Lebanon Might Collapse, Again.

Hezbollah has forced the collapse of the Lebanese government. Eleven out of the cabinet’s 30 ministers resigned, dissolving the government after the cabinet refused to convene an emergency session to oppose a U.N.-backed tribunal to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, of which members of Hezbollah have been speculated to be indicted.

Read more about it on the New York Times and the Huffington Post

This is not good.

For centuries, Lebanonhas been the centre of numerous significant Middle Eastern conflicts. The country was doomed from the beginning, with the region under the rule of the Ottoman Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries. This period marked a time when European influences first emerged, with land reforms known as capitulations and certificates of protection (berats) being introduced to the local community. This caused a competition between the Ottoman Sultan and the European merchants to gain the the loyalties of the Christian subjects, mostly consisted of Maronites, living in the region.

Fast foward to the 20th Century, Lebanon once again took center stage in Middle Eastern politics when in 1982 it declared war against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), led at the time by Yasser Arafat. The militant wing of the Maronites moved to expel the PLO and conducted massacres. Many scholars believe that the war was not one of necessity, but one of opportunity, especially when seen from the point of view of the Israelis.

In addition, Lebanon in the 20th century played prominent roles for several important political ideologies and other military conflicts, including Arab Nationalism, the Arab-Israeli War (in 1967), and the Jordanian Civil War.

Ethnically, Lebanon is inhabited by a nearly equal three-way split between Christians (over half of which are Maronite), Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims. As a means to seek a balance of power, the President is required to be a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’a. But even with a political infrastructure like this in place, one can see the potential for perpetual conflicts within government.

The point that I want to make in light of this grossly-simplified historical overview is that Lebanon has been plagued by conflict for a very long time. The problems facing the country are entrenched and incredibly difficult to remedy, but this also means that achieving (substantially) lasting peace in the region would be that much more significant for peace in the Middle East region as a whole.

In the past decade or so, with the emergence of Iran as a potential nuclear threat and Saudi Arabia and Iraq continuing to assert their influences because of their oil reserves, countries such as Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt have taken somewhat of a backseat with regards to seeking peace within the context of a grand scheme of international politics. But perhaps more importantly, these three countries have assumed vital roles within a regional (even local) context of seeking peace in the Middle East. None of the regions’ leaders would want to see Lebanon descend into another civil war:

Prime Minister Netanyahu has his hands full in dealing with the Palestinian issue; President Ahmedinejad is always busy spewing nonsensical and often hateful rhetoric while maybe secretly seeking to make a nuclear bomb; President Mubarak worries about his throne (as he has been for the last 29 years) while also looking after a struggling Egypt. Surely President Al-Assad and King Abudullah have their own issues to deal with.

The last thing they want is war breaking out in Lebanon, to which they’ll sigh and think “again?”

This presents a difficult situation for the Netherlands-based tribunal as to whether or not to go ahead and indict (as speculated) members of Hezbollah, and risk plunging Lebanon into a national crisis. If the tribunal is impartial in its findings and indicts members of Hezbollah, then the group has to face the consequences assassinating the President.

This government collapse might also act as a ‘pause’ button for other pressing Middle East issues, because peace in the Middle East cannot be achieved if Lebanon isn’t fixed.

[To read more about the modern history of Lebanon, I highly recommend the works of Albert Hourani and George Antonius, both very well-regarded scholars with highly insightful literature.]