Is Lebanon's Government in Danger?

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The White House warning sounded ominous: Iran and Syria are trying to topple Lebanon's democratically elected government with the help of Hizballah, said Presidential spokesman Tony Snow at a press conference on Wednesday. The U.S. may paint Hizballah as nothing more than a terrorist pawn of Syria and Iran, but it remains the largest political party in Lebanon's democratic system. And attempts to topple the current government — led by pro-U.S. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora — are hardly new or secret. Ever since the end of this summer's war between Israel and Hizballah, both Lebanon's opposition and leaders of Hizballah have been demanding that Siniora's cabinet be replaced by a government of "national unity." The power struggle has as much to do with internal Lebanese politics as it does with the regional confrontation between the United States and it's rivals Iran and Syria.

The war that began on July 12 has dramatically altered Lebanese politics. Siniora's allies — an anti-Syria coalition of Sunni and Druze Muslims along with some Christians — blame Hizballah for provoking the conflict by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers, and accuse it of being a pawn in Iran's regional power game. But, Hizballah, the country's largest Shia Muslim party, suspects Siniora of collaborating with the United States and Israel in pursuit of their regional ambitions.

Siniora supporters see the national unity government call as a pretext for a Hizballah power-grab. "The Taif Accord [which brokered an end to Lebanon's civil war] divides power among religious groups, regardless of demographic changes," said Rami Rayess, a spokesman for the Progressive Socialist Party, the leading Druze faction of Siniora's coalition. According to Rayess, Shi'ite parties, who represent the fastest growing part of Lebanon's population, want to flex their muscles after what they see as Hizballah's "Divine Victory" over Israel this summer. "We have the fear that national unity is a cover for undermining Taif."

But Hizballah allies say that a unified government is necessary precisely because the country is divided and angry, and because of fear that the hostility between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq could spread to Lebanon. "This is a critical moment in Lebanese history, and in a region that is boiling from Baghdad to Gaza," said Ali Hamdan, a spokesman for the Amal Movement, a Shi'ite party allied with Hizballah. "It would be helpful for Lebanon to face these challenges with one heart."

Regardless of the state of the Lebanese debate, public support from the White House is unlikely to do the Siniora government much good. America's reputation in Lebanon plummeted as a result of what many Lebanese saw as the U.S.'s one-sided support for Israel during the summer's fighting. While Lebanon suffered five times as many casualties as Israel did, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the carnage the "birth pangs of a new Middle East" and actively slowed the international diplomatic push for a cease-fire, hoping that given more time Israel could do destroy Hizballah's military infrastructure.

"The war damaged the U.S. reputation in Lebanon even among those who have historically been favorable to the U.S., like myself," said Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "And U.S. support is unlikely to help this government. It has been unable to deliver on internal issues. The government has done nothing so far to start the process of reconstruction, though a lot of funds have been channeled to Lebanon."

With the next election still three years away, the Siniora government is in no danger of losing its majority in parliament. But it will face extra-parliamentary challenges such as demonstrations, strikes and civil strife, according to Moussalli. "The government can sustain itself legally, but its parliamentary majority doesn't represent opinion on the street. [Without a compromise] it's going to collapse."

Moussalli suggests that the best thing the U.S. could do for Lebanon (and for it's own reputation) is to stay out of internal Lebanese politics. "The U.S. should support Lebanon, not one particular group in Lebanon," he said. U.S. involvement only encourages Iranian and Syrian involvement, and Lebanon will once again move closer to crisis. "Things take on a momentum that is hard to stop," he warned.