Virtually the entire Lebanese population is up in arms against the so-called “ruling class” – the old political establishment. Self-serving, corrupt, indifferent to the economic and social misery being inflicted on the suffering population, Lebanon’s government has just been ejected from power by popular demand.
Lebanon has been much in the news in recent weeks. The humanitarian disaster that followed the Beirut port explosion on August 4, and the political aftermath, has received massive coverage by the world’s media. Comparatively few have taken much account of the huge elephant in the room – Hezbollah. The deposed government was heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah adherents and, in the case of some (including the still incumbent president, Michel Aoun) heavily supportive of Hezbollah. Yet the organization, and the role it has played in encompassing this crisis for Lebanon, receives comparatively little attention.
Over the past few decades Hezbollah, a rapacious predator, has been consuming the political, military and administrative organs of the state, until only the outer shell of an independent sovereign country now remains. At one time the perception was that Hezbollah had created a “state within a state”. Many now believe that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are in effect indistinguishable.
In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict.
Modern Lebanon, founded in 1944, was established on the basis of an agreed “National Pact”. Political power is allocated on a religious or “confessional” system, with seats in the parliament allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians. The top three positions in the state are allocated so that the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim.
Theoretically no system could seem more just, more designed to satisfy all parties in a multi-sectarian society. But in practice, having a weak central government and sharing power has proved a constant irritant.
Around 1980 Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini ‒ flushed with the success of his 1979 Islamic revolution ‒ decided to strengthen his grip on Shia Islam by consolidating a number of Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite Muslim groups. He formed and funded a body calling itself Hezbollah, or “the Party of God”.
Hezbollah declared that its purpose, in line with Khomeini’s, was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Soon Hezbollah was acting as Iran’s proxy in perpetrating a campaign of terror against their two perceived enemies. Kidnappings, bombings and assassinations were carried out across the world, some directed specifically against Israeli or Jewish targets, some indiscriminate, slaughtering Westerners and Muslims alike.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Hezbollah in its entirety has been designated a terrorist body by much of the civilized world, including the Arab League.
How complete is Hezbollah’s takeover of the state of Lebanon? The organization, backed by Iranian finance, has exploited the state’s inherent weakness by establishing a vast network of social services, providing healthcare, education, finance, welfare, and communications. As regards the military, there are two fully equipped fighting bodies in Lebanon – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Hezbollah, which has been supplied by Iran with tanks and other military vehicles stationed in Syria, together with a large rocket arsenal and thousands of anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, It is particularly concerning that the LAF has compromised its role as the nation’s defense force by collaborating with the Hezbollah military. President Aoun has said he regards Hezbollah’s military capabilities as not merely complementary, but essential, to the LAF. No wonder there are voices in Washington demanding an end to the financial aid poured into the LAF.
In acting as a proxy for Iran, Hezbollah has put a foreign power’s interests well above Lebanon’s. It recruited thousands of young Lebanese and sent them to fight in Syria, side by side with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Grieving families have been asking why their sons needed to die. How was supporting President Bashar Assad of Syria ‒ a country whose troops had to be forcibly ejected from Lebanon back in 2005 ‒ in the national interest?
Where can Lebanon look for help out of its multi-faceted crisis? Western governments are certainly prepared to open their purse strings to relieve the humanitarian disaster that followed the port explosion – but, they have made clear, only if the money is guaranteed to flow directly to the victims and not into the coffers of a corrupt government.
In addition, the US is considering cutting off its military aid to a Lebanese army that is in cahoots with Hezbollah, and thus with Iran. Financial assistance with the systemic economic failure of the state is not readily forthcoming. The country is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
A substantial anti-Hezbollah sentiment ‒ such as the reforming and activist group Liquaa Teshrin ‒ is seeking popular support for the country to break loose from its Hezbollah shackles. It is, though, far from clear whether the terrorist organization is too fully embedded within the country and its institutions to be prized out. Iran will certainly fight tooth and nail to sustain the dominant position that its puppet, Hezbollah, has gained within Lebanon.
What concatenation of circumstances would be necessary to enable Lebanon to break free, cast Hezbollah aside, and regain its sovereignty?