When Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8 coalition decided to task former Prime Minister Najib Mikati with the formation of a government against the will of the majority of Lebanon’s Sunni community in 2011, many foresaw the eventual collapse of the Cabinet, and rightly so.
Two years later, Mikati resigned. The alleged reason behind his decision to step down was Hezbollah’s opposition to the extension of the mandate of then-Internal Security Forces Director General Ashraf Rifi. The true reason, however, lies much deeper.
Rifi serves today as justice minister and is one of the most outspoken critics of Hezbollah among members of the Future Movement, the very same movement whose leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was ousted by Hezbollah to be replaced by Mikati.
Hezbollah was wrong to believe that Mikati, in his capacity as the Sunni prime minister of Lebanon, could lead a government against the will of the sweeping majority of his own community. Not only did his government fail to sever ties with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon – which Hezbollah had initially demanded from Hariri before toppling his government – but it also deepened the rift between the country’s Sunni and Shiite factions, a rift that was too deep for Mikati to reconcile, eventually prompting his resignation.
Today, the Future Movement is about to make the same mistake by marginalizing Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. This time, however, much more could be at stake.
By pursuing business as usual and ignoring Aoun’s demand for the appointment of a new Army chief, the Future Movement-led Cabinet is about to force a leading representative of the Christian community out of government.
In doing so, the Future Movement is risking the collapse of Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s government – regardless of whether Aoun’s demands are deemed legitimate by either his political foes or allies.
If Aoun decides to do whatever is necessary to bring down the government, Hezbollah will have no choice but to take sides with its Christian ally – though reluctantly given its preoccupation with the Syrian conflict.
Aoun’s political rivals in the March 14 Christian camp, namely the Lebanese Forces, are also unlikely to challenge the former general’s campaign to restore what he dubs “Christian rights” under Lebanon’s confessional power-sharing system.
This time, however, if Aoun succeeds in toppling the government it would have farther-reaching consequences then when Hezbollah decided to topple Hariri’s Cabinet. In the absence of a president and Parliament’s inability to convene, Lebanon might be heading toward a revamp of the national pact that ended the nation’s 15-year Civil War.
Aoun and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea have hinted at an alternative political system in their recently announced 16-point declaration of intent, one based on fiscal and administrative decentralization. Kataeb leader Sami Gemayel was more blunt: The alternative is federalism. “It’s about time to admit that the constitutional formula that we have been living under for more than 90 years has failed to bring Lebanese together,” he said a few days ago.
How will a change in Lebanon’s confessional power-sharing system materialize if the political crisis escalates? Only time will tell in a region being divided along sectarian lines.