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LEBANON: Another descent into a long crisis

Following last week’s decision by Hezbollah to bring down the government of Saad Hariri, Lebanon has likely entered a period of extended crisis with a caretaker government. It will be marked by fitful attempts to form a new government; negotiations, scheduled to begin this week, have already been postponed.

This is the latest escalation in the long crisis over the U.N. special tribunal investigating the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

For the time being, the security situation remains calm, although tense. The crisis remains at the political level, and Hezbollah’s overwhelming military force makes it unlikely that its opponents will try to challenge it on the street.

Cargenie On Monday, the tribunal announced that the prosecutor had submitted his sealed indictment to the pre-trial judge. The judge, Daniel Franson, is expected to take between six and 10 weeks to weigh the evidence. Franson can confirm or reject the indictment in whole or in part, or ask for more evidence.

Parliament remains divided between the March 8 coalition, backed by Hezbollah, and the March 14 coalition of Saad Hariri. Although the March 14 coalition has made clear that it will nominate Hariri for another term and the bulk of the opposition has said it will nominate an alternative -- probably former Prime Minister Omar Karami -- the outcome is uncertain. Druze leader Walid Junblatt and parliament speaker Nabih Berri have been urging both sides to return to negotiations. But tensions are riding high and no consensus is emerging.

If neither candidate wins a clear majority, the president will ask for more time to pursue internal and external consultations.

If the March 8 nominee gets a clear majority, the president would be obliged to allow the opposition to try and form a government by itself. The new government would be very controversial and would certainly cut off official ties with the U.N. tribunal. Domestic and regional tensions would rise significantly -- the Sunni community would accuse Hezbollah of taking away its representation in Lebanon’s carefully calibrated congressional system. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt would react negatively. Even Qatar and Turkey have made clear that any new government should respect the outlines of the Doha agreement that ended the last crisis in 2008 that stipulated a national unity government in which all major parties and communities would feel well-represented.

It is also possible that Saad Hariri would get the nomination, in which case he would be unable to form a new government anytime soon and the current stalemate would simply continue.

For the time being, daily life is proceeding normally and tensions on the street remain moderate. Lebanon is quite used to functioning without an effective government.

The next major shock to the system, however, will be the announcement of indictments from the U.N. tribunal -- which could occur anytime in the next couple of months. Some reports are indicating that the indictments will accuse Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei of ordering the assassination and that it was carried out in cooperation with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Syria and Hezbollah.

If the indictments indeed go in this direction, the crisis will engulf the country and the region. Iran and Syria will effectively interpret this as a declaration of war, in which case they would abandon any talk of a unity government in Lebanon and urge Hezbollah to launch a full takeover of state institutions.

If the indictments prove to be more limited, however, there would be a better chance of hammering out an agreement and putting together a coalition government.

In this crisis where issues of justice, stability and security coincide, and where a complex knot of sectarian, political, regional and international interests intersect, there is a strong chance the situation will get worse before it gets better. A solution appears a long ways away.

-- Paul Salem in Beirut

Editor’s note: The post is from an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor Babylon & Beyond endorses the positions of the analysts, nor does Carnegie endorse the political positions of The Times or its blog.

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