A sudden flare-up of street violence in Beirut appears to have broken an 18-month political impasse between the Western-backed government and the opposition, led by the militant Shiite Hezbollah
With armed gunmen roaming the streets of the Lebanese capital, districts sealed by burning barricades, and Beirut airport blockaded, a potentially climactic struggle has begun over the future identity of this tiny Mediterranean country.
"This is a turning point. There can be no more cohabitation between the government and the opposition. All trust is gone," says Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a Lebanese political analyst and expert on Hezbollah "The state is going to be the focus of the struggle, symbolically and practically as well."
The showdown was triggered by a dispute over Hezbollah's private telephone network, with the government declaring the network illegal earlier this week.
"The decision is tantamount to a declaration of war ... on the resistance and its weapons in the interest of America and Israel," said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a news conference aired live on television Thursday. "Those who try to arrest us, we will arrest them. Those who shoot at us, we will shoot at them. The hand raised against us, we will cut it off."
Coming days are crucial
The coming days could decide which vision of Lebanon ultimately triumphs – a liberal, Western-friendly, free-market economy and tourist hub catering to wealthy Arabs; or a key component of a regional alliance that seeks to confront Israel and thwart Western influence in the Middle East.
Lebanon has been mired in a deep political crisis for 18 months and without a president since November.
Many analysts predicted that the stalemate would continue for many more months as neither side could afford a confrontation that could lead to civil war. Furthermore, the politics of Lebanon often are shaped by the broader interests of external powers – such as the US, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and France – all of which have invested political capital here in the struggle for dominance in the Middle East.
"The variables of the big players have not changed. So on one level nothing much has changed," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center. But, he adds, the risk lies in the deliberate "testing of wills" and "drumming up the public" spilling out of control, leading to an unwanted escalation that the leaders on both sides are no longer able to control.
On Wednesday, Sheikh Rashid Qabbani, the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon, used unusually harsh words to denounce Hezbollah as a "gang of outlaws," warning that Sunnis "have had enough."
Tensions in Lebanon have erupted on the streets before, but each time the rival leaderships have pulled back from the brink. This time, however, both sides appear determined to proceed along their perilous paths.
"It's a showdown. No one can back down," says a European diplomat.
Still, it is unclear why the crisis has escalated now. Last week, the government and its supporters and the opposition were mulling over a proposal by Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker and an opposition leader, for a round-table dialogue among Lebanon's top leaders.
At the weekend, however, Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze community and an outspoken critic of Hezbollah unleashed a ferocious verbal barrage against the Shiite group. He accused Hezbollah of building its own private telephone network and of conducting surveillance of Beirut airport using hidden security cameras with a possible motive to conduct attacks or kidnappings. He demanded the expulsion of the Iranian ambassador to Beirut and a cessation of Iranian civilian flights to Beirut.
Hezbollah's telecom network
It has been known for some time that Hezbollah has installed a private non-commercial fiber-optic land-line telephone network to provide secure communications between its leaders and the cadres. The network is extensive, stretching from Hezbollah's headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut to south Lebanon. Since the summer 2006 war with Israel, the system has spread further into the Bekaa Valley in the east and even into mainly Christian and Druze areas of the Mount Lebanon district, according to Marwan Hamade, the minister of telecommunications and a close ally of Mr. Jumblatt.
"It has been installed with the support of the Iranians," he says. "It is Iran telecom, a totally parallel network to the state network."
On Tuesday, after a marathon cabinet session, the government announced that Hezbollah's private network was "illegal and unconstitutional" and referred the file to the judiciary and the United Nations. The UN Security Cabinet is scheduled to discuss Thursday the latest report on the implementation of Resolution 1559, which includes a clause calling for the dismantling of "all Lebanese and non-Lebanese armed groups," a reference to Hezbollah and militant Palestinian factions.
But Mr. Nasrallah insisted that the network "is a regular telephone network" that allows the party's leadership to remain in touch without being monitored by Israelis. He denied accusations that the system had spread into Mount Lebanon.
The government also launched an investigation into the alleged monitoring of Beirut airport and dismissed the head of airport security, who is close to Mr. Berri.
Hezbollah reacted angrily to the cabinet decisions. Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy leader, warned that people tampering with the phone network would "face a ferocious resistance" and be treated as it they were "Israeli spies."
The showdown hit the streets on Wednesday when a general strike to protest rising prices swiftly turned into a confrontation between supporters of rival factions. Hezbollah has set up barricades on the highway connecting the city center to Beirut airport and vow to remain until the government withdraws its cabinet decisions.
But Mr. Hamade says there will be no turning back.
"The government will not go back on any of its decisions. We have decided to stop the blackmail of Iran and Syria," he says, referring to the two countries that support Hezbollah.