The collapse of Lebanon’s government on Tuesday signaled the final stage in Hezbollah’s rise from resistance group to ruling power. While Hezbollah technically remains the head of the political opposition in Beirut, make no mistake: the Party of God has fully consolidated its control in Lebanon, and will stop at nothing — including civil war — to protect its position.
The crisis was precipitated by Hezbollah’s opposition to a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Some analysts speculate that the current Lebanese government — led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the assassinated man’s son — could stabilize the political situation by rejecting the legitimacy of the tribunal.
Mr. Hariri really has no choice but to stand firm in Hezbollah’s game of chicken: even if he could stymie Hezbollah in the short term by giving in, he would eventually have no authority at all were he to abandon the rule of law. He will have to insist on accountability for his father’s assassins, even if he loses his position in the process. His coalition remains a viable alternative to Hezbollah only as long as it sticks to the pluralistic and law-based values that distinguish it from its theocratic and belligerent enemies.
Today’s predicament in Lebanon mirrors that of much of the Arab world, where stability often comes at the price of justice. Furthermore, it highlights America’s limited influence. Washington lent strong rhetorical support to the Hariri coalition when it came first to power in 2005, but was unable to stop Hezbollah’s troops and their supporters from taking over the streets of Beirut and forcibly acquiring veto power over the government by gaining “the blocking third” — 10 of the cabinet’s 30 ministerial seats.
It was Hezbollah’s exercising of that power, with the resignation of the 10 opposition ministers along with one independent, that toppled the government this week just when Prime Minister Hariri was meeting with President Obama in Washington.
To an outsider, the crisis might appear baffling. More than five years after the car-bomb murder of Rafik Hariri, the international tribunal is still meandering its way toward indicting suspects. Hezbollah, re-armed and resurgent after the war with Israel in the summer of 2006, has had a string of political and popular victories. The influence of its sponsors, Syria and Iran, has only grown. And talks between Syria and Saudi Arabia that might have stabilized the government fell apart this week.
Why, then, would Hezbollah change the political dynamic now?
Simply put, Hezbollah cannot afford the blow to its popular legitimacy that would occur if it is pinned with the Hariri killing. The group’s power depends on the unconditional backing of its roughly 1 million supporters. Its constituents are the only audience that matters to Hezbollah, which styles itself as sole protector of Arab dignity from humiliation by Israel and the United States.
These supporters will be hard-pressed to understand, much less forgive, their party if it is proved to have killed a leader who was loved by the nation’s Sunni Muslims and also respected by Christians, Druze and even many Shiites, who form Hezbollah’s core support. That is why Hezbollah denies any role in the assassination even though it has unabashedly taken responsibility for destabilizing moves like setting off the 2006 war with Israel or pushing Lebanon to the brink of civil war in 2008.
But its excuses are wearing thin. Leaked evidence based on cellphone records has placed a Hezbollah team at the scene of the assassination. Hezbollah’s leaders insist that its men were trying to protect Rafik Hariri, and that Israel was behind the killing. But if it is proved to have taken part in the Hariri hit and assassination campaigns against other moderate Lebanese figures, Hezbollah will look to many civilians like just another power-drunk militant movement.
What options remain for the younger Mr. Hariri? He leads a fractious and shrinking coalition that in 2009 won a majority of seats in Parliament but got fewer votes than Hezbollah and its allies. Yet his best strategy is simple, if he has the stomach for it: stick with the tribunal and let it air its evidence at trial.
It will be up to the international prosecutors to furnish compelling evidence that Hezbollah (or its Syrian backers) killed Rafik Hariri. For now, the prime minister must insist more convincingly that he trusts the process to be fair: If Hezbollah is innocent, it will be exonerated at trial; if it is guilty, then why should it escape?
The odds of this strategy succeeding are not great: Hezbollah is likely to emerge the end winner because it is willing to sacrifice the Lebanese state to maintain its standing in the Middle East and its perpetual war against Israel. But Lebanon’s lonely prime minister has no better choice than to play the long shot for a just resolution; otherwise, he’ll become a steward of Hezbollah’s impunity.
Thanassis Cambanis, the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.