Many of the Middle East’s oldest tensions have long run through tiny Lebanon, a nation once again in crisis after the collapse of its government Wednesday. What may be new in this latest crisis is a stronger desire among many Lebanese for democracy and rule of law rather than the use of violence to settle disputes.
Those hopes for a more principled society may help explain why Hezbollah (Party of God), the radical Shiite group and the strongest military force in Lebanon, used constitutional means to bring down the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Hezbollah simply withdrew its support from the ruling coalition, precipitating a political drama that may play out for days, even months. Just two years ago, its militants were killing Sunnis in the streets of Beirut to exert their demands.
In addition, the stronger desire for rule of law is restraining Hezbollah and working against the likelihood that it might use guns to thwart a decision expected soon about its possible role in a high-level assassination. Here’s why:
A United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague is expected to act in coming weeks on a probe of the 2005 bomb that killed Rafik Hariri, a prime minister at the time. He was also the father of the leader just brought down by the Hezbollah-led opposition. A decision by the The Hague’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon to finger any figures within Hezbollah would undercut that group’s efforts to paint itself as a protector of all Lebanese – despite its Shiite roots and close ties to Iran and Syria.
A mere indictment of Hezbollah officials – even without capturing or convicting any of those accused – for the killing of the popular Hariri (and 22 others) would ruin the group’s self-proclaimed status as the indispensable force for all Lebanese against Israel and other foreign powers.
The group is caught in a logic trap set by this tribunal: The use of violence to defend its claim that it didn’t kill Hariri would only help confirm suspicions that it actually did. And if it again resorted to killing Sunnis in coming days, it would further erode its legitimacy among Lebanon’s religious groups.
Even absent this logic trap, though, ideals such as justice and democracy have a way of exposing the violent, the corrupt, and the unjust, if ever so slowly. Many in Lebanon and elsewhere would rather seek stability and negotiate a compromise that would blunt the tribunal’s actions. That may buy time and temporary stability but not bring the kind of long-term peace that democratic principles can bring – a lesson much of the Middle East has yet to learn.
As US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told regional Arab leaders in Qatar today: “If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum. Extremist elements, terrorist groups, and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there appealing for allegiance and competing for influence.”
The democratic pull of the Lebanese is working against the autocratic ways of Hezbollah and its backers, Syria and Iran.
While Iran’s corrupt cleric class has only further isolated itself with its dictatorial methods, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, seems as if he may want to end his country’s isolation. If so, he must restrain Hezbollah and support democratic means to form a new government in Lebanon.
But even if democracy prevails, so too must justice. Any new government in Lebanon must continue to support the UN tribunal. The UN Security Council set it up to help Lebanon go beyond its violent past. And so far, those efforts appear to be winning.