Why the United States Can’t Sit Out Lebanon’s Pivotal Elections
Lebanon’s upcoming elections are a rare opportunity for the United States to bolster democracy while also weakening Hizballah’s influence.
On May 15, Lebanese citizens will go to the ballot boxes to vote for a new parliament.
Lebanon has gone through one of the most difficult periods in its history since its last election in 2018. The country is currently experiencing one of the worst economic and financial crises of the last century, as well as having to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and the lingering aftermath of the explosion at the Port of Beirut. These conditions have exposed the disastrous impact that corruption has had since the end of Lebanon’s fifteen-year-long civil war, leaving the ruling class desperately looking for a way to retain power without reforming the system that has enriched them for so long. However, there is a silver lining. With the collapse of the post-civil war era status quo, there is an opportunity for independent candidates and members of civil society to force their way into parliament and try to craft a new consensus. This presents the United States with an opportunity to help bolster democracy in Lebanon while also weakening Hizballah’s influence in the country.
The United States’ problem, however, is that beyond its limited, security-centric approach of supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), it lacks a tangible strategy toward Lebanon. While it is certain that the independents won’t win a majority of seats, there is some hope that the dissatisfaction amongst the electorate will allow enough independent candidates to enter parliament to mitigate the established parties’ hold on power and craft a new political consensus.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s January 2022 announcement that he will not be participating in the general elections left a power vacuum that all sides are scrambling to fill. The most prominent are Fouad Makhzoumi, a businessman and member of parliament for Beirut, and Saad Hariri’s older brother, Bahaa Hariri. However, neither figure commands considerable influence within the Sunni community, which leaves a window of opportunity for other groups, such as the Lebanese Forces (LF) and Hizballah, to convince Sunnis to ally with them. The LF seems to be the stronger party in areas like Tripoli, where it has allied itself with Makhzoumi as well as former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, who has substantial support in the city. The LF will also have the financial backing of Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia who see Saad’s withdrawal from politics as an opportunity to back a side that will reverse some of the compromises created between Saad Hariri and Hizballah.
Hariri’s retirement also weakens Hizballah’s network within the Sunni community. In the past, Hizballah was able to establish relationships with Sunni politicians who were opposed to the Hariri family’s influence over the community. Now that Hariri is out of the picture, those same politicians are much more likely to distance themselves from Hizballah, thus reducing the party’s support base and leaving it more isolated.
Hizballah’s other weak flank is its relationship with President Michel Aoun and his FPM party. After a falling out with his former allies in the March 14 coalition in 2005, Aoun switched his support to the March 8 coalition and signed the Mar Mikhael Agreement with Hizballah in 2006. This memorandum was mutually beneficial for both sides, with Hizballah increasing its political legitimacy by allying with the largest Christian party and Aoun gaining a powerful ally that allowed him to win the presidency in 2016. Tensions began to emerge soon after Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, was elected to replace Aoun as the leader of the FPM. Bassil is known to harbor ambitions to replace his father-in-law as president; he has repeatedly made remarks that he is willing to work with other political actors in Lebanon to reach that goal and has built relationships with the Hariris that were separate from those with Hizballah. The biggest sign, however, that relations have significantly deteriorated was when Bassil made a speech in early 2022, declaring that the 2006 agreement between the FPM and Hizballah was no longer to the benefit of the Christian party and that it must “evolve.” He justified this position by noting that the financial crisis and Hizballah’s statements concerning the objectivity of Judge Tarek Bitar, who was appointed to investigate the explosion at the Port of Beirut after his predecessor was removed, had cost the FPM significant support among its base.
Despite these tensions, the FPM and Hizballah have come to the conclusion that, for the moment, it would be in their interest to set aside any outstanding issues between them and create a joint list in the upcoming elections. This marriage of convenience has less to do with common goals and more with the fact that neither side has much of a choice. As with the Sunni bloc, Hizballah has lost substantial support among the Christian community, although it should be noted that this is not a new development. While the average Hizballah and FPM supporter tended to keep a distance from one another, a significant portion of the population originally supported the agreement as an alliance between minorities, which was justified by the fears of a rise in violence by Sunni Islamist terrorist groups in the Middle East.
