What is your reading of the current political crisis?

Lebanon's crisis is due to a state-building process that did not get off to the right start; attempts to build the state were aborted and failed to create institutions able to manage the country's political and sectarian diversity. Lebanon thus became an arena for local, regional, and international contestation, with political factions that do not conceal their ties with the outside world. Political forces in Lebanon cannot be isolated from all external connections or alliances, but there must be limits, so that such alliances do not undermine the state. The problem is that the 1926 Lebanese constitution, amended in 1990 after the Taif Agreement, allows for manipulation by political forces.

So where does the blame lie for Lebanon's crisis of institutions, and what is the solution?

There is plenty of blame to go around. Let us consider Lebanon's three major political institutions: the offices of president, speaker of parliament, and prime minister. The presidency's crisis began the day President Emile Lahoud's tenure was extended. Until then the Lebanese state was different from other countries in the Arab world, and actually encouraged the transfer of power. We have not had presidents who wanted to become kings; in fact, since 1946 any attempt by a president to extend his term has provoked a crisis. Lahoud's move hurt relations between Lebanon and the international community and provoked UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The Lebanese and President Lahoud himself have paid dearly for this extension.

Regarding the parliament, Speaker Nabih Berri called for convening a dialogue session, but one must remember that in addition to being speaker, he also heads a political force, Amal. I might not agree with him not calling Parliament into session, but Berri is not actually holding Parliament captive constitutionally because he is not obliged to set a date for the Parliamentary session. What is required of Berri now is that he manage the dialogue and avoid taking sides, because he has become the only one capable of playing this role.

Regarding the office of the prime minister, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is under a lot of pressure. His government succeeded in several aspects, particularly in negotiating the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 under Chapter VI, not VII (which would have given the UN the right to implement the resolution by force). Siniora also pointed the way toward a Lebanese solution to the problem of Hizballah's arms, leading the government to approve a seven-point plan on which Resolution 1701 was based. The problem today is political polarization, and I do not know if it could have been prevented. The demonstrations and tent camp near the prime minister's headquarters have made Siniora a prisoner in this tragic scene, which seems out of character for Lebanon. This country has never seen one group able to dominate the other, and this diversity created a sort of internal balance. Now the presidency, parliament, and prime ministry are in crisis; it is impossible to imagine a solution unless we reexamine the nature of our institutions.

The Lebanese government seems to be bucking opposition demands, especially regarding an international tribunal to investigate the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. How will this showdown be resolved?

I think that the government cannot give the opposition everything it is demanding. The government is supported by a parliamentary majority; Hizballah's supporters demonstrated in the streets because they could not exert that sort of pressure via the parliament. The government and the opposition will be forced to concede some demands, but each faction is holding its ground for now because they know that neither has the upper hand—hence the deadlock. As for the recent petition by seventy parliamentarians asking the UN Secretary General for an international tribunal, it is notable that it did not face large-scale opposition. In fact, approving a tribunal system under Chapter VI could suit everyone: the opposition and Berri would have taken a stance against it, but if it were passed in the Security Council, they would save face and survive this crisis. A tribunal under Chapter VII, without Lebanese consent, would be far more problematic. I am not confident, in any case, that the UN is ready to set the precedent of forming a tribunal under Chapter VII to investigate an assassination.

Ziad Baroud is a lawyer, human rights activist, and member of the National Council for a New Electoral Law. This interview was conducted by Omayma Abdel Latif, an Egyptian journalist and Projects Coordinator at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. It was translated from Arabic by Paul Wulfsberg.