Nasrallah-Siniora Showdown / Who Will Blink First in Lebanon?

Will Beirut be transformed today into the "capital of Arabism, resistance and unity," as Hassan Nasrallah described it yesterday in a statement, or will Lebanon come under a regime of "religious tyranny," as Marwan Hamade, minister of communications and an associate of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, warns? The efforts of Nabih Berri, the speaker of Lebanon's parliament, to find some magical formula to avert the danger will continue today, but it seems that Nasrallah will not pass up a show of force, something he has been planning for weeks and which was postponed following the assassination of Pierre Gemayel.

The government of Lebanon is preparing for such an eventuality, with roads in the outskirts of Beirut being closed by the army in an effort to prevent Hezbollah supporters from the countryside entering the city and moving toward the main squares. But it is clear to both sides that the situation is so explosive that any violent confrontation in one of the districts is capable of setting Lebanon ablaze, even though both the government and Hezbollah are talking of quiet demonstrations and strikes.

A governm ent of national unity, which Nasrallah wants, is not unacceptable to Siniora. He is willing to expand the number of ministers from 24 to 30 and to grant posts to the movement of Christian General Michel Aoun, who became Nasrallah's ally. But Siniora is not willing to give in on two fundamental issues: he insists on the creation of an international tribunal to try the killers of Rafik Hariri and of other Lebanese public figures; and he is unwilling to grant the Shi'a-Aoun minority coalition a third of the posts in government, something that would grant them veto power on government decisions.

A possible compromise that could defuse the situation would be a rewording of the tribunal's role, and also agreement on the individual who will replace Emile Lahoud, the outgoing president. In the past two days there have also been proposals on changing the election law, which is also at the root of the dispute. But when Lahoud publicly pronounces his support for the pro-Hezbollah demonstrations and calls the Siniora government "illegitimate," it is hard for the prime minister to accept the compromises being offered.

The question now is "who will blink first?" Even if Siniora agrees to give in to Hezbollah on the seats in government and the presidency, it is doubtful whether Nasrallah will agree to step back on the issue of the tribunal. This stems from Nasrallah's conviction that he has sufficient support to claim greater power through elections. But it is hard to know how the street will react, particularly when each of the two sides is fueled by great anger at the other.