Hizballah Plays Politics in Lebanon

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In a normal democracy, the resignation of a few ministers wouldn't spark a constitutional crisis. But Lebanon is anything but normal — it's a sectarian democracy, based upon the balance of power between religious groups. And that balance is now collapsing.

On Sunday, Hizballah, the militia and Shi'a Muslim political party, pulled out of the governing coalition along with Amal, another Shi'a political party. Hizballah and Amal, which together represent almost all of Lebanon's Shi'a, had been demanding four new cabinet positions on the grounds that their resistance against Israel during the war over the summer merits greater representation in government.

The prime minister, Fouad Siniora — perhaps wondering why he should reward Hizballah for single-handedly starting the destructive war by kidnapping three Israeli soldiers — balked at a move that would have given Hizballah effective veto power. Instead he offered three seats, which Hizballah and Amal rejected, promising street demonstrations in return.

Since Siniora still has a majority, he could go on trying to run the country without participation from the Shi'a parties. The constitution specifies that the country's president must be Christian, its prime minister must be Sunni Muslim, and that the speaker of parliament must be Shi'a Muslim. It doesn't, however, say what the balance of the cabinet has to be. But it would be practically impossible for the government to have legitimacy and effectiveness without any Shi'a, who are, after all, the country's largest religious group.

Lebanon's current internal political breakdown is in many ways a reflection of the wider Middle East clash between East and West. The war between Israel and Hizballah was in some ways a proxy battle between the United States (which supplies money and weapons to Israel) and Iran and Syria (which supply money and weapons to Hizballah), and the country is very much divided along those same lines. Hizballah's desire for greater say in the government reflects its concern that Siniora and his allies will cooperate with the U.S. and the United Nations to disarm Hizballah, which was one component of the ceasefire that ended the war this summer; Hizballah is the only political party that kept its weapons after the end of the Civil War in 1990.

"What we are witnessing now is the politics of brinksmanship," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "Who will back off first? There is a crisis for Siniora and the majority. They cannot afford to give Hizballah and their allies a veto in the cabinet. Hizballah meanwhile is fighting for their necks. They are being chased by Security Council resolutions calling for their disarmament. They brought the political system to a standstill. Hizballah is suffering as well."

No one in Lebanon really knows how this game of chicken will play out. Beirut has been tense all week, with police units out in force around key government buildings, checking bags and scaring off what few tourists remain in the city. The concern is that Hizballah anti-government demonstrations will provoke pro-government counter demonstrations, risking confrontations between the two sides. In the meantime, the country's economy, already burdened by this summer's destruction, will continue to suffer. Post-war reconstruction remains in paralysis.

In the end, the winner of Lebanon's political confrontation may be determined not by street protests in Beirut but by political jockeying in Washington. With Democrats pushing the Bush Administration to engage with Syria and Iran over the turmoil in Iraq, Hizballah may gain from the newfound stature of its patrons, according to Khashan. Still, that effect remains to be seen. "This is the Middle East," said Khashan. "You always have new uncontrolled variables that transform the situation at the last minute." One thing is for certain: now more than ever, Lebanon doesn't have time on its side.