Hezbollah and its allies may have achieved a swift military victory in Beirut and the Druze mountains, but the political battle for Lebanon will be tougher and the consequences long-term, say analysts.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said he did not expect Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government to give in to opposition demands to resign.
“Hezbollah has clearly won the military battle, but has lost immense credibility and any moral high ground,” he said. “I think the government will hold firm - we’re in for a pretty open-ended standoff.”
At least 50 people have been killed and nearly 200 injured in the worst violence since the ruinous 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
Battles between supporters of the Sunni-led government and the opposition, led by Shia Hezbollah, erupted on 8 May after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah dubbed a government crackdown on its secure telecoms network “a declaration of war”.
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Hezbollah and Shia allies Amal, as well as fighters from opposition group the Syrian Social National Party, swept through west Beirut, a Sunni stronghold, and torched offices belonging to parliamentary leader Saad Hariri, 8-9 May.
“These events have broken the political deadlock and I think Hezbollah will insist on the resignation of the government, but I don’t think that will happen yet,” said Timor Goksell, a security expert and former spokesman for UN peacekeeping troops in south Lebanon.
Siniora on 10 May called the opposition’s actions an “armed coup” and vowed to continue confronting Hezbollah over the status of its weapons, an issue Nasrallah warned is a red line.
But the government climbed down over its decision to sack the airport security chief over allegations of helping Hezbollah set up spy cameras inside the airport. The issue was handed to the army who re-instated the security chief and vowed not to harm Hezbollah’s secure telecoms network, prompting a withdrawal of opposition gunmen from the streets of west Beirut.
Photo: Lucy Fielder/IRIN
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A well informed former minister said the government’s resignation was difficult because the 18-month political impasse has left Lebanon without a president and that Siniora’s cabinet had assumed executive power as a result. “So who would he resign to?” asked the source, who requested anonymity.
“I think the first item on the agenda is to bring opposition ministers back into the government and to negotiate a new electoral law, before holding early elections. The opposition will never allow elections under the current law.”
Lebanon’s electoral boundaries have been subject to frequent gerrymandering and the current electoral law was drafted during Syria’s dominance of Lebanon, which ended in 2005 after Damascus was forced to withdraw its troops following the assassination of former five-time Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The Syrian-drafted law favoured the Sunni-led governments of Hariri, whose terms of office were seen as favourable by Syria, but who became an increasing opponent of Damascus’ influence in Lebanon in the months leading up to his murder.
Security expert Goksell said the two sides will have to sit down at the negotiating table sooner or later and come up with a solution to the status of Hezbollah’s weapons and power sharing to end the stand-off.
Photo: Lucy Fielder/IRIN
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The government vowed on 10 May to continue confronting Hezbollah over the status of its arms, despite warnings from Nasrallah the issue was a red line.
With Lebanon’s political divide falling across sectarian lines, analysts warn Sunni-Shia strife could be a long-term consequence of the opposition’s seizure of predominantly Sunni west Beirut.
“The Sunnis now see themselves in a war with the Shia and they saw from the last few days that they were not protected. If this drags on… they could start looking for a way to find that protection,” Salem said, adding that that could be through building up a stronger Sunni political militia or through Sunni Islamist violence.
“Western Beirut is traditionally Sunni turf and the sense of humiliation is deep,” Goksell said. “The Sunni-Shia rift, inflated by the regional rift between the two sects, is going to get deeper.”