July 21, 2011 | Congressional Testimony

The Lebanese Elections and Hezbollah’s Agenda

On Sunday, June 7, Lebanon will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. News reports and analyses are abuzz with the possibility of the emergence of a new parliamentary majority comprised of a Hezbollah-led coalition. The race is too close to call, with the current parliamentary majority (the “March 14” coalition) standing a fair chance of retaining its edge, and victory likely to be decided by a slim margin. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to review Hezbollah's objectives in these elections and beyond.

Hezbollah's Participation in Elections

Hezbollah first participated in parliamentary elections in 1992, nearly ten years after its founding as a militant group, and has been represented in parliament ever since. The decision to enter the political process was, as related by Hezbollah's deputy secretary general Naim Qassem, undertaken only after the Party consulted and received the permission of the Iranian Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei (the wali al-faqih).

Despite Iran's role in the decision, many analysts heralded the organization's entrance into politics as part of the “Lebanonization” process, an evolutionary step as a mainstream political party in “life after resistance.” Meanwhile, Hezbollah continued to be an armed militia controlling certain areas in the country and maintaining military autonomy from the state. Moreover, its External Security Organization, headed by Imad Mughniyeh until his assassination in February 2008, maintained its involvement in overseas terrorist operations.

In Lebanon, the political order was forced by a heavy-handed Syria to accept and legitimize the anomalous duality of a militarily independent Hezbollah “coexisting” alongside, and above, the Lebanese state.

The passage in 2004 of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, calling for the disarming of all militias in Lebanon and the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from the country in 2005, ushered in a new dynamic over the issue of Hezbollah's arsenal and military autonomy. Leading political figures began demanding that the state alone control the decision of war and peace, ending Hezbollah's military autonomy. Tensions over Hezbollah's weapons erupted in May 2008, after its fighters stormed civilian neighborhoods in Beirut in response to a government decision to move against its independent telecommunications network.

With opposition to an armed Hezbollah growing, the party's involvement in politics became necessary in order to prevent any official domestic consensus on its military status. As such, Hezbollah sought deeper political engagement in state institutions in order to safeguard the autonomous military status outside the state.

Hezbollah is depicting next week's elections as a “referendum” on the “choice of resistance.” As Naim Qassem put it on June 3, “the election outcome will be in favor of a resistant Lebanon.”

Qassem's choice of words is not haphazard. Both in his book and in a June 2007 article in An-Nahar, the country's leading newspaper, Qassem laid out Hezbollah's vision for Lebanon as a “resistant society.” The question, Qassem wrote, was not how to integrate the “resistance” into the state, but “how does the rest of society integrate into the resistance.” For Hezbollah, elections are a critical mechanism for ensuring state sanctioning of its “choice of resistance.”

Post-Election Crisis?

Regardless of who wins the election, a potential political crisis looms when the time comes to form the new cabinet, particularly if the margin of victory is very small, as is expected.

The transitional accord in Doha, which followed Hezbollah's attack on Beirut neighborhoods last May and ended a long political stand-off, gave the Hezbollah-led opposition a veto-wielding third of the seats in a so-called “national unity” government. The possession of the third-plus-one of the seats gives the opposition the power to bring down the government simply by resigning. Hezbollah insists that, regardless who wins, this formula be continued in the next government.

On the one hand, it would guarantee that Hezbollah veto power inside the government should it lose. On the other hand, it enshrines a new political precedent without basis in the constitution or the Taif Accord of 1989, which ended the civil war, an important step in reshaping Lebanon's political system.

The March 14 movement has agreed to form a unity government, in the event that it wins, but has rejected the perpetuation of the “veto-wielding third” formula. At best, its leaders seem agreeable to placing the swing vote in the hands of ministers affiliated with President Michel Suleiman. Moreover, Saad Hariri, the head of the parliamentary majority and the country's most popular Sunni leader, has decisively ruled out any participation in the government should Hezbollah and its allies win. If Hariri holds his ground, should his coalition lose, the new government will face serious obstacles in finding a credible Sunni Prime Minister to head it.

Building Bridges

Hezbollah has long sought to build coalitions with Sunni movements and figures in Lebanon, and to integrate them into its “resistance project.” Its efforts, however, have been severely damaged in recent years due to its role in sectarian violence, especially after the May 2008 attacks against mainly Sunni areas in Beirut. Hezbollah would prefer not to be branded a sectarian Shiite militia, as is currently the case.

Co-opting groups from other sects is useful. For instance, Hezbollah signed a Memorandum of Understanding with General Michel Aoun, a Christian, in which he conceded to the organization's language and terms with regards to its arsenal. In fact, the ability of the Hezbollah-led coalition to achieve a majority in parliament hinges on the performance of Aoun's party, and Hezbollah has provided him with plenty of logistical and political support in the run up to the elections. During an October 2008 visit to Iran, Aoun was hailed as the poster boy of what Saeed Jalili, Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, later dubbed Lebanon's “good example of resistance and coexistence between different religions and ethnic groups.”

Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah attempted to co-opt Hariri by making him an “offer” in a May 26, 2008 speech. Nasrallah's euphemistically proposed a marriage between the agendas of development (Hariri) and resistance (Hezbollah): “[Rafiq Hariri] was able to combine the project of development and the state and the project of Resistance … [Lebanon] with the Resistance beside it. … This was the formula which we lived and through which we coexisted as a Resistance.”

In other words, Hariri would be used for his international, diplomatic, and financial connections (especially in light of fears that a Hezbollah-led government could jeopardize foreign aid to Lebanon), while Lebanon's security and foreign policy would be left to Hezbollah (and its patrons). Effectively, this was an offer to return to the pre-2005, Syrian order in Lebanon. Hezbollah can “coexist” with the Lebanese state and groups only if they adopt its “project” and sanction its continued operating parallel to the state.

The two sides' positions appear irreconcilable: the March 14 platform, as articulated by Druze leader Walid Jumblat on Tuesday, calls for state monopoly over decisions of war and peace, and the incorporation of Hezbollah's weapons under the command of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Jumblat contrasted this proposal with Hezbollah's formula of continued “parallelism” with the state.

Outstanding Questions

Even if a cabinet is formed, further problems lie ahead in defining its mission statement (al-bayan al-wizari), which lays out the cabinet's program, on the basis of which it gains Parliament's vote of confidence. There are a number of contentious issues that divide the two coalitions.

For one, how will the statement address the issue of Lebanon's foreign policy orientation? These issues are particularly pertinent in light of the uncovering of a Hezbollah cell operating in Egypt, and Nasrallah's recent statements about procuring weapons for the LAF from Iran. As Qassem recently put it, “Hezbollah's path goes beyond the electoral battle, and it crosses domestic boundaries to regional ones.”

If Hezbollah's coalition wins, one can assume a statement favorable to the “choice of resistance” and its strategic orientation, sanctioning Hezbollah's freedom of activity. However, in the case of a March 14 victory and an ensuing unity government (regardless of the veto problem), Hezbollah will have to seek a vague enough statement – similar to the one adopted after the Doha Accord – in order to maintain the status quo unmolested.

Similarly, there are questions surrounding Lebanon's so-called “Defense Strategy,” a euphemism for what to do with Hezbollah's weapons. Hezbollah would like to enshrine the formula of “coordination” between the state and the “resistance,” with the latter existing in parallel to, or “beside” the state, as Nasrallah continuously stresses. This was officially put forward by Hezbollah MP Muhammad Raad at one of the “national dialogue” sessions. A Hezbollah-led cabinet is sure to endorse this vision, which has already gained Aoun's approval. In fact, Aoun's proposal for the “Defense Strategy” was little more than a carbon copy of Qassem's 2007 article. In effect it would shelve all discussion, and more importantly criticism, of Hezbollah's military independence.

The fate of UNSCR 1701 is also in doubt. Hezbollah has been clear about its intention to undermine the security architecture of this resolution, paving the way for its abolition when the time is right. Speaking at the Iranian embassy on June 3, Naim Qassem stressed, “We will buy weapons, and we will tell the world that we are buying weapons, and we will liberate our land with these weapons… Let the (U.N.) Security Council take a rest and sleep… Let them shout but their shouts will go unheard.” His statement came right after Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that an “opposition victory … will change the situation in the region and lead to the emergence of new fronts that strengthen the resistance.” Both statements signal intent to at some point remove all current constraints on Hezbollah's freedom of action in southern Lebanon on the border with Israel. This would also serve the interests of the Assad regime in Syria, as it would reopen a proxy front with Israel in the hope of gaining leverage in any peace talks.

Hezbollah has shown, and has continuously reminded its opponents, that it is more than willing to use force to protect the status quo. Nevertheless, Hezbollah would prefer a coalition government in order to use its rivals as cover and avoid a fate similar to that of the Hamas government in Gaza.


The result of the election on Sunday is too close to call, although March 14 does stand a fair chance of retaining the majority. Such a result would be a major symbolic victory for the pro-Western and moderate voices in Lebanon, and would spare the U.S. the perception of a rollback at the hands of Syria and Iran.

Nevertheless, the country could face a major political crisis after the elections, especially when it comes to the central issue of Hezbollah's autonomous and destabilizing military status and its regional dimensions. Regardless of the outcome, the problem of Hezbollah will continue to be a major source of instability and insecurity in Lebanon.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Center for Terrorism Research.


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