"RWANDA on the Mediterranean!"
That's how some Beirut residents described Lebanon's prospects last week, as Hezbollah gunmen went on the rampage in Sunni Muslim districts and Druze villages in nearby mountains. They feared that the move would trigger a religious version of the 1990s Hutu-Tutsi conflict.
By the end of the week, however, those fears were somewhat alleviated as all factions decided not to cross the Rubicon. Hezbollah withdrew from the areas captured, while Sunni Muslims, Christians and the Druze who back the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora kept whatever armed force they had out of sight.
What had looked like the start of a coup d'etat by Hezbollah ended as a mere coup de force by the Shiite militia. By the weekend, representatives from all Lebanese communities were in Doha, Qatar, to acknowledge another stalemate.
So, why did Hezbollah make the move, and why did it decide to change gears midway?
The trigger was the government's decision to remove a pro-Hezbollah officer from his position at Beirut Airport and to open an investigation into the parallel communications network that Iran is building for Hezbollah without Lebanese-government authorization.
Hezbollah saw the decisions as the start of a plan to disarm the militia in accordance with two United Nations Security Council resolutions. Hezbollah has rejected both resolutions and vowed to fight anyone trying to disarm it.
By forcing the government to suspend both decisions, Hezbollah not only won a major political victory, but also made it clear it could impose its will by force. It also destroyed part of its rivals' media assets and political structures.
Muhammad Khatami, Iran's former president, has said there "would be no Lebanon without Hezbollah." The last few days' events have showed this wasn't an empty boast.
Backed by Iran and Syria, Hezbollah pushed Lebanon to the edge of destruction to preserve its position as a state within the Lebanese state.
As far as Hezbollah is concerned, there are only two ways out of the current crisis: the creation of a government dominated and protected by Hezbollah, something that other Lebanese communities wouldn't accept; or the de facto acceptance of a dual reality - the existence side-by-side of a formal Lebanese state and a Hezbollah state-like structure alongside it.
The Siniora government's dream of absorbing Hezbollah into the broader Lebanese reality by breaking its parallel state-like apparatus would lead to conflict - perhaps even civil war.
Hezbollah's coup de force, staged on the eve of President Bush's Middle East high-profile visit, was also designed to remind the Americans that their dream of creating a pro-US Middle East was fading fast.
For the last three years, Washington has singled out Lebanon for praise as the vanguard of regional democratization. It now seems that the Islamic republic has decided to prove that, far from being the beating heart of a new democratic Middle East, Lebanon is part of the Iranian sphere in a broader war against the US and its Israeli ally.
Tehran wanted the coup de force in Beirut in order to test US resolve as the Bush administration moves toward its end.
The Americans' weak response and the Lebanese government's quick surrender may have sent the wrong signals to Tehran and its allies in Damascus - persuading Tehran to make a more direct bid for seizing control of Lebanon in the next few months, when the United States would be preoccupied with elections.
That, in turn, may oblige the Lebanese communities who don't want to see their country become an Iranian satellite to respond to force by force. In doing so, they'd certainly find local allies, especially among Arab nations that see Tehran's hegemonic schemes as a threat. Lebanon's lesson has always been that no one can win exclusive control. Everyone can lose, as the 15-year-long civil war amply proved a generation ago.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has expressed pessimism about Lebanon's future. Many facts support his pessimism. The Lebanese are divided by conflicting national visions. Some see it as a beach where people enjoy life, make money and express themselves freely. Others see it as a bunker in a war of civilizations between the Muslim world and the US-led "Infidel" camp, starting with Israel.
Supporters of both visions, however, are found in all communities. This fact makes me less pessimistic than Jumblatt. If no community can press its adepts under a single flag, none can impose its vision on the whole nation.
Hezbollah won a tactical victory for which it may have to pay a strategic price. In 2006, most Arabs saw it as their champion in the struggle against Israel. Today, they see it as a pawn in Tehran's gambit to dominate the Middle East.