Like Quicksand, Many Issues Threaten to Engulf Lebanon

As it approaches the highly anticipated round of legislative elections on May 6 needed to revive democratic politics, Lebanon finds itself bereft of a cohesive political center that can withstand the centrifugal forces of sectarianism and provide protection from regional chaos. After independence in 1943, the country modeled inclusive and democratic practices for the Arab hinterland; however, in the post-2011 period, Lebanese politicians have weakened their democracy and entangled their citizens and country in the regional morass of instability and bloodshed by continuing to allow outside influences to compromise their body politic.

Domestic Squabbles and Challenges

Feuds between Hezbollah’s allies in Lebanon quickly translate into political troubles for it since it is the guarantor of political order.

Given a chaotic regional environment out of their control, Lebanon’s political elite has resorted to petty squabbles that hide serious underlying differences in outlook and threat perceptions. The latest was a dispute between partners in the Hezbollah-led alliance that includes the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM, formerly led by current President Michel Aoun), Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri’s AMAL Movement, and a smattering of smaller parties. A leaked video of Gebran Bassil––Aoun’s son-in-law who is the current leader of the FPM as well as foreign minister––showed him calling Berri a thug for trying to control a diaspora conference prior to the coming elections. AMAL partisans took to the streets and blocked roads and burned tires across the country, in the process threatening a resort to arms. While the dispute was resolved a few days later, it pointed to deep rivalry, animosity, and lack of trust between two essential pillars of the current political order, which could easily unravel the social peace between different sectarian communities.

The potential repercussions of the incident pointed to trouble for Hezbollah which, as the only military force on the ground, has by default become the overall guarantor of the political order, especially between its own erstwhile allies. The Party of God was caught in a difficult position; AMAL is its major ally with which it controls the Shia street, while the FPM provides it with a Maronite Christian base. Back in February 2006, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and the FPM’s Aoun, then leader of a Christian coalition in parliament, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to cooperate on various issues. That MOU has survived the past twelve years and has given the party a non-sectarian, nationalist identity. Hezbollah thus quickly released a statement affirming the historical memorandum with the FPM and pledging to abide by it—in essence, preferring a quick settlement of the dispute despite the raw emotions of the moment.

Given the stagnant political process, Lebanon’s upcoming elections are both a welcome event and a potential disrupter of civic peace.

But while a leak may not undo a historical agreement, it certainly reminded everyone of the tenuous relationship maintained by equally sectarian political organizations, tactically allied but propounding distinct political programs. As Hezbollah continues to be the ultimate challenge to the authority of the Lebanese unitary state––a so-called state-within-a-state––and AMAL plays second fiddle to it, the FPM has anointed itself the defender of the state and the rule of law. And while Hezbollah was reaffirming the historical relationship with the FPM and the importance of the MOU, none other than Bassil himself was lamenting the non-implementation of the article in the document that promises to help strengthen the Lebanese state and extend its authority. This fundamental difference is likely to become more acute as the civil war in Syria winds down and Hezbollah begins to politically exploit what it believes to be its victory there, especially now that Aoun is the president of the republic.

There is another milestone this year in Lebanon: the parliamentary elections set for May 6 to replace the current legislature, whose tenure was extended twice since 2013 because of security concerns and political disagreements over a new electoral law, finally ironed out in June 2017. The new law may bring in some surprises because it combines proportional representation—not tried before—with more clearly defined sectarian districts. However, it is still expected to provide good opportunities for the perpetuation of old alignments, such as those between Hezbollah and AMAL and between the two groups and the FPM. On the other hand, there is a chance that independents and civil society actors may penetrate the walls of parliament because of widespread public displeasure with general services such as electricity, water, sanitation, education, and the environment, to name a few.

As for the future of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, leader of the Future Movement in parliament, it remains unclear—and not necessarily only because of domestic issues but as a result of regional entanglements as well. Last November, as a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen, Hariri was inexplicably detained by Saudi authorities on orders by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his anti-corruption commission. Hariri also announced his resignation from his post via Saudi television, in the process denouncing Hezbollah (which is represented in his cabinet) and Iran’s interference in Arab affairs. Upon his return to Beirut following a strong public outcry and French intervention, he rescinded his resignation and resumed his duties.

