The Shiâ€™a, the largest community in Lebanon, are no longer represented in the Lebanese government. It could be just part of Lebanonâ€™s bloody-minded politics – or it could be a most dangerous moment in the history of this tragic country.
At the weekend, the Hezbollah and the Amal movement walked out of the Lebanese body politic, splitting apart the gentle, utterly false, brilliantly conceived (by the French, of course) confessional system that binds this tortured nation together. There will be demonstrations by Hezbollah to demand a government of â€œnational unityâ€, which means that Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, winner of the so-called â€œdivine victoryâ€ against Israel this summer, insists on another pro-Syrian administration in Lebanon.
For a world which has decided to support Lebanonâ€™s â€œdemocracyâ€, this is grave news. The resignation of five cabinet ministers, two from Hezbollah and three from Amal, cannot bring down the government (which needs eight ministers to resign in order to destroy it), but it means that the largest religious community is no longer officially represented in government decision-making. The Hezbollah are warning of demonstrations which could tear the country apart.
The stakes? The international tribunal which is supposed to try those responsible for the murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri last year, and the possibility that the national â€œunityâ€ which Hezbollah demands would create a cabinet which could become, once more, Syriaâ€™s creature in Lebanon.
Itâ€™s not that simple, of course – nothing in Lebanon is – but itâ€™s enough to frighten the democratically elected cabinet of Fouad Siniora, Haririâ€™s friend and confidant, and – even more – the Americans who supported â€œdemocracyâ€ in Lebanon and then cared nothing for it during this summerâ€™s Israeli bombardment of the country.
What prompted this extraordinary crisis at a time when thousands of foreign troops are still pouring into Lebanon to secure a peace which looks ever more self-destructive by the day? Clearly, the tribunal is one element. On Friday, the UN presented Mr Siniora with the terms of the court which would try suspects in the Hariri murder, men who will probably turn out to be intelligence agents of President Bashar Assadâ€™s regime in Damascus. The Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud, the most faithful friend of Mr Assad, has already said he needs further time to study the UN recommendations – ho hum, his Lebanese opponents say – before he will sanction a cabinet meeting tomorrow to allow parliament to vote on the UN proposals.
Mr Siniora – an economist friend of Hariri and no warlord – has now said that he will not accept the resignations. He is waiting for Nasrallahâ€™s lads to return to the cabinet, well aware that their continued absence – however legal the cabinet remains – will tear the country apart.
The Christians probably account for fewer than 30 per cent of the Lebanese population, and the Sunnis – who largely support them through the leadership of Haririâ€™s son, Saad – create a majority which the Shiâ€™a cannot outnumber. But Syria and Iran – the armourers of the Hezbollah – are waiting to see what the United States will offer them before cooling the Lebanese oven.
Marwan Hamadi, the minister of communications, said yesterday that talks could be held to bring the Shiâ€™a back into the government. The Beirut conference between Saad Haririâ€™s 14 March movement – the date marks the huge pro-democracy rally last year that followed his fatherâ€™s murder – broke down on Saturday.
Mr Haririâ€™s bloc holds a majority in parliament, but the formal Christian rebel-general Michel Aoun – whose supporters are already wearying of his electoral alliance with the Hezbollah – says that the cabinet is not representative. He wants three of his loyalists in the government.
Either way, the Christians and the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon are now being torn from their Shiâ€™a co- religionists. Rival street protests between Christians and Sunnis on the one hand, and Shiâ€™a on the other, can scarcely be pursued when most of the Lebanese army – a re-formed force of some integrity – are mostly Shiâ€™a. Bad news indeed.