“Democracy has taken a stab to the heart,” said Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on 10 May, in a television address to the nation, one day after Hezbollah militia took control of West Beirut. “But the state will not fall to those behind this coup.”

It was not a genuine coup d’etat, but the events of the past week have demonstrated to many that the Lebanese state is little more than an empty shell and the March 14 alliance that took power in 2005 is bereft of effective political leadership. Siniora seems to have rushed into overplaying a weak hand, by challenging key parts of Hezbollah’s power network without having the means to support his challenge.

The ease with which Hezbollah took control of key positions in the capital on 9 May, and subsequently routed rival Druze militia in their Chouf mountain base, surprised few. But the speed with which the Shia movement repelled the government’s clumsy attempts to shut down its telecoms network, and oust a senior airport security official associated with the movement, shows a renewed willingness among Lebanon’s opposition bloc to raise the political temperature in an election year.

New rules

“Hezbollah took by force what it has been demanding by diplomacy for the past two years,” says Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, a Beirut-based think-tank. “It is trying to impose new rules of the political game.”

These new rules threaten to turn Beirut’s clock back to the period before the February 2005 regime change that followed the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

That event triggered the eventual withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanese soil after nearly three decades. The anti-Syrian political alliance that emerged to take power that year promised to reshape Lebanon into a Western-oriented entity unshackled from the control of its larger neighbour.

The sight of Hezbollah taking control of key positions in Beirut, Tripoli and the Chouf exposes the reality of those ambitions. Its show of strength has defined the limited reach of the government, as it strives to unwind the key vestiges of Hezbollah’s ‘state within a state’.

“Hezbollah’s objective was not to wage a full coup d’etat but to drive the government into irrelevance so that it has no option but to resign,” says Safa.

The rapid change in fortunes is deeply humiliating for Siniora. Just three days after the government announced its two key measures against Hezbollah – involving a judicial investigation of a sophisticated Hezbollah-operated telecommunications network and the removal of the head of security at Beirut International Airport, Brigadier General Wafiq Shukair – the Lebanese army reversed them.

The government alleged that the telecoms network was being used to undermine security inside the country, while suggesting that the movement had set up cameras at the airport as a possible aid to attacks on key pro-government figures using the airport. Hezbollah viewed the assault on its telecoms infrastructure as an encroachment on the sanctity of its weaponry.

It argued that the secure phone network was an integral part of its military capability, designed to challenge Israel, and was therefore ‘untouchable’ in Lebanese political parlance.

Hezbollah’s leadership saw no alternative but to counter the moves by turning its weapons on fellow Lebanese for the first time since the end of the civil war.

Siniora’s belated pleas for the army to stand firm in the face of Hezbollah aggression counted for nothing, revealing only the prime minister’s essential powerlessness.

“Hezbollah chose to act now for several reasons, some local and some regional,” says Safa. “It has created a buffer between its weapons and the government, and at the same time changed the political equi-tation to make sure that the new political order it imposed is something similar to that which prevailed before 2005 – retaining its veto power, ensuring that no major decisions are taken without it having a say.”

Practical steps

The government’s anti-Hezbollah initiative was meant to show it was capable of taking practical steps to dismantle Hezbollah’s institutional ambitions and reassert the full authority of the Lebanese state. The messy aftermath suggests instead a monumental miscalculation of its own capabilities in this area.

Since the summer 2006 war, the government has been unable to move the political process forward. Parliament has stalled and the country has been without a president since late 2006. Some fear that recent events also threaten to plunge the country into a renewed bout of civil war.

The outbreak of fighting between Shiite and Druze militiamen in the Chouf, and between pro-government forces and Alawite Lebanese in the northern city of Tripoli – where Hezbollah has no real power base – provides an eerie reminder of the sectarian powder-keg that once ignited the country in violence.

