Saying Yes and No to Hezbollah’s Agenda

Wednesday, November 24, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

I recently met with friends to discuss, what else, the elections in Lebanon, and if they are going to happen. While there were no definite answers from our exchange, we wondered how the latest move by President Michel Aoun to reject the March date for the elections would play out. This brought up the inevitable question about Hezbollah and the role it would play – as kingmaker, obstructionist, ally, or any of the many options it has at its disposal.

Hezbollah has been able, since its inception in the mid-1980s, to move from being the “resistance force” protecting Lebanon from Israel, to a fully participating actor in the political system with the capacity to bring the government to heel as its priorities dictate. One hears a query that if Lebanon would normalize relations with Israel or pass the baton on the Shebaa Farms brief to Syria, would the “resistance” end and Hezbollah morph into a political force competing without the clout of a battle-hardened militia? The basic question this raises is if Hezbollah a Lebanese entity or some hybrid that, as its Secretary General says, looks east to Iran for its raison d’être?

It has an intriguing profile of supporters, from Christians allied with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the pro-Syrian Marada, who mention how Hezbollah protected Christian sites from ISIS and al-Qaeda, to Syria’s supporters in the Lebanese body politick, and a majority of Shia who benefit from their educational, economic, medical, and social services. Hezbollah and its ally Amal have renewed a sense of confidence and empowerment among their constituencies that were absent until Hezbollah could take credit for Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon after its ill-fated intrusion in 2000.

But that was then, and now is now. It is a state within a state, and has drawn the ire of many countries, not just Sunni Arabs, for its adventurism and military interventions in the region and beyond. As a recent Brookings article argues, Hezbollah is now seen as part of the ruling kleptocracy and “Today, Hezbollah has placed itself in opposition to the investigation of the port explosion, something which is creating further deep divisions in the country given the popular demand for accountability and justice for the victims.”

While this mixture of militia and mafia, as some call it, enables both to protect each other’s interests, there is no blueprint for how they will interact going forward into the election, and if there is a sliver of hope in realizing the Taif Agreement protocols about a non-sectarian parliament, a sectarian-based Senate, disarmed militias, and an independent judiciary. As a piece from Carnegie’s Middle East Center in Beirut pointed out, “This has led many people to wonder what can be done to put an end to Hezbollah’s hegemony, short of initiating a civil conflict that would ruin the country and very likely resolve nothing. The simple answer is that nothing can be done at the moment.”

That is why the elections have outsized implications for Lebanon’s survival. Will the typical supporters of Hezbollah/Amal/Iran lose some greater hegemony in concert with their allies, as happened recently in Iraq? Or will its alliance not stand the test of recovering from growing sectarian tensions and as divisions harden as each party fights for its survival?

Which brings us back to our starting point of President Aoun’s unwillingness to accept the March date for parliamentary elections. Is the FPM decision to support a May date driven by a calculus that it would likely lose seats if they are held in March? Or are we new alliances forming that would create a new dynamic that might enable independents and opposition candidates to pick up enough seats to upset the ruling leadership? Lots of questions and no clear answers as Lebanon struggles to bring some order to a very messy political game.

So what’s in it for Hezbollah if it decides to be a Lebanese political player and move away from its heavy-handed approach to power politics in Lebanon? Well, let’s begin with a do-over in the south where settling the maritime and land boundaries with Israel will allow additional confidence-building actions that benefit both sides of the new borders. Direct and indirect jobs for the largely Shia populations south of the Litani River will bring prosperity and initiatives that are now only dreams. Gas from shared or Lebanese fields will replace costly imports and tie Lebanon into an eastern Mediterranean network that satisfies local demand while addressing regional and international markets.

One can imagine, with realistic assumptions, that in ten years that border area of Lebanon will be transformed as infrastructure projects open the area to economic and social development that enables the region to achieve the better future it deserves. And this does not include the cross-border implications of a better, healthier Lebanon for the Israeli Arabs and Palestinians who could become their partners in changing the physical and psychological landscape of the area.

But it all begins with small decisions by Hezbollah and its supporters to believe their future is as Lebanese in Lebanon. To stop the sectarian habits of past generations that see politics as a zero-sum, winner take all equation will take a great moral and political investment in overcoming barriers that now stifle Lebanon’s cohesion and integrity.

All of the Lebanese factions can make this their moment of redemption and renewal, to act as Lebanese for a united Lebanon. Beginning with the upcoming elections.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.