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Hezbollah power swings Lebanon away from West
Published in Daily News Egypt on 26 - 01 - 2011

BEIRUT: The balance of power in Lebanon shifted toward Syria and Iran on Tuesday when a Hezbollah-backed politician was named prime minister, ousting a Western-allied bloc that has headed governments for nearly six years.
Sunni Muslims loyal to outgoing premier Saad Al-Hariri staged a "day of rage", burning tyres and blocking roads in protest at the appointment of Sunni billionaire Najib Mikati, a centrist lawmaker with ties to both Saudi Arabia and Syria.
"My hand is extended to all factions to take part and end division...through dialogue," Mikati said after his nomination.
Hezbollah and its allies quit Hariri's unity government on Jan. 12, bringing it down after the failure of a Syrian-Saudi effort to bridge a rift over a UN-backed tribunal set up to try the killers of Hariri's father, statesman Rafik Al-Hariri.
Fury in Lebanon over Hariri's assassination in 2005, along with US, French and Saudi pressure, had forced Syria to pull out its troops and relax its domination of its neighbour.
Almost six years later, it is Syria's Lebanese allies, with the pro-Iranian armed Shia group Hezbollah at the forefront, who have regained the initiative from their pro-Western rivals.
And they have done it legally and constitutionally, winning support for Mikati from 68 of parliament's 128 members after Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, once a Hariri ally, switched sides.
But in Lebanon's tortuous politics, parliamentary arithmetic may be less important than securing sectarian consensus.
"If most of the Sunni community doesn't accept Mikati's designation, we have a problem," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
"If they are unhappy, that would violate the spirit of the constitution," he said, arguing that Mikati risked "political suicide" if he tried to form a government in defiance of Hariri supporters who consider him the tool of a Hezbollah "coup".
Hariri, who has said his bloc will not join a Mikati-led government, asked his supporters to avoid violence, urging them not to let their anger trump their "commitment to democracy".
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said his party would back a "national partnership" cabinet formed by Mikati.
Rupture with tribunal
His priority is for Lebanon to repudiate the tribunal, which issued still-secret indictments last week that are widely expected to implicate Hezbollah members in Hariri's assassination, a charge the Shia group denies.
Under the aborted Syrian-Saudi deal, even Saad Al-Hariri is believed to have conditionally agreed to cut ties with the court, which gets 49 percent of its funds from Lebanon.
For now Hezbollah and its allies are in the driving seat.
Hezbollah, often outmaneuvering its opponents, has striven to strengthen its political position in Lebanon ever since its guerrillas fought Israel to a standstill in a 2006 war.
It has used street protests or ministerial resignations to paralyze Western-backed governments and flexed its military muscle with a brief violent takeover of Beirut in May 2008.
After that confrontation, the opposition gained veto power in cabinet under a Qatari-mediated deal, although Hariri's bloc kept its now-vanished parliamentary majority in a 2009 election.
Some Lebanese and Israeli politicians have equated Mikati's nomination to the advent of "Iranian" rule in Lebanon, but the Harvard-educated capitalist seems an unlikely stooge of Tehran.
Significantly, Saudi Arabia, Hariri's main external backer and a regional rival of Iran, has not spoken out against Mikati, suggesting he may enjoy at least an amber light from Riyadh.
Mikati, a telecoms tycoon, may be too moderate and cautious to risk Saudi displeasure. "He wants power, but he's not going to sacrifice his business interests for that," said Karim Makdisi, who teaches international relations at AUB.
Mohammed Safadi, another rich Sunni businessman with a seat in parliament and close ties to Riyadh, is backing Mikati.
Lebanese analysts say other interested powers such as France, Qatar and Turkey also favour a Mikati-led government.
The United States has said any big government role for Hezbollah, which it brands a terrorist organisation, would complicate its ties with Lebanon and affect US aid.
However, it is not clear how Washington, which strongly backs the tribunal, can decisively influence events in Lebanon.
"It's not so much that Hezbollah or the opposition or the Syrians have done anything ingenious on the strategic level to get this upper hand," said Makdisi.
"It's more that the (Hariri-led) March 14 team and their supporters in the West, especially the United States, and Saudi Arabia to a degree, have really scored an own-goal. They always seemed to play the wrong cards at the wrong time."


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