Lebanon, a country that is slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut and has a population of barely 4.5 million, provides considerable insight into the dilemmas, disputes and problems plaguing the Middle East. Why? Because Lebanon is a microcosm of the region. It embodies many of the divisive issues and conflicts of the region: the Sunni/Shia tensions, Muslim/Christian tension, Saudi Arabia/Iran conflict, US/Iran conflict, Arab/Israeli conflict, sectarianism/secularism and the struggle between democracy and autocracy. Developments in Lebanon are often a reflection of developments in the Middle East.
On May 6 the world witnessed the Lebanese going to the polls for the first time in nine years. The election results highlight six critical trends in the politics of Lebanon and the Middle East.
1) Iran and its allies are going nowhere.
Lebanon: The Iranian-backed Lebanese political party/militia Hezbollah reaffirmed it popularity and prominence among the Shia of Lebanon. It convincingly won all contested Parliamentary seats except one despite its intervention in the Syrian civil war, participation in a dysfunctional Lebanese government, the expulsion of community members from Gulf States and the targeting of the Shia community by Salafi-jihadists. Through its political alliance with Shia partner Harakat Amal, Hezbollah continues to maintain a political monopoly in the Shia community. The election also demonstrated that the emergence of popularly supported alternative voices (i.e. ant-Iranian) in the Shia community has been virtually stifled.
The Middle East: The Iranian regime has further entrenched itself in Syria. Iranian missiles launched from Syria toward Israel demonstrate that Iranian forces and its allies operate beyond the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and intend to do more than just prop up the Asad regime. In Yemen, the Iranian-backed Houthis refuse to capitulate to continual aerial bombardments and blockades. And in Iraq, former militia leaders of the Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization Units turned 1st-time politicians – the Fatah Alliance – will represent a significant presence in the next Iraqi Parliament.
2) The Sunni community is weak and in disarray.
Lebanon: Saad al-Hariri and his Future Movement have witnessed the dramatic reduction of their presence in the Lebanese Parliament as representatives of the Sunni community during the last three elections (2005- 36 seats, 2009- 26 seats and 2018- 21 seats). Hariri’s virtual monopoly of the Sunni community in 2005 has evaporated. In the wake of Hariri’s political demise, no particular opponent has emerged as a challenger at the national level. Rather multiple elites are exerting power over local fiefdoms. The weakening of Hariri and the political fragmentation in the community makes it increasingly difficult to veto or challenge the policies of Hezbollah and its allies.
The Middle East: Similar dynamics exist at the regional level. Saudi Arabia has largely failed to assert itself as the leading Sunni power in the region and halt the growing Iranian regional presence. The Saudi effort to create a united front against Iran and its allies, has been fraught with divisions and self-interests. Several Gulf Cooperation Council members refused to back the Saudi-led intervention of Bahrain. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have recently terminated diplomatic relations. Oman refused to participate in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and Morocco just withdrew its troops from the coalition. A unified policy regarding Syria has eluded Saudi Arabia and other opponents of the Asad regime. This failure has been remarkably demonstrated by Saudi-supported groups fighting other Saudi-supported groups and Turkish allies in Syria.
3) Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has been a failure.
Lebanon: Saudi Arabia has poured millions of dollars into Lebanon through its allies (i.e. Hariri) only to witness Hezbollah and its allies gain increasing amounts of control. Two miscalculations are particularly notable. The Saudi-backing of the Lebanese government’s attempt to dismantle Hezbollah’s communication network and remove the Beirut Airport security chief and Hezbollah ally spectacularly backfired. Not only were Saudi Arabia’s Lebanese allies defeated, Hezbollah and the Shia community gained veto power in the subsequent Doha Agreement. The most egregious Saudi failure in Lebanon may have been the “resignation” of Hariri as Prime Minister from Riyadh and the ensuing claim that Lebanon had declared war on Saudi Arabia. Hariri ultimately rescinded his resignation and the declaration of war became a moot point. It would be naïve to believe that these developments have not further contributed to Hariri’s recent election losses in the Sunni community.
The Middle East: Saudi policy throughout the region has produced similar results. After imposing a nearly year-long air, sea and land blockade, Saudi Arabia has failed to bring Qatar to its knees. Saudi support for Syrian opposition has produced few tangible results. Areas controlled by the Syrian opposition in western Syria grow smaller by the day. The Saudi intervention in Yemen has resulted in the Houthis launching missiles at Riyadh. And the intervention has been blamed for exacerbating a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Over 1 million cholera cases have been reported since the spring 2017 and almost 2 million children are acutely malnourished.
4) Sectarian identity continues to be the default option.
