The front page of the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar summed up the country's state of affairs on Wednesday with a pithy headline: "The Beginning of the Unknown". Indeed, the Lebanese are once again staring into a political abyss.
Lebanon's national unity government collapsed this week after 11 ministers representing Hizbollah and its allies withdrew from the cabinet. The Sunni leader, Saad Hariri, became a caretaker prime minister, and the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman is poised to begin consultations with parliamentary leaders to appoint a new premier.
Hizbollah's walkout was not entirely a surprise: the Lebanese government has been paralysed for months, owing to a UN Special Tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. Lebanon has been on edge since word leaked out that the tribunal is preparing to indict members of Hizbollah for involvement.
Hizbollah, the dominant Shiite political party and militia, has tried to eschew blame by accusing Israel. The group has also pressured Saad Hariri, the slain leader's son, to end Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal and publicly reject its findings. But the younger Hariri, backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, has refused to disavow the tribunal, which in turn led Hizbollah to topple the government.
Once again, Arab and western leaders find that they must focus their attention on Lebanon, a small country that has long been the staging ground of proxy wars in the region. The Syrian president Bashar al Assad and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia travelled together to Beirut in July to meet with Lebanese leaders and help calm fears that the country was headed toward civil strife. The visit was meant to show the Arab world that Saudi-Syrian reconciliation is on track. It was also a message from Mr al Assad to Washington: Lebanon cannot remain stable without Syria's tutelage.