In the latest development in the most severe constitutional crisis to grip Lebanon in three years, Saad Hariri, now caretaker prime minister, has returned to Beirut in the face of calls from the Hizbollah-led opposition for him to remain in exile. It is expected that he will put himself forward for a leadership ballot due to be held on Monday.
The Hizbollah-led March 8th coalition has vowed that Hariri will not be able to win such a ballot. Speaking to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, opposition officials suggested a number of pro-Syrian politicians as suitable candidates for the premiership. They include former prime ministers Najib Mikati and Omar Karami and former defense minister Abdul Rahim Mourad.
The crisis erupted when eleven opposition ministers walked out of the national unity government on 12 January. This was in response to Hariri’s refusal to convene a cabinet meeting to discuss the official response to a forthcoming report by the UN special tribunal on the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The report is expected to implicate Hizbollah in the car bombing that killed the former prime minister.
The United States and Britain condemned the withdrawal. The Arab League, Saudi Arabia and Syria have called for calm on both sides, fearing that the eruption of political strife in Lebanon could rapidly spread beyond its borders. Israel has denied that it has raised its level of military readiness in response to the crisis.
The openSecurity verdict: Hizbollah General Secretary Hasan Nasrallah has been threatening to disrupt the government from the point it became clear that the special tribunal might implicate members of his organisation’s military wing. Hizbollah has been pushing for a compromise whereby those men indicted would be protected from prosecution, an arrangement vehemently opposed by the US. Nasrallah has also accused the tribunal of having been infiltrated by Israeli intelligence as a tool to undermine the organisation both on the international stage and within Lebanon itself.
At this point, regardless of the factual basis of the tribunal's findings, a high degree of caution is merited. The Arab states’ calls for calm are based on a sound understanding of the potential consequences of the crisis in Lebanon and its implications. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader who serves as the ubiquitous weathervane of Lebanon politics, has stated that he will decide whether or not to continue his support for Hariri or switch sides to the March 8th coalition.
The prospect of a pro-Syrian prime minister and a Hizbollah-led government is thus very real. Accusations of terrorism made against members of such a government might provide the impetus for escalating tension which could potentially develop into a regional war. This is compounded by the fact that the tribunal is expected to accuse Tehran and, specifically, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, of passing the order to Hizbollah to assassinate Rafik Hariri.
Tensions in this combustible region are already high, with the long-standing dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme and support for Hizbollah continuing, and Palestinian-Israeli negotiations at another seemingly interminable impasse. For Lebanon to plunge into political chaos at such a time might easily lead to a regional conflict. The UN tribunal obviously has to make its report on the basis of truth rather than realpolitik; in terms of sequencing, however, it would be well advised to wait until the Lebanese political scene returns to a semblance of stability.
Tunisian President flees to Saudi Arabia in wake of mass uprising
On Saturday, the Saudi Arabian government confirmed that Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is now being sheltered by the kingdom one day after mass uprisings in the North African state caused him to flee. Fethi Abdennadher, president of Tunisia’s highest legal authority, the Constitutional Council, has confirmed that Ben Ali’s departure will be permanent.
The Constitutional Council has appointed Fouad Mebazaa, speaker of Tunisia’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, as interim President. Mebazaa has sixty days to call fresh Presidential elections according to Tunisia’s constitution. It is not known how Ben Ali’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, intends to respond to this development.
Ben Ali had nominated Ghannouchi as the interim head of state before fleeing the country and Ghannouchi moved swiftly to consolidate his position, ignoring rioters calling for his resignation outside the home ministry on Friday night. In a televised address to the country, he swore to uphold the constitution and restore stability, but he also called on Tunisians to ‘maintain patriotic spirit’.
Ghannouchi is part of Ben Ali’s clique, which has been in power since a bloodless coup in 1987. Although the immediate causes of the recent public disorder are primarily economic, with Tunisia experiencing high unemployment and inflation, the crisis has been many years in the making. Hallmarks of Ben Ali’s rule included repression and fear, his regime secured by a vast police force, two thirds of which were plain clothes.
Under Ben Ali, there was one police officer for every forty civilians. Although he will likely have this vast apparatus of state power at his disposal, it is far from sure that Ghannouchi, closely associated with the excesses of Ben Ali’s regime, will be able to sustain his grip on power in the face of popular unrest and against the ruling of Tunisia’s Constitutional Council.
Iraqi soldiers fire on US troops
On Saturday it was reported that, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, two members of the Iraqi army had opened fire on their US counterparts, wounding three of them. The Iraqis have been arrested, although it is still unclear as to whether they are being held in US or Iraqi custody. It is also unknown whether the shootings were meditated attempts to kill US soldiers or were simply a tragic error. The incident occurred in the al-Ghazlani military base, where the Iraqi soliders, members of the 11th brigade of the 3rd division of Iraq’s new national army were being trained.
The incident underlines the continuing insecurity in Iraq, often forgotten as media attention concentrates on ongoing operations in Afghanistan. It also highlights the problems faced by US troops in training the Iraqi National Army. The new military force still has significant gaps in its capabilities. It is entirely possible that the shootings occurred as a result of trainee's incompetence. This is arguably the preferable possibility; the alternative is that they are aligned with the militant groups still active in the country. The infiltration of army units by such sleepers poses an ever present threat to the remaining US troops in the country, and to the US administration’s plans for a permanent military presence.