May 31, 2022 | Foreign Policy

Lebanon Has an Opposition Movement Again

A new coalition could check—or even dislodge—Hezbollah and its iron grip.
May 31, 2022 | Foreign Policy

Lebanon Has an Opposition Movement Again

A new coalition could check—or even dislodge—Hezbollah and its iron grip.

Lebanon has become a failed state and a global source of narcotics, terrorism, and, once again, a growing number of refugees. Washington, stung by its failure to spread democracy in the Middle East and tiptoeing around everything connected to Iran, has limited its Lebanon policy to crisis management. But Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on May 15 saw the first stirrings of a potential coalition capable of checking—and perhaps eventually dislodging—Hezbollah and its iron grip over the country. Hezbollah and its allies lost their parliamentary majority and now face the biggest opposition since 2009—a loose coalition of the Lebanese Forces party and various independents with as many as 60 out of a total 128 seats.

Although the reconstituted legislature reelected a Hezbollah ally, Amal party leader Nabih Berri, as speaker of parliament on Tuesday, it did so with only the slimmest of majorities—65 out 128 votes, compared to 98 in 2018. Berri’s tally would not have been possible without votes controlled by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who played kingmaker. Free Patriotic Movement leader Elias Bou Saab, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, also won 65 votes for deputy speaker. But his contender, independent Ghassan Skaf, picked up 60 votes, showing the size of a potential opposition coalition. At the core of this bloc is the Lebanese Forces, a former Christian militia-turned-political party whose 20 seats put it ahead of Hezbollah’s 13.

While Jumblatt has been loosely aligned with Hezbollah in recent years, the right kind of pressure and incentives could still throw a wrench into Hezbollah’s plans to control the Lebanese government. That’s because Lebanon’s economic collapse is giving Hezbollah’s opponents a new sense of urgency—even after losing the election. The anti-Hezbollah bloc has called on the Shiite party’s extraconstitutional militia, roughly 30,000 fighters closely allied with Iran, to disband—just as the Lebanese Forces did when it surrendered its arms at the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1991. Since disbanding its military wing, the Lebanese Forces have remained a highly organized and potent political movement, demonstrating that a political party without a militia attached can succeed in Lebanese politics.

Opposition is galvanizing outside politics as well. Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, the leader of the Maronite Church, blames Hezbollah’s militia for undermining stability, repelling foreign investments, and killing economic growth. The way out of Lebanon’s crisis, Rahi argues, is Hezbollah’s disarmament and “regional neutrality,” which entails cutting loose from the influence of Syria and Iran, as well as reviving the 1949 United Nations truce between Lebanon and Israel.

After 1949, the Lebanese economy expanded at astounding rates, with GDP growth averaging 6 percent a year with minimal inflation for much of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lebanon’s long descent into failed-state status began in 1969, when it invited Palestinian militants to relocate there from Jordan, allowed them to start attacking Israel, and invited reprisals. After Israel finally invaded Lebanon to eject the Palestinians in 1982, Hezbollah inherited the resistance mantle and has kept Lebanon on a war footing ever since, inhibiting economic growth and forcing the state to incur ever higher debts. When Lebanese investors and citizens ran out of money to lend to their state, Beirut defaulted, sending the economy and national currency into free fall.

International organizations conditioned financial help on reform, but Hezbollah’s political allies—protected by its militia—have blocked reform, fearing it will dry out the corrupt money flows to which they’ve grown accustomed. In return, those allies approve keeping Hezbollah in arms. Rahi was one of the first to call public attention to this symbiosis: Reform and economic growth won’t happen without disarming Hezbollah first. With his status as an untouchable religious leader, Rahi has become the voice of the movement demanding Hezbollah’s disarmament.

The right kind of pressure and incentives could still throw a wrench into Hezbollah’s plans to control the Lebanese government.

In his post-election speech, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged that no party or coalition won a majority. But with its ability to intimidate rivals, Hezbollah has the advantage. At the very least, the party (and its militia) can throw a tantrum and paralyze the state until it gets what it wants. Even an outright anti-Hezbollah parliamentary majority in 2005 and 2009 did not manage to oust the party from power.

Forcefully disarming Hezbollah is a bloody endeavor no one is willing to undertake. But the group has an Achilles’ heel: It pretends that its extralegal armed forces have the approval of the elected cabinet. Yet the cabinet is dominated by Hezbollah loyalists.

Hezbollah mimics the tactics of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, whose troops once occupied Lebanon. Whenever the world asked Assad to withdraw, he responded that his army was there at the request from Lebanon’s elected government—a puppet authority that answered to Damascus. During the Syrian occupation, then-Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir demanded a Syrian withdrawal, a call that snowballed into an unprecedented anti-Syrian demonstration on March 14, 2005. The result was the Cedar Revolution, spearheaded by a coalition of anti-Syrian parties. Assad lost his alibi, and, that April, his troops completed their withdrawal.

Realizing that the anti-Syria coalition could eventually turn against Hezbollah as well, the party peeled away the leader of one of the coalition parties, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, by promising him the presidency of Lebanon, which Aoun eventually claimed in 2016.

The key to disarming Hezbollah is to rebuild the broad coalition that ejected Syrian forces 17 years ago but failed to force the pro-Iranian militia to surrender its arsenal to the national army as the Christian militia did.

The May 15 elections showed that Lebanese voters have soured on Aoun, whose Free Patriotic Movement-led Christian bloc has stood as the main obstacle to a united anti-Hezbollah front. Aoun’s son-in-law and aspiring successor Gebran Bassil saw his faction in parliament shrink from 23 to 18 seats. Even in Hezbollah’s electoral stronghold, the South III district bordering Israel, the militia’s opponents won two seats, despite harassment and intimidation.

This year’s elections also showed that Lebanon’s Christians, Druze, Sunni, and a considerable number of Shiite voters are fed up with the dual afflictions of corruption and Hezbollah. Iran birthed the Shiite militant group in the 1980s and has provided it with weapons and extensive financial support ever since. The problem for Lebanon is that Tehran and its Lebanese proxies prioritize militancy over what the country needs most: reform, civil liberties, and recovery from today’s deep economic crisis.

Hezbollah might well deploy violence against those who threaten its dominant position—in the same way Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have attacked opponents since taking a beating in elections last October. The people of Lebanon will have to decide if they are prepared to face that risk.

Washington, for its part, should endorse Rahi’s vision for national sovereignty and comprehensive reform and consider inviting him to the White House, just as then-U.S. President George W. Bush received Rahi’s predecessor Sfeir. The United States is already pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid into Lebanon. But the need will only grow unless Washington sides firmly with the advocates of sovereignty and reform.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former managing editor at the Daily Star. Twitter: @hahussain. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Lebanon