Nadim Shehadi
Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Eleven ministers resigned from the Lebanese cabinet this week causing the collapse of the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. They represented former opposition parties, allied to Hizballah and Syria, and opposed to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which is shortly expected to issue an indictment rumoured to involve individuals close to Hizballah. No compromise could be reached between two positions revolving around a deal, sponsored through negotiations between Syria and Saudi Arabia (known as the S-S deal), that was intended to avoid the internal repercussions of the indictment.

The two positions

The opposition demanded that Hariri collaborate in the STL's demise by agreeing to cut Lebanese funding, withdraw the Lebanese judges, and declare the agreement between Lebanon and the UN which created the STL as null and void, thus aiming to kill the tribunal before it issues the indictment. Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizballah, also said that any collaboration with the tribunal is prohibited and would be considered as directed against the resistance and in collaboration with its enemies.

The offer of Prime Minister Hariri, on the other hand, was to recognise that any individuals named in the indictment would be considered innocent until proven guilty; if convicted they would also be considered as 'rogue individuals' and not as representing or involving any group they belong to. He also issued a statement last September retracting any accusations against Syria for taking part in the assassination of his father. The way he put it was that he regretted the 'political' accusations against Syria which were hasty and mistaken, and that normal neighbourly relations with Syria should be pursued, leaving the matter of the assassination in the hands of the STL.

The resignations mean that the Hariri offer was not accepted as sufficient and that there was no deal. It was timed to coincide with Hariri's meeting with President Obama in Washington DC. He entered the Oval office as prime minister of a government of national unity and left as the ex-Prime Minister of a country in a deeply-rooted political crisis: so much for drama and panache.

The thin line between justice and politics

The very fact that there was discussion and expectation of a deal over what is essentially an independent and impartial international judicial instrument is an indication that the line between justice and politics is sometimes perceived to be very fine indeed. The challenge is to maintain and accept the impartiality and independence of the STL and international criminal justice.

The Lebanese system has a history of compromise, power sharing and consensus building between various political and religious groups. The current crisis will be a major test and will stretch the system to its limits, with concern to avoid violent and tragic results. The Tribunal was established to end impunity for murderers, but politically Lebanon is divided between those who perceive the STL as a measure of international protection and those who see it as a hostile intervention tied to a political agenda and in support of one side over another and with a regional dimension directed against Iran and Syria.

In the meantime, the resignation is no big deal. The government had been paralyzed for at least three months over the same issue. It may be that a governmental crisis is better than a government in crisis.