Things became more complicated in October 2021, when a large number of Hizballah supporters, who were calling for the removal of Judge Bitar, marched into the Tayyouneh neighborhood, a stronghold of the LF, and began causing material damage. Clashes then erupted, which led to the deaths of several Hizballah members and supporters. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s leader, then accused the LF of instigating the firefight to incite wider sectarian conflict throughout the country.
In order to appear as a neutral actor, Bassil issued a statement in which he condemned the actions of the protestors for attempting to force their views onto others while also condemning Tayyouneh’s residents for firing on the protestors. This middle path backfired on him because the clashes led to a rare moment of consensus within the Christian community. By refusing to outright condemn the rioters and placing blame on the LF, the FPM was seen as giving tacit support to the rioters, which shifted support to the LF, which is seen by a growing number of Christians as one of the few groups willing to protect the community’s interests.
Of the mainstream parties, Hizballah remains paradoxically the most powerful and the most vulnerable. While it has historically declared itself a resistance movement that acts to protect the weak, the trajectory of its role in Lebanese politics has placed it at the top of the pyramid. In 2008, in response to the government’s attempts to dismantle its communications network, Hizballah mobilized its military arm and, in a series of clashes against March 14-affiliated militiamen, managed to assert control over Beirut, which sparked concerns of a further spiral into wider sectarian conflict. In order to diffuse tensions and end the eighteen-month-long political stalemate that had begun in December 2006, members from both the March 14 and March 8 coalitions met in Doha, Qatar, where they reached an agreement on several issues, including the formation of a national unity government and the decision to elect Gen. Michel Sleiman to the presidency as a consensus candidate. While the 2008 Doha Agreement tempered the situation in the country, the events of the previous two years created a new political framework in which Hizballah was the most powerful political player. This allowed Hizballah to act not just as a kingmaker, but also as an effective parallel state within the state. As the situation in the country continues to worsen, however, Hizballah and its allies have taken further steps to solidify control and protect their strategic interests even at the expense of the country’s ability to recover from its problems. After Hassan Diab resigned his post in the aftermath of the Port of Beirut explosion, the political arena underwent another extensive period of stalemate as negotiations for a new government dragged on for thirteen months. One of the primary reasons for the stalemate was the insistence that the portfolios for the Finance and Public Works Ministries be allotted to the Shia, which the FPM was unwilling to do. Control of the finance ministry means control over mechanisms such as tax collection, customs duties, and oversight of the annual budget. Control of the Public Works Ministry will allow Hizballah and Amal to oversee control of major infrastructure. It is hoped that if negotiations with the IMF for a bailout are successful, then control of the Public Works Ministry will enable the Shia parties to push government contracts toward firms that are either friendly or controlled by them, thus filling their coffers with fresh cash as well circumventing international sanctions.
However, it is important to note that Hizballah is aware of the volatility of the situation and has taken steps to insulate itself as much as possible. The party is using several tactics, including mass protests, leveraging its influence to manipulate policy, and even the use of targeted political violence. As stated previously, Nasrallah has put significant pressure on the Lebanese government to sideline Tariq Bitar and derail his investigation into the Port of Beirut bombing in an effort not just to cover up Hizballah’s possible involvement, but also out of fear that the investigation will reveal the level of corruption in the country. The reason for this is simple: in addition to relying on patronage networks to gain support, the establishment uses fear and intimidation to squash dissent. Since it was the only militia to retain its weapons after the end of the civil war, Hizballah utilizes its powerful arsenal to leverage situations to its advantage. If the investigation confirms that the ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion was part of a Hizballah weapons cache, then the party would struggle to contain the fallout and would become increasingly isolated outside of its regional strongholds in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa valley, and south Beirut.