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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - March 25, 2013

The Lebanese prime minister’s resignation is another alarming sign of the country’s downward spiralThe Lebanese prime minister’s resignation is another alarming sign of the country’s downward spiral

by Roula Khalaf

Then Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati resigned on Friday, the Sunni-led opposition that had long called for his departure was elated. The political bloc that had propelled him to power two years ago, led by the Shia Hizbollah militant group, also seemed satisfied.

Lebanon’s entire political class, in fact, greeted the move and the collapse of the government that came with it with a shrug. The billionaire businessman had fallen out of line – and he could no longer serve his purpose.

Yet Mr Mikati’s resignation was another alarming sign of the country’s downward spiral, and the most powerful tremor to hit Lebanon from the civil war in Syria. While the triggers for Mr Mikati’s decision were domestic, what lies behind them has much to do with Syria.

His decision to step down was caused by an apparent Hizbollah attempt to exert wider control over the country’s security at a time of increasing anxiety over the fate of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and the party’s regional ally.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution two years ago, Lebanon has followed an official policy of “dissociation from Syria”. In practice, however, both Hizbollah and the Sunni opposition have been actively involved, backing opposite sides of the Syrian conflict.

Inside the country, in fact, Hizbollah has been keeping a low profile, careful not to overplay its hand and reignite a new chapter in the civil war that devastated Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. That attitude, however, could be changing.

Mr Mikati’s resignation was tied to his insistence on extending the term of Ashraf Rifi, the internal security chief who runs the only part of the security apparatus that is hostile to Hizbollah and Mr Assad. The agency had already been severely weakened by last October’s assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, the head of its intelligence branch, a killing that was blamed on the Syrian regime.

“Rifi represented an important barrier for Hizbollah’s stronger grip on the security decision in this country, therefore his departure was not an ordinary matter,” says Mohamad Chatah, a senior official in the opposition Future movement.

The Rifi controversy also coincided with a row over electoral laws ahead of planned parliamentary elections, which now look unlikely to be held in the summer. This might well suit pro-Syrian factions, which have an interest in holding elections only under the law they favour.

“Hizbollah would have preferred to maintain the government but security and elections are more important than the government,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

Driving the hardening Hizbollah thinking, argues Mr Salem, is the suspicion that the war in Syria is part of a bigger plot by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – supporters of the Syrian rebels – that will target Hizbollah next.

If the government resignation was the only crisis facing Lebanon, it might be manageable. But it comes at a time of rising insecurity and accumulating economic woes, exacerbated by the flood of Syrian refugees, whose numbers now exceed 375,000 in a country of 4m people.

Pro- and anti-Syrian Lebanese factions have repeatedly been clashing in the northern city of Tripoli. Although the army was said to have restored calm in the city on Sunday, Marwan Charbel, the outgoing interior minister, warned that the unrest was “very dangerous” for Tripoli and the whole country.

Syrian forces, meanwhile, recently launched missiles across the Lebanese borders, claiming to be targeting rebels. Earlier this month, moreover, four Lebanese Sunni sheikhs were attacked in separate incidents, prompting the army chief to declare that the security situation in Lebanon was the worst in years.

Politicians in Beirut say that fear of sectarian strife could yet prompt all parties to turn the Mikati resignation into an opportunity for national reconciliation and a more credible policy of “dissociation” from Syria. The Mikati resignation “can create momentum, perhaps for a big agreement,” says one senior official from the Hizbollah-led bloc.

More likely, however, is that even if a new prime minister is named, forming a cabinet will be a protracted affair. Lebanon desperately needs national reconciliation and a broader political agreement. But this will probably have to wait for a denouement in Syria – and when that will happen no one in Lebanon can predict.

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