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DECRYPTION – The arrival in Paris of the Lebanese Prime Minister is a stage in the crisis in Lebanon, a country permeable to regional political fractures.

DECRYPTION – The arrival in Paris of the Lebanese Prime Minister is a stage in the crisis in Lebanon, a country permeable to regional political fractures.

Lebanon has been exposed to the vicissitudes of the complicated geopolitics of the Middle East since its independence in 1943, starting with the creation of the State of Israel which resulted in a massive influx of Palestinian refugees on its soil until the recent war in Syria, through the Israeli occupation of its south…

Since 2005, and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, which dramatically marks the end of the phase of Syrian supervision established in the land of Cedars at the end of the civil war of 1975-1990 with international cover, institutional instability is chronic. It reflects the total permeability of the country to the more or less cold wars waged by regional and international powers in the Middle East. Lebanon was beginning to regain some semblance of institutional "normality" since the compromise that allowed the election of Michel Aoun a year ago and the formation of Saad Hariri's government. The resignation of the latter shattered this fragile balance – rather favorable to the Iran-Hezbollah axis – and again subjected the country to the showdown by proxy between Riyadh and Tehran in the region.

• Will Saad Hariri maintain his resignation?

France's intervention pulls Saudi Arabia out of trouble, by allowing her to officially deny the accusation that she is holding the Lebanese Prime Minister hostage, as accused by President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, and which the Lebanese authorities were planning to bring before the Security Council of the UN. However, we do not know if Saad Hariri, who is going to Beirut on Wednesday, for Independence Day on November 22, will maintain his resignation or engage in negotiations to return to it, as he has suggested. The mystery that continues to surround the exact motivations of the Saudi coup complicates the analysis of possible scenarios. Especially since the impact of his surprise resignation had contradictory effects: on the one hand, the humiliation of the leader of the Courant du futur has a lasting effect on his image, to the point that some predict the end of his political career. On the other hand, the renewed popularity he is enjoying, cleverly encouraged by Hezbollah, which has played the card of patriotism flouted by the Lebanese to its advantage, is potentially a new asset for him. It is therefore possible that the head of state will accept Saad Hariri's resignation and immediately charge him with forming another government, if the latter has the Saudi green light to do so.

Failing this, a new Sunni personality will have to emerge capable of assuming the function reserved for this community, according to Lebanese customs. "We are not sheep," Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk had sharply declared in response to the hypothesis of a replacement for Saad by his older brother Bahaa, which Riyadh seems to have wanted to push with the Hariri clan. But the margin of autonomy in relation to Riyadh is very limited or even non-existent for anyone who would like to claim Sunni leadership in Lebanon. And Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is no longer ready to give Hezbollah a free hand in Lebanon.

•Why are the Lebanese so worried?

Even the most vocal critics of Hezbollah – denounced as a state within a state, with autonomous military power – agree: “cutting off the hands” of Iran’s ally in Lebanon and the region is good easier to promise than to do, without threatening the whole country. The party is very firmly established in the Shiite population, which represents about a third of the Lebanese, through an autonomous network of social services, while being represented in Parliament and the government. Hence the concern that gripped the Lebanese as soon as these unusually harsh words were uttered by Saad Hariri, when he announced his resignation on November 4. Especially since they are consistent with the hardening of the United States' tone towards Iran, echoing that of Israel.

The idea that prevailed in Lebanon in recent years was that the reciprocal deterrent effects are strong enough to encourage Hezbollah and Israel to avoid any risk of conflagration. The rise of Iran in the region, and in particular the way in which the Syrian conflict is evolving – pro-Iranian forces, including Hezbollah, have gained a foothold on the Israeli border – coupled with the change in dynamics driven by Donald Trump , which has decided to partially call into question the nuclear agreement with Tehran, has created a new deal. And that's all it takes to imagine a scenario of an Israeli war against Hezbollah under US-Saudi guise. Knowing that Tel-Aviv no longer makes any secret of its offer of cooperation with the Gulf countries to counter the rise in power of Iran, their common enemy. In the opinion of all the experts, such a war would be much more deadly for Lebanon than that of 2006 and the probability that it would trigger a regional explosion would be great.

•Could Saudi Arabia use economic weapons?

In his televised address on November 12, Saad Hariri made it clear that Lebanon had every interest in staying in Saudi Arabia's good graces given the large Lebanese community living in the kingdom, also one of the largest customers of meager Lebanese exports. In total, between 300.000 and 400.000 Lebanese (for a resident population of approximately 4 million) are established in the Gulf countries. This diaspora, coupled with others on all continents, is an essential financial lung for Lebanon: the capital that enters the banking system, a good part of which is remittances from expatriates, is essential for refinancing the colossal debt of this small country with very little production. Threatening to turn off this tap is in itself a negative signal for the Lebanese financial model already described as unsustainable by international organizations. Beyond its economic aspects, it is once again the vulnerability of the Lebanese state itself that this crisis highlights, as highlighted by Middle East specialist Peter Harling, who compares Lebanon to a “unmanned aircraft”.

The Lebanese political class has mastered the art of instrumentalizing geopolitical tensions to polarize public opinion along confessional lines of division and thus perpetuate its hold on state institutions subjugated to clientelist objectives. "We must break the chains that bind the external sponsor to the Lebanese zaïm (chief in Arabic) and the latter to the members of his community to restore the bases of true citizenship", claims an activist, during a meeting between several movements of protest, born of the garbage crisis of the summer of 2015, who plan to enter the political arena more resolutely during the legislative elections of 2018.

•How can Hezbollah's attitude evolve?

It is probably because he seems stronger than ever in Lebanon, after having partly won his high-risk military bet by coming to the aid of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, that Hezbollah has again become the direct target of Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh denounces in particular its support for the Yemeni Houthis who launched a missile on the Saudi capital: a declaration of war, according to the authorities of the kingdom. And on the Lebanese scene, the supporters of the hard line against Iran have never ceased to reproach Saad Hariri for his choice to coexist with the Shiite party, accused of having assassinated his father, Rafic Hariri, and of implicating the Lebanon despite itself in Iranian expansionism. A compromise of which Hezbollah is the only winner, they believe, citing in particular as an example the rapprochement with the Syrian authorities initiated by the head of Lebanese diplomacy.

For the moment, the leader of the Shiite party has chosen to temporize. Because the protection of the Lebanese institutions from which he has benefited until now – in particular to limit the effect of the American financial sanctions against him – is increasingly fragile.

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Source: ©  Lebanon: why the crisis has only just begun

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