Five pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim ministers from Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal movement, resigned from Lebanon’s cabinet on Saturday after the collapse of all-party talks on giving their camp more say in government.
The resignation of all the Shiite ministers from the 24-member Western-backed cabinet came two days before it was scheduled to discuss a draft U.N. document setting up a tribunal to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Many Lebanese blame Syria for Hariri’s killing but Damascus denies involvement. Anti-Syrian majority leaders say Hezbollah and its ally want a decisive say in government to block key decisions such as approving the tribunal.
The pro-Syrian camp say they want better representation in the cabinet and that they had agreed to the tribunal but want to discuss its details.
While the resignations will not bring down the government, they pose a major challenge to the majority anti-Syrian coalition in a country where the political system is based on a delicate sectarian balance.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora rejected the resignations but a senior political source close to Hezbollah said the ministers stood by their decision to quit.
“To pave the way for the majority to practice what it wants freely and so that we don’t cover what we are not convinced of ... we announce the resignation of our representatives in the current cabinet,” Hezbollah and Amal said in a joint statement.
Groups' demands not met
The two groups allied to Syria said the anti-Syrian majority had rejected their demands for a decisive say in government during week-long talks that collapsed earlier in the day.
The United States and its allies in Lebanon are not keen to see Hezbollah, which Washington regards as a terrorist organization, exert more influence over the government.
The escalating political crisis could provoke confrontation on the streets of Beirut at a time of rising tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
“Things will get worse. There will be a protest move soon,” a senior political source close to Hezbollah said earlier. “The climate at today’s meeting was very bad. This stand (by the anti-Syrian) majority will not pass without reaction.”
Lebanon received from the United Nations on Friday a draft document outlining the structure and legal framework of the Hariri tribunal. Siniora had called a cabinet meeting for Monday to discuss the draft.
Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud opposed the cabinet meeting, saying he needed more time to study the draft.
Anti-Syrian leaders who took part in the failed talks tried to ease fears that the crisis would spill onto the streets, dashing hopes of a recovery from last summer’s war with Israel.
“I don’t know who is spreading a climate of fear and tension as if something is about to happen. Nothing will happen,” said Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party in the anti-Syrian camp.
Threat of demonstrations
Shiite Hezbollah, which claimed victory in its war with Israel in July and August, has led calls for a change in the government dominated by anti-Syrians from the Sunni-led majority bloc in parliament.
The pro-Syrian party has threatened mass demonstrations demanding new parliamentary elections unless more of its allies are admitted to the cabinet by mid-November.
The majority coalition is willing to bring in Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, but not to surrender a third of seats to the opposition. A third of ministers plus one can block motions in cabinet and automatically bring down the government by resigning.
The 2005 killing of Hariri led to mass protests against Syria. Under international pressure, Syria ended a 29-year military presence in Lebanon in April last year and anti-Syrian politicians swept to victory in ensuing elections.
A U.N. commission investigating the murder has implicated senior Lebanese and Syrian security officials.