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Can Lebanon Survive As It Is?

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Michael Young 

Much attention in recent weeks has been focused on the aborted formation of a new government according to a road map laid out by French President Emmanuel Macron. Yet in his press conference on September 27 related to the situation in Lebanon, Macron said something else that surely registered with many Lebanese, when he mentioned the possibility of a “political recomposition in Lebanon.”

His remarks represented implicit acknowledgment that the Lebanese social contract is broken, and that the political system created by the post-Ta’if constitution is no longer functional. Lebanon’s postwar politics could still work when there was money and patronage to spread around, so that the political class could be bought off to preserve social peace. However, the mechanism of systemic pillage bankrupted the state and it is plain today that Lebanon has to be rebuilt on new foundations, even if the political class is now putting its hopes in offshore gas to forever postpone that deadline.

What would the political recomposition of the country entail? No serious thought has been put into that question in the past 30 years, since the end of the country’s civil war. When the subject is brought up it is usually done in the context of accusing Hezbollah of seeking to amend the constitution to give more power to the Shi‘a community. The term used for this is that the party seeks a “foundational conference” in which the rules of the current republic can be rewritten to anchor Hezbollah’s hegemony.

Even if that is the party’s intention, it has little value in a system in which the Shi‘a represent a minority among others. Nor can Hezbollah use its weapons to impose changes in the post-Ta’if constitution—and these weapons may even constitute an obstacle to such ambitions. On September 2, Maronite Patriarch Bishara al-Ra‘i stated, “We are not ready to examine a change in [the Lebanese] system before all components of the country enter into the realm of legitimacy … There can be no change in the system in the presence of ministates.” In other words, if Hezbollah seeks to alter the constitutional system, it would have to first surrender its autonomy, its foreign allegiances, and most importantly its arms.

The party can, of course, simply ignore the patriarch. Yet it was surprising that the principal institution that Hezbollah mobilized to respond to Ra‘i was the Supreme Islamic Shi‘a Council. This only deepened the party’s image as a parochial sectarian organization, in contrast to its persistent efforts to portray itself as the vanguard of a unifying national “resistance.” In a polarized sectarian environment, there is little latitude for Hezbollah to impose its will on other communities, least of all on the Sunnis who are as numerous as the Shi‘a. Rather, a broad consensus for change is required.

It is apparent that while Hezbollah remains the dominant party in Lebanon, it has no practical way of running the country. In not wanting to alienate its political allies, any government the party helps bring to office will fail to effectively address Lebanon’s need for economic reform. A government of politicians will perpetuate the plunder of the past, while a government of relatively credible, but politically-selected figures, such as the Diab government, will not be able to get anything done. The third option—a government of independent experts that would serve with the parties’ backing, under international supervision—was shot down by Hezbollah when it undermined the French initiative.

So what is left that the political class will allow? Nothing comes immediately to mind. Since last October Hezbollah has trapped itself by refusing to give any ground to popular protests in Lebanon and by bolstering the politicians. However, in doing so it has provoked a gradual disintegration of the system it was trying to prop up, widespread popular anger, and a social situation in Lebanon that makes the party’s contract with Iran—to act as a deterrent against Israel—far more difficult to implement. If things continue along this path, Lebanon may, conceivably, enter into a period of civil strife that threatens Hezbollah’s interests even more. In stubbornly resisting all options, the party may be bringing about the very situation its most vociferous enemies had sought to impose on Hezbollah—an internal conflict that would neutralize it as a tool of Iran.

Hezbollah was reportedly irritated by Macron’s statement on September 27 that Hezbollah “should not consider itself stronger than it is.” But the French president was absolutely right. If the party took a moment to see where it was a year ago, and where it is today, it would realize that its hold on the system is not what it was. Many people are at the stage where they can no longer feed themselves, promising volatile times ahead. Hezbollah offers no solutions to any of Lebanon’s serious problems, and is more isolated than ever before; it can no longer intimidate its way out of the impasse in which it has placed itself by defending Lebanon’s foul system; and most Lebanese, including a significant number of Shi‘a, now associate its actions with their own impoverishment.

In light of this, if controlling Lebanon becomes a major challenge for Hezbollah, talk of amending the Lebanese system makes sense. There are unconfirmed reports that Hezbollah has had contacts with other parties on the subject. But whether that is true or not, the party is in a quandary. It has always sought to shape its environment to secure its strategic objectives, but now it is actively destroying that environment. Hezbollah may have to accept that any effort to amend the Lebanese system in its favor will require making compromises that would negate any potential advantages the party seeks.

The more likely outcome is that Lebanon is in for a long interregnum of suffering, rage, and breakdown. Hezbollah is wagering that a Democratic administration in the United States will reach a new nuclear agreement with Iran, providing Hezbollah with financial oxygen to help calm its base. However, there is no guarantee that this scenario will play out if Joe Biden wins, especially if the Americans see that Hezbollah is vulnerable.

In the meantime, an armed group is holding Lebanon hostage at the worst time in its recent history, making a social explosion far more probable. Lebanese sectarian politics harm those who ignore its rules of restraint. In allowing Lebanon to collapse, and hoping that its weapons and money will allow it to prevail, Hezbollah may be precipitating itself into an existential crisis with far-reaching implications for its own future and its role as an extension of Iran.