SUN 25 - 8 - 2019
Jul 10, 2019
The Daily Star
Hezbollah’s governance predicament
After decades of crafty political maneuvering and intimidation through force, Hezbollah not only became a dominant player but also along with its allies secured a majority in Lebanon’s Parliament and Cabinet. Hezbollah’s main ally, Gen. Michel Aoun, became president almost three years ago. Hezbollah also encouraged Aoun’s political alliance with Saad Hariri and endorsed him as prime minister. All seemed idyllic for Hezbollah with this strong Christian-Sunni duo. Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination became a distant memory, and the bloody civil war in Syria was sidelined with the nationally accepted but consistently violated dissociation policy. But it was not to be.For the casual observer, Hezbollah’s sway remains undiminished. But closer inspection shows a steady erosion of Hezbollah’s influence with declining fortunes at home and abroad.
At the expense of alienating the Sunni world, Hezbollah threw its lot in with the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s standing in Syria does not bode well, as Russian influence in Syria is gradually displacing Iranian influence. Syria, a sanctuary for Hezbollah in the 2006 War with Israel, no longer provides strategic or logistical depth. American forces in Al-Tanf effectively leave no reliable or meaningful land corridor with Lebanon. Iranian air supplies as well as ground bases are easy prey for the Israeli air force. An extension of the Lebanese model of entrenchment to the Golan has been aborted by Israel with Russian help. The quiet Lebanese-Israeli border, as a result of a tacit mutual understanding between Israel and Hezbollah, now plays against Hezbollah. What happens in Syria stays in Syria. As Iran’s presence is pounded in Syria, Lebanon’s southern borders remain peaceful. Hezbollah in effect is no longer a resistance force but a deterrent against Israeli strikes inside Lebanon or, in extremis, an Iranian first strike force, as party leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has repeatedly threatened. In the absence of a direct Israeli-Iranian conflict, Hezbollah will most likely initiate military action against Israel in retaliation to Israeli strikes in Syria or Gaza for that matter.
But the more serious threat to Hezbollah does not come from adverse regional developments, but rather from its entrapment in petty Lebanese politics and an impending economic meltdown. Prior to the 2006 War, Hezbollah had dissociated itself from the Lebanese political establishment and prided itself on its independent and parallel educational, financial and social institutions. After 2006, Hezbollah reversed this policy by integrating itself in Lebanese governmental institutions as a legitimate player to take shelter from U.S. sanctions and Arab hostility. Mistakenly, Hezbollah calculated that the current political arrangement would ensure economic and financial backing from the U.S. and the Gulf states which Iran and Russia cannot provide. The parties concerned would not sacrifice the hostage to punish the villain. By embedding itself in the Lebanese system, it would be impossible to target Hezbollah without undermining the state of Lebanon. Viability of the state of Lebanon was a higher priority for the West and the Gulf states.
Yet, Hezbollah has not been immune to targeted financial sanctions on Iran as well as a crackdown on Hezbollah’s Latin America operatives. Even Hezbollah’s Lebanese allies have distanced themselves from financially dealing with Hezbollah for fear of sanctions. Christian affiliates as well as others have stopped advertising on Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s television station. Additionally, many are implicating Hezbollah in alienating Lebanon’s traditional financial partners and international donors at a time of severe economic distress. Hezbollah, in response, had nothing to offer but a hollow campaign on fighting corruption that has yet to materialize. The usual motifs to drum up popular support, such as fighting takfiris and championing the Palestinian cause, seem to have lost much of their resonance in the midst of a severe recession. More so with the Sunnis, Druze and an increasing number of Christians, Hezbollah has become part and parcel of Lebanon’s economic woes.
While U.S.-Iranian confrontation has put Lebanese banks and institutions on notice, the most serious challenge to Hezbollah’s political domination is the checkered nature of Lebanese society. The open use of force against opponents, as in 2008 when Hezbollah stormed Beirut, is no longer tenable today, and Hezbollah is having to navigate the murky waters of local and sectarian politics. The greatest damage, perhaps, may have come from its closest ally, the Free Patriotic Movement. Recent inflammatory statements and local visits by the leader of the FPM, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, have alienated the Sunni and Druze communities in a wholesale fashion. Even pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian Sunni and Druze politicians remained silent, refusing to endorse Bassil.
Hezbollah is between a rock and a hard place. The political costs of its alliance with the FPM are mounting as the Parliament and Cabinet are increasingly dysfunctional. The Christian Lebanese ally that made Hezbollah’s transformation and domination of Lebanese politics possible is itself increasingly isolated domestically and internationally. Collusion with the FPM has become a losing proposition for the prime minister, with mounting Sunni anger.
The current political order meticulously crafted by Hezbollah is fraying. A deepening economic crisis may deliver the coup de grace. A Parliament and Cabinet dominated by Hezbollah may preside over the worst economic downturn in decades.
Hezbollah for a long while acted as a regional player above petty Lebanese politics, and as such was spared the pains of governance. As it metamorphosed into a legitimate local player in Lebanese politics, the limitations of power became apparent as well as the hazards of tenuous alliances. While many view Hezbollah’s strength through the prism of its military prowess, few realize its weakness lies in the quagmire of Lebanese politics.
Niccolo Machiavelli noted almost 500 years ago that states without a central authority are easy to conquer but difficult to govern. Hezbollah may soon realize that its massive arsenal may not be of help as its political hegemony is eroded by poor governance and abrasive allies.
Bassem Shabb is a former MP in the Lebanese Parliament.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 10, 2019, on page 6.
The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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