David E. Miller
One week after Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his new Hizbullah-dominated cabinet, Lebanon's opposition is already feeling menaced by the country's new leadership and its Syrian ally.
Saad Hariri, the previous prime minister and leader of the pro-West March 14 Alliance, fled the country nearly two months ago following an attempted car bomb assassination on him, the French daily Libération reported on Monday. Hariri has been hiding in Paris after being informed by American and Saudi intelligence agencies that his life was in real danger in Lebanon, the daily claimed.
"Hariri won't return to Lebanon any time soon," Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut (AUB), told The Media Line.
The political divide between Hariri's March 14 coalition and the Hizbullah-led March 8 coalition is more than political bickering. It is a power struggle between the country's Sunni Muslim population, represented by Hariri, and its Shiite Muslims - Lebanon's largest sect - represented by Hizbullah.
A week ago, Najib Mikati announced he had formed a government dominated by the March 8 coalition. Led by Hizbullah, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other Western countries, March 8 holds 18 of the 30 portfolios in the Mikati government, including the key security and justice ministries. It marks the first time in Lebanon's history that Hizbullah holds a cabinet majority.
The attempt on Hariri's life was made by the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad with the aim of diverting attention from its violent crackdown on oppositionists, Liberation said, citing unnamed U.S. intelligence sources.
Hariri has grounds for concerns. His father Rafiq, a Lebanese billionaire and former prime minister, was assassinated in Beirut in February 2005. A United Nations tribunal established to investigate the murder has hinted that the Syrian regime and its allies in Hizbullah were behind the assassination, but no indictments have been submitted yet.
Lebanon's daily Al-Nahar reported on Monday that senior Lebanese oppositionists, including former President Amine Gemayel, traveled to Paris this week to discuss the opposition strategy with Hariri.
Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and senior coalition partner of Hizbullah, added to the dark atmosphere on Saturday. Commenting on Hariri's flight from Lebanon, he said the former prime minister was issued a "one-way ticket out of Lebanon and the government."
"We cannot interpret these words other than as a threat to Prime Minister Hariri," parliament member Ammar Khouri, a member of Hariri's Future Movement, told the London-based daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat. "When Aoun speaks about a one-way ticket he means obliterating, through assassination or other means."
Fouad Siniora, a former prime minister allied with Hariri, said Aoun's statement excluded not only Hariri the person but also a large segment of Lebanon's population.
"I tell those who are delusional, seeking to issue one-way tickets to millions of Lebanese, that it is easier for them to issue their own tickets and leave the country," Siniora said on Saturday. "This way, they can relax and let the Lebanese relax."
Under Lebanon's confessional political system, ministerial posts and other positions of power are distributed between the country's three largest sects: Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Maronite Christians.
Omri Nir, an expert on Lebanese politics at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said that although the Sunnis in Lebanon feel marginalized by the new government, there is little they can do about it. While Lebanon's other factions put down their arms years ago, Hizbullah controls a militia that easily outguns the Lebanese army.
"There's no one in Lebanon who can oppose Hizbullah," Nir told The Media Line. "The Sunnis don't have weapons or militias. They don't have too many options at their disposal."
He noted that for the first time since Hariri's assassination in 2005, Lebanon's government doesn't include all the political players, but only one side - Hizbullah and its allies. "The saying goes that in Lebanon there is 'no winner and no loser,' but this time there is a clear loser - the March 14 camp."
But, Nir added, Hariri's protracted absence from Lebanon isn't necessarily a cause for alarm for his domestic allies.
"Even when he was prime minister he spent half of his time abroad. Much of his family lives in Saudi Arabia."
Khashan of AUB agreed that the chances of a full scale civil war were slim, but said that didn't preclude the possibility of violence erupting again. "What I fear is a state of assassinations and explosions," he said, adding that either Shiites or Sunnis could initiate the violence.
Syria has an interest in destabilizing Lebanon, Khashan said, noting that Al-Assad has made clear that if unrest begins between Syria's Sunnis and its Alawite minority, Lebanon will suffer instability as well.
The predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon experienced violence over the weekend, when Sunnis clashed with Maronites during an anti-Assad demonstration. At least seven were killed and more than 20 injured in the clashes, leading Hariri's Future movement to demand that Tripoli be designated an arms-free city.
Khashan said he is certain that Al-Assad's loyalists instigated the violence in Tripoli, throwing a hand grenade at the demonstrators.
"Syria has an interest in escalating the situation. It doesn't want anti-regime demonstrations in Lebanon," he said. "Al-Assad is threatening that if the Syrian opposition doesn't subside, Lebanon will receive its share of turmoil. "
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