search for solutions to it, has undergone a so-called “transfer” from outside to inside the country; this comes as the outside world is up to its ears in the details of this crisis, more than any time before. The outside world has become a “domestic” side par excellence, due to the intermingling of the local and the foreign. The talk of seeing the crisis move to an inter-Lebanese treatment can only mean that the struggle over Lebanon by outside powers has been resumed, even though the Syrians are keen to hint that Saudi Arabia made honest efforts, while the Saudis remain silent. What has taken place signals that at the minimum, the two countries are not in agreement: if they were in agreement, the domestic Lebanese parties would have carried out the commitments to which they had agreed.
However, it is also true that neither “S” wants to retreat from the reconciliation that was conducted in Kuwait two years ago, which gave a new dynamism to their bilateral relations.
Moreover, when the “outside” powers are weak, they are brought in to the country, in one way or another. Israel, compared to other, Western and regional powers, has seen its domestic role in Lebanon shrink since the Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty of 17 May 1984 was canceled the following year. It retreated from Lebanon under the blows of the resistance in 2000, experienced failure and defeat in 2006, and then saw the collapse of its espionage and intelligence capabilities in Lebanon over the last three years. Even so, domestic parties are identified as pro-Israeli to justify turning the “outside parties” into “domestic ones.” The most powerful foreign side in Lebanon, namely Syria, is leading a relentless struggle with another foreign player, which is Western and Arab. The calculations of domestic and foreign parties have also come to include the need to choose between Syria and Iran, without ignoring the alliance of these two countries, and these are very complicated calculations.
Third: with the fall of the government, the regional-international understanding has also fallen by the wayside, according to a formula that formed the basis for reaching a Saudi-Syrian agreement, whose failure was announced. This formula was based on two items: seeing the government of Hariri remain in power, and preserving the stability of security in Lebanon.
If the dropping of the first item leads to the dropping of the second, according to the escalatory steps that the opposition intends to carry out, then things will exceed moving to the edge of the abyss; they will head toward the abyss, under the pretext of confronting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. But in any case, bringing down the government is aimed at re-constituting power in Lebanon. This is in light of the failure of Saudi-Syrian cooperation that produced the current political authority, with the formation of the government that was brought down two days ago.
*Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on Jan. 14, 2011.