A civil war seems unlikely. The political atmosphere in Lebanon is much less charged than in previous years, and there is little appetite for sustained internecine conflict. “No matter how long this situation lasts, we will not be dragged into a war,” says Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces, a one-time Christian militia and now a partner in the government.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is avoiding provocative gestures towards other Lebanese parties and has steered clear of outright criticism of Sunni politicians.

However, the Hezbollah-backed campaign of civil disobedience will continue until it believes its demands are being taken seriously – although some suspect that Hezbollah itself is not necessarily in full control of this agenda.

Government supporters such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt claim that Lebanon is once again being used as a proxy battleground for others’ conflicts. Jumblatt has suggested that Syria wants to use Hezbollah’s prowess to undermine a UN tribunal into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, which has centred on key figures in Damascus.

Iranian influence

Iran’s fingerprints have also been identified. “Hezbollah and Iran won the battle of Beirut,” Jumblatt told reporters. “The Iranians chose the moment the US was weak in the Middle East. The balance of power has completely changed in Lebanon and now we wait to see what new rules Hezbollah, Syria and Iran will lay down.”

Israel too will be watching events closely. Having witnessed again the fragile pro-Western government and the inability of the Lebanese army to challenge Hezbollah on the ground, it will feel vindicated in its view that only the application of external military force by Israel can guarantee its own safety.

The Beirut government may still have friends in Washington, Paris and Riyadh, but they provide little practical benefit in the current situation. The government’s options are limited. Siniora has signalled a willingness to clear the air, calling for the immediate election of General Michel Suleiman as a consensus president and for the creation of a national unity government.

Yet such an administration would look very different to the government that has attempted to rule for the past three years. “We are looking at a new solution under new terms imposed by Hezbollah, giving it more decision-making power,” says Safa.

The army’s inability to blunt Hezbollah’s advance is a reflection of that institution’s fundamental weakness, reflecting the country’s varied sectarian mosaic. Yet the army has emerged over the past decade and a half as one of the country’s few viable non-sectarian institutions, winning plaudits in 2007 for quelling a Sunni Jihadist uprising in Palestinian refugee camps in the north of the country.

The clear message from recent events is that to remain united, the army must refrain from directly challenging an alternative, non-state military force: Hezbollah. “The army can only do so much,” says Safa. “If it gets involved on one side, it would disintegrate immediately.”

No future government will therefore be so ready to take action against Hezbollah’s ‘state within a state’. Its rival institutional apparatus remains intact, and could emerge emboldened by recent events.

Hezbollah has also shown it can adeptly tap into the linkages between its social and military arms. The immediate precursor to Hezbollah’s action was a general strike in opposition to the government’s offer of a minimum wage increase from £Leb300,000 ($200) a month to £Leb450,000, which was deemed too low. The key point was that the strike was only observed in Shiite areas, where Hezbollah is strongest.

The movement’s ‘hearts and minds’ operations emerged in the political vacuum of the 1980s, when the poverty-stricken, mainly Shiite south of the country felt the full force of Israeli military intervention. Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has competed with the Lebanese government to rebuild war-torn areas in the south, deploying the expertise of its own non-governmental organisation, the Jihad al-Binna Developmental Association, in the reconstruction process.

The extensive social services offered by the movement, stretching from subsidised medicine provision to education and water distribution, have underscored its political legitimacy, while providing a convenient excuse for the government to excuse itself from service provision in many parts of the country.

Hezbollah’s extensive presence in key government institutions, whether in overseeing airport security or through the use of its secure telecoms system, will make it difficult for any government to rule without it. This represents a key change. Where once Hezbollah could be left to supervise social services in the south of the country, leaving its military forces to obstruct Israeli advances, under the new rules of the game, Hezbollah is looking to be far more extensively involved in decision-making.

At one time, many Lebanese would protest the dominance of an outside state in their own affairs – neighbouring Syria. Now they are getting increasingly anxious about a state within a state, an enemy within represented by Hezbollah.