Hariri could certainly benefit from the outpouring of support he received from Aoun and from all political factions in the country––including, ironically, Hezbollah––and the general public in painting himself as a victim of Saudi overreach. At the same time, this episode may show him as weak and manipulated by a foreign power. But what in the end may very well decide his political future, especially in the upcoming elections, is the level of support he has among the Sunni Muslims and a wide swathe of political and popular opinion. Other political actors, such as the Christian Kataeb and Lebanese Forces parties and Walid Joumblatt’s Druze-based Progressive Socialist Party, are likely to bet mainly on their sectarian identities, and some coalition building, to preserve what they currently have of parliamentary representation. Only time will tell how different electoral results will be from those of 2009; but given the stagnant political process, the elections are both a welcome event and a potential disrupter of civic peace.

Finally, the country is suffering from uncertain economic conditions that jeopardize its social peace and sustainability. Lebanon’s GDP in 2017 stood at about $53.5 billion while GDP growth was only 1.5 percent from 2016 to 2017. Its public debt was 155 percent of its output at the end of 2017 and public spending skyrocketed to $16 billion in 2016, from $6.5 billion in 2005. The World Bank will be instrumental in helping the country tackle its dire economic straits but, similar to what happens with other cases, it is likely that the bank will demand some necessary structural reforms to the overall economy and its myriad patronage networks, most likely causing social spending cuts and political instability.

Lebanon and Israel are disputing a maritime demarcation line between two adjacent oil and gas exploration areas in the Mediterranean Sea.

Furthermore, the difficult economic times coincide with a serious draw on Lebanon’s infrastructure and service sectors caused by the presence of almost one million registered Syrian refugees, about one quarter of the population (there are no figures on entrants not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). While rejecting any talk of forcefully repatriating the refugees to Syria, now that its civil war is winding down, Premier Hariri told an international conference in January that Lebanon needs $2.68 billion this year alone to take care of them. In addition, over the last few years the Lebanese Army faced a serious challenge from remnants of the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda-affiliated forces on its border with Syria, finally ending their presence there late last year.

Regional Challenges Continue

The ongoing civil strife in Syria, while winding down, remains a serious challenge to Lebanon’s security not only because it is next door but also because it has a specific Lebanese component: the participation of Hezbollah on the side of the regime. Indeed, for almost seven years Syria’s troubles have been both a domestic and a regional issue for successive Lebanese governments. In 2012, Lebanon’s factions adopted the Baabda Declaration that spelled out an official policy of dissociation from Syria’s war and Arab alignments; but Hezbollah ignored it despite agreeing to abide by its provisions. While a large segment of the Shia in the country supported the party’s stance, other political and sectarian communities were, and remain, opposed and apprehensive for many reasons.

First, the party has participated in Lebanon’s cabinets for years, giving its Syrian adventure a quasi-official sanction. Former President Michel Suleiman, the principal architect of the Baabda Declaration, criticized the party and chastised its use of weapons in pursuits other than defending Lebanon.

Israel has promised that a war with Lebanon will not be confined to attacking Hezbollah but will target the Lebanese state and its assets.

Second, the more the party became enmeshed in the Syrian quagmire, the tenser its relations became with other political formations, especially Hariri’s Future Movement. In fact, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria helped Sunni Salafists expand their reach and recruit followers at the expense of the moderate Future Movement. Third, Hezbollah’s status as a powerful military arm also gave it de facto political power over the entire body politic. This was anathema in a country of supposedly co-equal sectarian forces, especially that the Sunnis in the country felt an acute affinity with Syria’s majority Sunnis who were opposed to Bashar al-Assad and were fleeing the country en masse.

Fourth, Hezbollah was and remains an arm of Iran’s military posture in the Levant, and its intervention in Syria was clearly on behalf of the Islamic Republic’s strategic interests. This obviously did not sit well with Lebanon’s traditional allies in the Arabian Gulf, who were arrayed against the Syrian regime and in fact provided much assistance to the opposition forces.

