Hezbollah Chooses Lebanon’s Next Prime Minister
By ANTHONY SHADID
Published: January 24, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A prime minister chosen by Hezbollah and its allies was poised Monday to form Lebanon’s next government, unleashing angry protests, realigning politics here and in parts of the Mideast and culminating the generation-long ascent of the Shiite Muslim movement from shadowy militant group to the country’s pre-eminent political and military force.
A practical impact may be the realignment of Lebanon away from the United States, which treated the government of Saad Hariri as an ally. Hezbollah and its own allies now have the votes to back as prime minister Najib Miqati, a billionaire and former prime minister. The government he forms may in the end look much like past cabinets in this small Mediterranean country and, indeed, Mr. Miqati struck a conciliatory tone, calling himself a consensus candidate.
But the symbolism of Hezbollah choosing the country’s prime minister was vast, potentially serving as the beginning of a new era for a combustible country whose conflicts have long entangled the United States, Iran, Syria and virtually every country in the region.
By nightfall, angry opponents of Hezbollah took to the streets in Beirut, Tripoli and other cities, burning tires, shouting slogans and offering at least an image of what many feared that Hezbollah’s victory might unleash: strife among communities in a country almost evenly divided over questions of foreign patrons, posture to Israel and the relative power of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims, represented by Hezbollah, and its Sunni opponents.
Smoke billowed into a nighttime sky, as burning tires blocked some roads into Beirut. Hezbollah’s foes called for “a day of anger in all of Lebanon” on Tuesday.
“Down with Hezbollah! Down with Miqati!” young men shouted.
Like so many crises in Lebanon, this one is maddeningly complex. It revolves around a United Nations-backed tribunal set up in 2007 to investigate the assassination of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who was killed with 22 others in a spectacular bombing along Beirut’s seafront in February 2005. Hezbollah has denied any role in the killing, but by its own admission, its members were named in indictments handed to a judge last week, though not yet made public. It demanded the government of Mr. Hariri’s son, Saad, end its cooperation with the court. When he refused, Hezbollah and its allies withdrew, forcing its collapse after a 14-month tenure that brought some calm here.
The country is almost evenly split in its attitudes toward the court. Hezbollah’s supporters believe it is hopelessly compromised, amounting to little more than an American-Israeli tool to bludgeon the movement. Mr. Hariri’s supporters believe the vehemence of Hezbollah’s reaction only underlines their guilt in the assassination.
To form a new government, one that would denounce the tribunal’s indictments and end Lebanon’s cooperation, Hezbollah needed at least 65 of the 128 parliament members. Diplomats and politicians say they now have that number, though voting will not end until Tuesday. Mr. Hariri, who effectively leads the Sunni Muslim community, has insisted he will not join the new government, meaning that a cabinet that is supposed to be built on consensus will lack representation of one of the country’s main communities.
“It will not be easy for them to control Lebanon alone,” warned Antoine Zahra, a Christian lawmaker allied with Mr. Hariri’s bloc. “They will turn it into an isolated country, ostracized by the Arab world and the international community.”
He called Miqati’s victory “a constitutional coup.”
In a tense city, everyone seemed to have an opinion on what the new government represented. Its symbolism was perhaps most relevant. With Mr. Miqati’s elevation, the Shiite Muslim community that Hezbollah represents has formalized a reality that has been clear since 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies seized parts of Beirut. The movement and, by default, the Shiites, are the pre-eminent players in a country still beholden to rules laid down by its Christian and Sunni Muslim communities.
The new equation was best illustrated by Walid Jumblatt, a mercurial politician who went from an ally of Hezbollah to one of its most outspoken foes to ally again. “No victor, no vanquished,” goes the formula that Lebanon has long touted as the key to stability in a country inclined to crisis. On Monday, Jumblatt dismissed its validity.
“In Lebanon, there is always a loser,” he said before voting for Mr. Miqati.
The Obama administration was expected to urge the new government not to work against the tribunal, which Hezbollah contends is being used as an American tool to put pressure on it, along with its allies Iran and Syria. The United States has said the tribunal itself could serve as a way to end a long tradition of assassination serving as just another weapon in crises here.
“Our expectation is that any new government would continue to live up to its international obligations to support the activities of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” a senior U.S. diplomat said. “Any government that is truly representative of all of Lebanon would not abandon the effort to end the era of impunity for assassinations in the country.”
Nada Bakri and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.
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