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Assassination at heart of Lebanon instability

By Marc Sirois, Special for CNN
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Lebanon on the brink
  • The effects of political tensions in Lebanon are felt around the region
  • Hezbollah needed Christian and secular help to trigger the Cabinet's collapse
  • Move comes ahead of a report expected to accuse Hezbollah of involvement in an assassination

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- Lebanon was plunged into uncertainty with the collapse of the country's national unity government. At issue are expectations that a hybrid U.N./Lebanese court will shortly indict members of Hezbollah, widely viewed as Lebanon's most powerful party, in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

What does the crisis mean beyond for the wider region?

Hezbollah's growing power is part of a recent resurgence by the Arab and Islamic worlds' long-marginalized Shiite communities. Sunni-Shiite tensions have come to the fore since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and empowered that country's Shiite majority.

Since then, Shiite opposition political parties have been flexing their muscles in places like Kuwait and Bahrain, while Yemen has enlisted Saudi military help in a bid to crush Houthi rebels who also espouse a form of Shiism.

Many of these groups are supported, at least rhetorically, by Shiite-majority but non-Arab Iran, which views them as allies in its region-wide campaign to increase its own influence -- largely at the expense of the United States and Israel.

Who are the players who might help to resolve the deadlock?

Someone will fill Lebanon's vacuum
  • Lebanon
  • Hezbollah
  • Saad Hariri

Both sides in the power struggle have their respective foreign backers, but these have failed thus far to achieve a settlement. The silver lining is that at least some politicians in both camps were insisting even before this crisis broke out that viable solutions would have to be Lebanese.

What does this mean for the Lebanese people?

Perhaps the most difficult question to answer. The Lebanese are fully accustomed to living in the shadow of political discord, but many people are also tired.

With the government largely paralyzed for the past couple of years, the provision of basic public services like electricity and water has become even worse, forcing many households to buy from private companies widely assumed to be affiliated with establishment politicians and their cronies.

Any unrest that further disrupts their daily lives will only add to general feelings of disillusionment with the political system.

Why did the government fall?

Under the Lebanese political system, the Cabinet is dissolved if one-third of its members leave office. This is precisely what happened when all 10 of the opposition Cabinet members resigned followed by an 11th minister who represents President Michel Suleiman and is officially neutral.

Why did it happen now?

The ministers resigned to protest the government's continued cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon despite the expectation that it will indict Hezbollah members in the Hariri assassination.

The governments of Saudi Arabia, which supports Prime Minister Saad Hariri's March 14 alliance, and Syria, which backs the Hezbollah-led March 8 grouping, had been trying to broker a compromise that would reduce friction in the face of indictments, but late Tuesday it was announced that the negotiations had reached an impasse.

With indictments expected any day, the opposition decided it could wait no longer.

So Hezbollah brought down the government?

Yes and no. Only two of the ministers who resigned represent Hezbollah.

But, given Hezbollah's dual status as an armed resistance group that claims victory for driving Israeli forces out of Lebanon in 2000 following a 22-year occupation and for fighting them to a standstill in a 2006 war, it is widely judged to be the country's single strongest political party.

Three resignations came from Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's secular Amal Movement, while four represented the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian grouping headed by former Army Commander Michel Aoun, and the 10th comes from another Christian party, Marada.

The secular and Christian support has been instrumental in Hezbollah's efforts to keep the conflict with Hariri's allies -- largely Christian and Sunni -- on a political level instead of a sectarian one; needless to say, however, this effort has seen little success.

Why did the outgoing Cabinet include "opposition" ministers?

Under a deal brokered by the Qatari government to end deadly gun battles in 2008, Lebanon has since been governed by a "national unity" Cabinet led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri. This arrangement brought Hariri allies and Hezbollah allies into the same Cabinet.

The idea was to ensure neither side would be able to impose its will on the other, but it also has prevented the government from acting decisively on a wide range of issues.

Why does the opposition oppose the Special Tribunal for Lebanon?

The March 8 parties allege that the court is being used by the United States and its allies -- including Israel -- to unfairly pin the blame for the Hariri murder on Hezbollah.

They point to a variety of factors that they say prove the tribunal is biased, including leaked U.S. diplomatic cables that appear to demonstrate prosecutors made what amounted to progress reports to the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, as well as a reliance on witnesses whose accounts have been retracted and/or discredited.

In addition, they note that for five years all indications were that the court would point a finger at Syria for the killing -- but that as soon as Damascus affected a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the focus shifted to Hezbollah.

Also, recent reports indicate that much of any case against Hezbollah would rest on circumstantial evidence drawn from cell phone records -- and both of Lebanon's mobile phone companies are believed to have been penetrated by Israel's intelligence services.

What happens next?

The next step is for President Michel Suleiman to consult with members of parliament to see who they want to be prime minister, an office reserved for Sunnis.

Ordinarily, the president would then ask the individual with the most support to form a new government.

On Thursday Hariri was asked to remain as head of a caretaker administration, and he could be asked to try to form another government.

A compromise candidate could be former Prime Minister Najib Mikati but a potential wild card option could be Walid Jumblatt, whose Progressive Socialist Party represents Lebanon's Druze community.

While officially part of Hariri's alliance, over the past 18 months or so he has been increasingly neutral. Given the small majority that March 14 has in parliament, his stance could well decide the next prime minister.

The other imponderable is how the court proceeds. Amal has stated that the opposition has no wish to go beyond legitimate political procedures. But if the tribunal issues indictments before this process is played out then mass protests and possibly violence could result.