Indeed, Hariri’s detention in Saudi Arabia, while illegal, unnecessary, and counterproductive, was in a significant part a result of his purported inability to limit Hezbollah’s influence or Iran’s reach into Lebanon. In his resignation message from Saudi Arabia, reportedly written for him by Saudi officials, he decried Iran’s interference in Arab affairs despite his precarious situation with Hezbollah in Beirut. An important antecedent to Hariri’s detention was Saudi Arabia’s December 2016 suspension of underwriting military aid to the Lebanese Army and security forces, amounting to some $4 billion. This revived a push in 2010 by Hezbollah to accept Iranian assistance, upon the suspension––then––of $100 million of American equipment to the army. (American military aid to Lebanon resumed after that. It is estimated that the United States supplied Lebanon with about $1.5 billion worth of military equipment since 2006.)

Another worry for Lebanon’s government today is the ever-present tension with Israel on the southern border. While busy in Syria for the last few years, Hezbollah has naturally avoided escalation with Israel; but now that it is probably winding down its involvement there, and the bulk of its fighters are presumably returning to Lebanon, there could be a commensurate return to the old border tensions. Not that the party has been able to avoid Israeli attacks while in Syria––indeed, dozens of such attacks took place on Syrian Army and allied positions and weapons caches there––but proximity with Israeli forces in southern Lebanon presents potential for direct confrontations, despite the presence of Lebanese and United Nations troops in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of 2006. It did not help that Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iraqi Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iran-supported Shia militia, visited the border area with Hezbollah fighters last December and pledged to assist the party in any future war with Israel, prompting Lebanese authorities to issue a warrant for his arrest.

Moreover, two specific issues make a confrontation on the border possible. The Lebanese government has objected to an Israeli plan to construct a separation wall between the two countries, which Lebanon believes would be built on its territory. Lebanon still claims that certain border areas are occupied by Israel, most importantly Shebaa Farms. Lebanon and Israel are also disputing a maritime demarcation line between two adjacent oil and gas exploration areas in the Mediterranean Sea. The disputes have actually been the reason for a mediation mission by US Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield and intervention by European countries. Such disputes, and old contentious issues such as Hezbollah’s relations with Iran, can easily drag the country into a war that would repeat the destruction and human tragedies of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict. This time around, however, Israel has promised its operations would not distinguish between the Party of God and the Lebanese state and its assets. To complicate matters, the latest Israeli attack on Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria, and the downing of an Israeli F-16 by Syrian air defenses, may very well draw Lebanon into a conflict in which it may not want to be involved.

Some Guidelines for US Policy

Lebanon has always been, and remains, an exceptional case in the Arab world: it is a democracy despite abuses, a pluralist society notwithstanding sectarian tendencies, and a country of free enterprise and open economics. As it faces domestic troubles and regional chaos, it should be able to continue to rely on American political, economic, and military assistance. The United States would do well to provide help in three general areas.

Lebanon’s armed forces have maintained their independence from all political formations and are committed to the constitutional order of the Lebanese state.

First, the upcoming parliamentary elections are the surefire way to protect democratic continuity and practice, not only for the sake of Lebanese institutions and Lebanon’s people, but also to demonstrate a model of pluralist politics in the region—despite the country’s many shortcomings. In this vein, Lebanese politicians and holders of power need to be encouraged to execute the election mandate in as open and orderly manner as possible. The United States can also be part of international monitoring teams to ensure a peaceful, transparent, and fair polling process.

Second, security will continue to be a central concern for Lebanese officials, and this calls for maintaining and increasing American military assistance to the country. Despite what may be said in pro-Israel circles in Washington about a purported intimate relationship between the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah, the truth is that Lebanon’s armed forces have maintained their independence from all political formations and are committed to the constitutional order of the Lebanese state. Indeed, the army is viewed by all as a symbol of national unity, especially after it proved its mettle against the terrorist threat over the last few years. By doing that, it has protected the country from the many repercussions of the Syrian civil war.

Third, the United States could do Lebanon a great favor by intervening with its partners and allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and specifically Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to refrain from trying to pull the country into their orbit. The policy of dissociation in Arab affairs, while not fully functional regarding Syria because of Hezbollah’s intervention, is working in helping the country avoid taking a stand in the current GCC crisis—a wise diplomatic move given the many pitfalls the crisis presents. At the same time, dissociation is also assisting Lebanon avoid the implications of the Saudi-Emirati-Iranian tensions and protect its civic peace and political stability.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here