May 25, 2016 | NOW Lebanon

Hezbollah doesn’t want a President – Because it doesn’t want a Lebanese Republic

Hezbollah appears to have switched loyalties in Lebanon’s never-ending presidential race. Despite maintaining long-standing support for the candidacy of the pro-Syrian former general Michel Aoun, the Shiite movement is reportedly now backing his rival for the post, Sleiman Frangieh. If true, the move is further proof that the group does not seek to fill Lebanon’s long-vacant presidency – not even with a sympathetic candidate – but rather to ensure a presidential vacuum to further delegitimize the Lebanese Republic.

Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014. Earlier this month, its parliament failed for the 39th time to elect a candidate, postponing elections again until June 2. As before, Hezbollah and its political allies caused the failure by boycotting the session. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah had previously pledged to back Aoun as long as he was a candidate, and the party had vowed to boycott elections unless Aoun ran unopposed, and was guaranteed  victory.

Yet according to reports in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah, Hezbollah is using stall tactics to prevent the election of any candidate at all. Days after it reportedly told both contenders not to expect an election until the Syrian Civil War was resolved in the regime’s favor, Hezbollah asked that Frangieh not only maintain his candidacy, but also convinced Aoun to drop out of the race.

Both candidates are staunch allies of the Shiite party. Both have consistently opposed its disarmament, are aligned with its foreign policy, share its enmity towards Israel and support its intervention in Syria. Either candidate will likely end Lebanon’s official policy of neutrality on the Syrian Civil War and provide a governmental stamp of approval to Hezbollah’s fight on the Syrian regime’s behalf. Victory for either would ostensibly benefit Hezbollah.

However, the reality is that Hezbollah’s power is such that it doesn’tneed that stamp of approval. More important, by allowing the state to continue functioning the election of any president – even an ally – would set back Hezbollah’s central ideological goal, articulated by Nasrallah in the late 1980s. The group’s ultimate goal, then as now, is transforming Lebanon into “part of the large Islamic Republic ruled by … the Wali al-Faqih,” or the GuardianJurist – the Islamic cleric charged with governing worldly affairs until the return of the so-called “Hidden Imam.”

Hezbollah first stated that goal in its foundational document, the 1985 Open Letter. In it, the party rejected “operat[ing] within the constraints of the current Lebanese constitution,” or even supporting any internal reform, unless to implant “fundamental changes in the system’s roots.”

In his 2005 book on the organization’s history and ideology – now in its eighth reprint – Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem calls the objective of an Islamic state the “natural expression” of the party’s Shiite beliefs, and “the supreme representation of human happiness” for not just Muslims but also Christians and Jews. Qassem says an Islamic state remains the party’s goal today, reemphasizing that point as recently asa January 2016 interview.

In recent years, some analysts have suggested that Hezbollah has abandoned these goals, becoming more “moderate” and Lebanese, noting that the party’s 2009 manifesto omitted references to many of the Open Letter’s goals. However, Hezbollah’s own leadership has put the lie to such a view. According to Nasrallah, the new manifesto was only a “political document,” one that did not affect matters of “creed, ideology, or thought” – particularly Wilayat al-Faqih, which is “not a political stand that can be subjected to revision.” Likewise, Qassem has insisted that the Open Letter is a “permanent and continuous document,” and the 2009 manifesto merely provided “minor” or “trivial adjustments,” meant to update the Letter to present-day facts, but not abrogate it in any way.

There is one important caveat to the implementation of Hezbollah’s Islamist model: it insists the Islamic system must be freely adopted by the “overwhelming majority” of Lebanese, who are called upon to “completely uproot” the secular Lebanese Republic. According to the Open Letter, and as repeated by Qassem, this is because the Quransays, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” Hezbollah does “not wish to impose Islam on anybody,” reads the Letter, calling instead for an Islamic order to be installed by “direct and free choice exercised by the populace.”

But the group never really intended to leave the choice up to the Lebanese. Hezbollah has long realized that the Lebanese system’s routine dysfunction will not suffice to convince its citizens to willingly exchange it for another, particularly not a model that would impose an austere Islamic code on their multi-sectarian, relatively secular society. To convince them to implement that system, Hezbollah needs to show that the country’s current system is inherently broken and “unjust,” as the Letter says. Hezbollah does so by seizing any opportunity to cripple the government.

The office of the president is the keystone of the Lebanese political system and the state’s titular authority. In the absence of a president, the government is now at a virtual standstill, as the president, per theConstitution, is needed to sign bills into law, negotiate and ratify treaties, confirm ambassadors, and appoint the prime minister, cabinet ministers and civil servants. Hezbollah and its allies similarly precipitated the2006-2008 political crisis, staging sit-ins and violent protests by hundreds of thousands of supporters to force then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to form a national unity government and to grant it the requisite number of cabinet positions to veto decisions and collapse the government, despite holding only 45 percent of parliamentary seats.

When it can’t disable the government, the Party of God harps on the government’s failures. Hezbollah exploited the country’s eight-month trash-collection crisis to emphasize that a state too weak to pick up garbage could not be trusted with decisions of war and peace. And despite feigning respect for the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah downplaysthe military’s successes, presenting it as too weak to defend the country. This rhetoric has influenced Aoun, who has said Hezbollah should assume the task of national defense instead.

By preventing the state from carrying out even these most basic functions and pointing out its deficiencies, Hezbollah hopes to demonstrate that the Lebanese Constitution will inevitably result in a failed state. By contrast, the organization presents its theocratic system as an ideal alternative. In a recent speech, Nasrallah brazenly touted the superiority of that system, praising “the Islamic Republic,” as “the preeminent, grand and great regional power,” whose “friendship” the world was rushing to gain.

By contrast, Nasrallah implied that Lebanon was inferior – not because of differences in size or resources, but its system of government. He argued that while Lebanese elections barely functioned, even in peacetime, Iran’s elections had never been suspended, “even under rockets and artillery bombardment” during the Iran-Iraq War. Unlike in Lebanon, Tehran’s Expediency Council acted as a “constitutional failsafe” to prevent disagreements from disabling the system. “We are going to criticize the Expediency Council when we can’t even solve the garbage problem?” he asked.

For almost two decades, Hezbollah has realized that its project to replace the Lebanese Republic would be long and incremental. It therefore adopted pragmatism over confrontation, working from within the system to dismantle and discredit it one step at a time. Hezbollahholds the key to solving the presidential crisis, and by effectively rejecting two allies to fill the presidency, Hezbollah is crippling the system to show Lebanese that the only path to effective and just governance is its own. Even if the presidential crisis is soon resolved, by ensuring a two-year vacancy in the post, Hezbollah will have already reached that goal.

David Daoud is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidADaoud 


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