Lebanon: Political parties (i.e. Sabaa) and independents (e.g. members of Beirut Madinati) proclaiming to be for all Lebanese and not representing sectarian identities fared poorly in the election. Only in electoral district #1 of Beirut were they able to win a seat. In the Christian community, the usual suspects – the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Lebanese Forces (LF) – gained a majority of the seats. Both parties present themselves as Lebanese parties, however the overwhelming majority of their supporters are Christian. Money and media play a role in their popularity, however the veiled sectarian discourse utilized by figures such as FPM Deputy and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil generates further support. Bassil’s warnings against the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Lebanon produces concerns among many Christians that they will become an oppressed minority in an Islamic society. Similar fears existed in the Christian community during the latter half of the 20th century regarding Palestinian refugees and contributed to a 15-year civil war. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, also successfully appealed to the Shia community by presenting the Salafi-jihadists in Syria as an existential threat to the community.
Middle East: The emergence of ISIS and the mounting hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia have exacerbated the Sunni/Shia divide and re-awakened fears in religious minorities. On the eve of the Iraqi elections, the Yazidis of western Iraq maintain militias as they live in suspicion and fear of their Sunni neighbors and the Shia-led government in Baghdad. The former militia leaders of the Popular Mobilization Units have been rewarded by the Shia community with a sizeable parliamentary bloc for their military victories over ISIS. In February, courts for the Sunni-led Bahraini government upheld the dissolution of the predominantly Shia political party Al-Wefaq because it has been perceived as a threat to Bahrain’s security. Bahrain has argued that dissent created by Al-Wefaq and other oppositional figures is provoked by Iran.
5) Increasing Voter Apathy.
Lebanon: Voters failed to show up at the polls on May 6th. Less than half the electorate voted. This comes in the wake of 54% voter turnout in 2009. Low voter turnout also occurred for the 2016 municipal elections.
Middle East: Tunisia witnessed low voter turnout for its municipal elections on May 6th. Egyptian presidential elections in March dropped to 41% of the population after turnouts of 47% (2014) and 51% (2012). Reports from Iraq indicate a record low voter turnout for their May 12th Parliamentary elections.
6) Civil Society is an ineffective instrument of change and under threat.
Lebanon: In comparison to most countries in the region, Lebanon enjoys a rather well-developed and diverse civil society. For all its diversity and development, Lebanon’s civil society has not generated much change in Lebanese voting habits, political behaviors, policies or been immune to pressures from the government. Civil society members who became politicians in 2018 failed to enter the halls of power with the exception of one. Corruption remains rampant. The reliability of basic services – electricity and water – continues to be a distant dream. And environmental degradation ensues at an unprecedented rate. After considerable protests from civil society members, the garbage crisis of 2015 only elicited a temporary and ultimately ineffective solution by the government. In January of 2018 piles of garbage washed ashore on the beaches north of Beirut after heavy rains. Attacks on the press (e.g. Hanin Ghaddar and Marcel Ghanem) and public figures for criticism of the Lebanese state, Lebanese allies and religion have become increasingly prevalent.
The Middle East: Similar scenarios are being witnessed throughout the region. Turkey, Egypt and Yemen have drastically curtailed press freedoms during the last several years. Recently, an Egyptian human rights activist was detained for criticizing the inability of Egyptian authorities to protect women from sexual harassment. In Saudi Arabia, women’s rights activists were arrested as the lifting of the ban on female drivers approaches. Numerous media outlets in Turkey have been shut down and numerous journalists have been arrested in the wake of the Turkish coup. Former news director at al-Jazeera, Ibrahim al-Helal, was sentence to death in absentia in June by Egyptian authorities. Bahraini authorities have threatened to draft legislation that would target social media users who are critical of the government. Egypt and Jordan have ensured more control over civil society by approving laws regulating funding and membership of non-governmental organizations operating in their territory.
What do these six trends suggest?
Stability, economic development and democracy will be rather non-existent for Lebanon and the Middle East.
The further entrenchment of sectarianism in Lebanon and Middle Eastern societies will lead to the continued weakening of the state and national identity. Sects will ensure their safety and prosperity before the safety and prosperity of the state. Their safety and prosperity will be exploited by external actors (i.e. Iran and Saudi Arabia) and make them vulnerable to trans-national identities. This exploitation will often place these increasingly divided societies on the precipice of conflict.
A weakened state and national identity will not respond to the basic needs of all of its citizens, encourage more corruption and further empower elites and parties. These conditions will engender further disillusionment by the public with politicians and the democratic system – voter apathy will intensify. It will also discourage economic growth and foreign investment.
Governments will be afflicted with intransigence and the failure to create and/or implement policy. Temporary solutions that resemble kicking the can down the road will prevail.
*Eric Bordenkircher, Ph.D., is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development. The views represented in this piece are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of CMC, UCLA or the Center for Middle East Development.