Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant Shiite group, Hezbollah, called on Sunday for the creation of a national unity government to usher Lebanon out of a political crisis that threatens to deteriorate into sectarian violence.
“We [in the opposition] will request that the [new prime minister], yet to be named, forms a cabinet in which everyone participates,” Mr. Nasrallah said in a live televised address. “We are not calling for a cabinet that excludes any party in Lebanon.”
Nasrallah admitted in his address that his Hezbollah-led opposition bloc deliberately toppled Lebanon's government two weeks ago with a massive pullout in order to stall pending international indictments of Hezbollah leaders for the 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. And his comments come on the eve of a parliamentary vote that could result in the formation of a new government dominated by Hezbollah and its political allies.
Such a development would greatly complicate Lebanon’s relations with the international community, particularly over the fate of the Hariri tribunal. And Hezbollah's opponents are crying foul.
A 'coup' by Hezbollah
Current Prime Minister Saad Hariri's pro-Western March 14 coalition, which presently holds the parliamentary majority, on Sunday warned that Lebanon is in “danger” and that it would not allow “a militia [Hezbollah] to take over control of the state.”
“Hezbollah has started a coup against the state … and has toppled the government of national unity and this coup targets Lebanon’s freedom,” it said in a statement.
Jumblatt, the kingmaker
Mr. Hariri, son of the late Rafik Hariri, is the March 14 candidate for prime minister. The bloc has 60 seats in parliament. The opposition holds 57 parliamentary seats. The balance of 11 MPs fall within the bloc of Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community. Although Mr. Jumblatt hinted early last week that he would nominate Hariri, on Friday he announced he was siding with “Syria and the resistance” and would select the opposition candidate.
Jumblatt’s decision was warmly praised by Nasrallah who said it would “form the basis of a new political stage of cooperation”.
Not all 11 MPs in Jumblatt’s bloc are expected to follow his lead, however, leaving the outcome uncertain. A prime ministerial nominee must secure the votes of 65 MPs to be formally asked by the president to head the next government.
Still, the prime ministerial nomination is only the first hurdle. If the opposition candidate wins, the March 14 bloc has said it will refuse to join any government he heads. Hezbollah and its allies could then proceed with the formation of a government, leaving the March 14 coalition on the opposition benches.
If Hariri wins, he may not be able to form a government, which would lead to a prolonged stalemate and political paralysis.
The Hariri tribunal
Key to developments in Lebanon is the tribunal, which is expected soon to issue indictments against those accused of involvement in Rafik Hariri’s assassination. There is wide speculation that members of Hezbollah could be among those named. Hezbollah has denied any involvement in Hariri’s death and accuses the tribunal of serving the interests of the United States and Israel.
The prospect of the tribunal indicting Hezbollah members threatens to severely discredit the Shiite group’s image as a champion of anti-Israel resistance in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims. As the tribunal is sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, analysts say the best Hezbollah can hope for is for Lebanon to cease all cooperation with it.
A new government, dominated by Hezbollah, is likely to end Lebanon’s support for the tribunal before the indictments are released, which could come as soon as the end of February.
“The Resistance [Hezbollah] is not interested in obtaining seats in the government but rather its main concern is to protect [Lebanon’s] dignity and defend Lebanon against US conspiracies,” Hezbollah official Sheikh Nabil Qawq said.