Friday at 3 p.m. is the “Zero Hour”

Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has announced that Friday at 3 p.m. (conveniently after Friday prayers) would be the “zero hour” that his supporters and political allies would take to the streets to force the resignation of the current Lebanese government. This will be a defining moment in the modern history of the Middle East.

BEIRUT — Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has announced that Friday at 3 p.m. (conveniently after Friday prayers) would be the “zero hour” that his supporters and political allies would take to the streets to force the resignation of the current Lebanese government.

The so-called March 8 movement, which takes its name from the massive March 8, 2005 demonstration that was to “thank” Syria for its 29-year occupation of Lebanon, is dominated by Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militant group that fought Israel to a standstill the summer. Because of its “divine victory,” as Hezbollah called it, and what Nasrallah says was insufficient fealty to the group’s war on the part of Fuad Siniora and the Lebanese government, Hezbollah, Amal and the largely Christian Free Patriotic Movement were demanding veto power in the cabinet. (It’s widely assumed that the March 8 movement, which is supportive of Syria, is trying to derail the U.N. tribunal set up to try suspects in the case of the murder of ex-premier Rafik Hariri, in which Syria is suspected. Veto power in the cabinet would grant them this power.)

They didn’t get the expanded number of seats in the cabinet, as there’s already been an election and there won’t be another one for parliament until 2009, so now they’re taking to the streets to topple the government, which they say is exercising their “democratic rights.”

It seems March 8 has a funny idea of democracy.

In most parliamentary democracies, if the government doesn’t survive a vote of no-confidence in parliament, it has to resign. Siniora’s government is backed by the March 14 movement, named for an equally massive protest on that date in 2005 that was in response to the March 8 protest. (Confused yet?)

Siniora’s government would handily survive a no-confidence vote because March 14 won the elections that year. The March 8 group is in the minority and calls itself the opposition.

Hezbollah & Co. are, instead, taking to the streets, warning government workers not to go to work and generally threatening to bring Lebanon’s government and economy to a crashing halt if they don’t get their way.

That’s not democracy. Most people would call that a coup d’état.

At the heart of the dispute are arcane provisions in the Lebanese constitution that call for representation from all the 14 official sects in the country to be represented in parliament and in the cabinet. But Hezbollah et al. walked out! They weren’t excluded, which seems to be what the clauses in the charter are aimed at preventing. What I find difficult to swallow is that March 8 is demanding an expansion of their representation in cabinet to 1/3rd plus one — which would give them the veto — even though they’ve already walked out and declared the cabinet out of quorum, and thus illegitimate. Doesn’t that mean they already had the veto power, albeit one they could only exercise with their feet?

When I asked Hossein Naboulsi, former Hezbollah spokesman but still loyal party member, about this, he said that they merely wanted the representation that their numbers warranted. This is a very dangerous attitude in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s government is complicated and fragile, as you would expect in a country where no one group is the majority. (Depending on which study you refer to, Shi’a and Christians make up about 1/3rd each, while Sunnis make up about 30 percent. Druze and other minorities, including a few thousand Kurds, make up the rest. No census has been taken since 1932, however, so no one really knows.) Since 1990, when the Taef Accords ended the 15-year civil war, the political balance of power was artificially set at an even number of Christians and Muslims in parliament. (Before Taef, it was six Christians to five Muslims, reflecting the 1932 census.) It also reinforced the “National Pact,” which has never been set in stone, but which obligates the Christians to recognize Lebanon’s Arab nature and not seek protection from the French anymore, and the Muslims were to recognize Lebanon’s 1920 borders and cease attempts to unite with Syria. Both sides are openly breaking breaking their side of the deal, with France making up the bulk of UNIFIL II and Hezbollah going steady with Syria.

Everyone knows the seats in parliament aren’t allocated on who has the biggest group, but that’s actually the point: Lebanon’s system, while imperfect, allows for the voices of all groups to be heard, not just that of the largest and loudest — which today would presumably be that of the Shi’a. It prevents the tyranny of the majority. For most Lebanese, this is a blessing because the largest political party (Hezbollah) in the largest sect (the Shi’a) is committed to forming an Islamic Republic in Lebanon modeled on Iran’s.

Now, Hezbollah long ago formally renounced forcing an Islamic Republic on Lebanon, saying instead that it would let the people decide. But Hezbollah is now saying they deserve more power not because they won it in elections — which would be fine — but because they just “won” a war and, well, since Shi’a make up the biggest group (they say), hand over those reins of power, boys.

When I was down in Ait al-Chaab, on the Israel border shortly after the war, I met a Hezbollah party member who declined to give his name, but he said, “Those who can defend Lebanon deserve to rule it.” It was chilling the way he said it.

So like I said, this is not democracy; this is a coup. No elections, no debate on whether the Taef system should be scrapped, just “give us more seats or the downtown gets it.” The idea of consensual decision-making has been scrapped and the idea, which I saw in Iraq, that the biggest group calls the shots has taken hold. So much for minority rights.

Who’s the blame? Now, this is already a long-winded post, but there’s a lot to say on this matter. And a lot of blame to go around, too. But one party stands out as supremely stupid, and it’s the usual one: the United States. Siniora’s government is backed by America and France against Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian patrons. But by taking such a hard-line against the militant group, which Washington has labeled as terrorist, they have effectively prevented Siniora from reaching any kind of compromise, a situation that now endangers the entire Lebanese experience — and the country’s position in the Western sphere of influence. (Nasrallah often refers to Siniora’s government as the “Feltman government,” referring to the U.S. ambassador here.)

Make no mistake, Hezbollah will probably succeed in bringing down Sinora’s government. There’s only so much pressure Lebanon can bear and most politicians here would accede to Hezbollah — and Syria’s — demands rather than risk another round of civil war. Should Sinora’s government fall, there will be a caretaker government and then a new round of elections, in which Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies will probably win a majority. This means the United States will be faced not with a government that merely includes Hezbollah, but is run by it. Hezbollah will have gained much more than veto power; it will have gained control. Syria will have a free hand in Lebanon, and Lebanon will come out the loser. (Say goodbye to most Western investment and Saudi money, which Lebanon desperately needs; hello, Lebanon Accountability Act.)

Also, Israel will have an even more hostile neighbor on its northern flank. If fighting breaks out again between Hezbollah and Israel, and the Shi’ite group has a parliamentary majority, does anyone really think Israel will hold back? This last summer’s war, while brutal, could have been much worse if Israel had more aggressively targeted government and state institutions.

So that’s where we stand and what the stakes are. This is a defining moment in the Middle East. The outcome of this showdown will help determine the strength of American influence and could fundamentally change the strategic considerations of the Jewish state. Lebanon, currently a Western-friendly nation, could be wrenched back into the Iranian-Syrian sphere of influence with a possible sea-change in its culture in a few years to one more friendly to Islamic governance.

No wonder the tension in the air here is as tight as a garrote.