Where do we go from here? This is the question that the leaders of the two rival camps in Lebanon should be pondering in the wake of the showdown that brought Beirut to a standstill last Tuesday.
The showdown started in December, when Hezbollah having withdrawn its ministers from the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, started a mass sit-in in the heart of the Lebanese capital.
The immediate excuse was Siniora's decision to endorse a United Nation's enquiry into Syria's role in the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
More importantly, perhaps, Hezbollah saw its existence threatened by two United Nations' Security Council resolutions stipulating that all militias be disarmed. Siniora had accepted both resolutions in the teeth of opposition from Hezbollah that regards its militia as the centerpiece of its power as a state within the Lebanese state. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that other reasons, more broadly related to the balance of power in the region, prompted Hezbollah to make its move.
One reason was Iran's desire to humiliate the United States by bringing down the Siniora government, often cited by President George W. Bush as a child of the Lebanese "Cedar Revolution" and a symbol of democratization in the Middle East. Creating a pro-Iran government in Beirut would deliver the coup de grace to the "Bush Doctrine" of "spreading freedom."
Another reason for Hezbollah's move is the Irano-Syrian desire to use Lebanon as a glacis in war against Israel. As Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim has said, a neutral Lebanon would deprive Syria of the "hinterland" it needs to deal with a putative Israeli blitzkrieg. The Islamic Republic of Iran also needs Lebanon as a base for "flooding Israel with missiles" as Defense Minister Mostafa Najjar has noted.
Siniora, however, has based his strategy on taking Lebanon out of regional conflicts that have little or nothing to do with its interests as a nation-state. While Hezbollah sees Lebanon as a "bunker" in the global war against the "infidel", Siniora sees it as a "beach" that could attract the "infidel" to come and spend their money.
Hezbollah that, according to successive local and national elections, represents about 45 percent of the Shiites, has succeeded in finding two valuable allies.
The first is Nabih Berri, the speaker of the National Assembly (Parliament) and the leader of the relatively moderate Shiite movement Amal (Hope). Berri does not share Hezbollah's apocalyptic vision and, himself a wealthy businessman, sees the logic of Siniora's strategy of seeking economic development. Berri's problem is that he is beholden to the Syrian regime that has supported, and financed Amal for three decades. At the same time, Berri does not wish to appear as the man who split the Shiites at a time of rising sectarianism in the region.
The second ally that Hezbollah has secured is Michel Aoun, a pint-size ex-general who played a leading role in the 1975-92 Civil War. Aoun has one ambition: To become president of Lebanon.
In the 1980s, he tried to realize that ambition with the help of Saddam Hussein, who financed the Aounite faction for over a decade. At that time, Syria and Iran were Aoun's archenemies. This time, with Saddam in no position to help, Aoun has switched to the side of his former foes in the hope of achieving his elusive goal.
Representing at least 40 percent of Lebanon's population, Hezbollah, Amal and the Aounites know that their alliance can never win a majority in free elections. Their task is further complicated by the sectarian system of government in Lebanon. Under that system, Sunni Muslims have the right to nominate the prime minister while Maronite Christians nominate the president. The right to nominate the speaker of the Parliament goes to the Shiites.
Muhammad Rashid Qabbani, the grand mufti of Lebanon and the principal religious leader of the Sunni community, has given Siniora unequivocal support, dashing Hezbollah's hopes of triggering a constitutional coup d'etat. The mufti's message is clear: Shiites and Maronites cannot dictate whom the Sunnis choose as prime minister.
Siniora's government, however, has a much broader base. It is supported by nearly half of the Christian community, some pro-Arab and anti-Iran Shiite groups, the Druze, and a number of smaller communities. Most observers agree that in a general election the Siniora coalition would win around 60 percent of the votes.
This is why Hezbollah has withdrawn from the political process and taken to the streets. The calculation is that most of Siniora's supporters are middle class people with no experience of or desire for street politics.
Hezbollah militants, however, are experts in the politics of violence and trained for street fights. Some look forward to martyrdom. Burning cars, setting up street barricades, throwing Molotov cocktails, attacking adversaries with knives and clubs, ransacking government buildings, and, bringing out the guns, when and if necessary, are arts in which Hezbollah excels.
And, yet, almost two months after Hezbollah promised to bring down Siniora's government in "a matter of days", the prime minister is still around, as resilient as ever.
He has invited Hezbollah to return to the government, though without the veto that Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Party of God, has demanded. Siniora has also offered early general elections, provided Hezbollah and its Aounite allies let things calm down for a while.
So, where does Lebanon go from here?
Hezbollah's campaign to destroy the Siniora coalition through street pressure has failed. It has also failed to provoke the national army to get involved in the violence, thus risking disintegration across sectarian lines. To be sure, Hezbollah could continue the confrontation for many weeks, if not months. It has lots of money, mostly from Tehran, and thousands of unemployed youths to man street barricades for $2 a day.
Hezbollah is also using President Emil Lahoud, the man installed and sustained by the Syrians as Lebanon's head of state, as an irritant against Siniora. Using his constitutional powers, the usurper refuses to sign government edicts, thus paralyzing segments of the administration.
Such a strategy, however, is sure to end in defeat and humiliation. To avoid that, Hezbollah may be forced to do what it has always vowed not to do: Turn its arms against other Lebanese communities. And that could mean another civil war in which Hezbollah may score early victories, but would have little chance of winning in the end. The idea that the major Western powers and their regional Arab allies would allow Lebanon to become an Islamic republic led by Hezbollah, and that against the wishes of a majority of the Lebanese, is simply fanciful.
The only sane way out of the crisis is a grand compromise among the Lebanese communities. Such a compromise could be built on these principles:
— Lebanon should not become involved in any war unless it is directly attacked,
— The current coalition government should be enlarged with the return of the Shiite parties and the inclusion of Aounites, in preparation for general elections within six months,
— Emil Lahoud should resign as president and be replaced by an interim head of state chosen by the Parliament.
— The international community should provide an aid package to keep the Lebanese economy afloat until the political situation is stabilized.
Lebanon is teetering on the edge of the abyss. But it could still step back.