Hezbollah urges 'patience and calm' amid Lebanon's political crisis

An image grab taken from Hezbollah's al-Manar TV on Nov 5, 2017 shows Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon's militant Shiite movement Hezbollah, giving a televised address from an undisclosed location in Lebanon.
An image grab taken from Hezbollah's al-Manar TV on Nov 5, 2017 shows Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon's militant Shiite movement Hezbollah, giving a televised address from an undisclosed location in Lebanon.PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called Sunday (Nov 5) for "patience and calm" in Lebanon, seeking to reassure a country thrown into uncertainty a day after the surprise resignation of the prime minister, Saad Hariri.

Fears for Lebanon's stability were running high after Hariri declared his resignation in a speech televised from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, attacking Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran and its ally Hezbollah. The Shiite militia and political party is the strongest faction in Lebanon.

The move was widely seen as having been orchestrated by Hariri's patrons, the Saudis, to isolate Hezbollah by collapsing Lebanon's national unity government, which included both it and Hariri's Sunni faction. Saudi Arabia has been taking increasingly aggressive steps to curb Iran's growing dominance in the region.

Lebanon has long been a flashpoint for regional tensions, and there are fears that if it becomes the latest stage for the escalating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran - as war-torn Syria has been in recent years - the tiny Mediterranean country could face economic collapse or even violence.

On Sunday, Bahrain urged its citizens to leave Lebanon for their safety, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement expressing concern about Hariri's resignation and calling on all sides to safeguard Lebanon's state institutions and its "security and stability". Nasrallah called the resignation "very destabilising" and rejected Hariri's accusations of Iranian interference in Lebanon. He also pointed out the irony of his making them from Saudi Arabia, and said, "We, Hezbollah, did not wish for this." But he urged people not to engage in street protests or "sectarian tensions" and "not to fear and worry", adding, "Civil peace in Lebanon is the most precious." Nasrallah said he expected Hariri to return to Lebanon on Thursday - "if he is allowed to come back" - and talk with President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, who has yet to accept the resignation.

"It was definitely a Saudi decision that was imposed on him," said Nasrallah. "It was not his will to step down." A satirical website, "Free Saad Hariri" has already appeared, with a time counter showing how long it had been since he resigned. It was reminiscent of a billboard Hariri maintains in Beirut to count the days waiting for justice after the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister.

Sami Nader, an economist at St Joseph University in Beirut, said Nasrallah appeared to be "trying to de-escalate the situation and contain it" because the resignation, which leaves Hezbollah without a Sunni governing partner, could strip it of "legal and political cover". It could also make the Lebanese government more vulnerable to sanctions against the group, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States.

Nasrallah also sought to tamp down fears that the prime minister's resignation exposed Lebanon to a new war with Israel, where high-ranking officials have lately argued that Hezbollah and the Lebanese government are one and the same. If Israel wanted to wage a war, he said, it would do so regardless of whether Hariri was in government or not.

Hariri had warned of a plot against his life, and Saudi news outlets said one had been foiled earlier this week. But the Lebanese army and internal security forces said they knew of no such attempt.

The unity government was meant to contain rifts in Lebanon exacerbated by the war in Syria, where Iran and Saudi Arabia and their respective Lebanese partners have supported opposite sides. It has produced some results after years of political deadlock: a new electoral law, budget talks, a tax law and even a decision on the contentious issue of appointing an ambassador to Damascus.

But while Hariri has made many concessions to Hezbollah - tolerating its growing involvement in Syria and its adoption of state functions like negotiating hostage releases and fighting militants on the borders - Hezbollah has not made as many concessions to him, angering his base. That meant Hariri could have faced challenges in elections planned for May.

Now, it remains unclear if those elections will take place, or what the next steps are in the governance crisis. The two most likely Sunni politicians - under Lebanon's sect-based power-sharing system, the prime minister must be Sunni - former prime ministers Najib Mikati and Fouad Siniora, have said they are not interested.

If Aoun and the Parliament decide on an openly pro-Hezbollah figure, the country could face new isolation. It is unlikely they could settle on an openly anti-Hezbollah political figure.

Hariri, perhaps seeking to dispel rumors he was under arrest in Saudi Arabia, posted on Twitter for the first time since his resignation speech, posing with the new Saudi ambassador to Lebanon.

Lebanese supporters and opponents of Hariri's faction said the country would soldier on with or without him.

"Hariri? What does that have to do with us? Everyone in this area is against him anyway," said Mohammad Shabban, owner of a shawarma shop.