A Tale of Two Lebanons: Stuck Between Hezbollah and a Republic

April 3, 2023 Topic: Lebanon Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: LebanonBeirutHezbollahSyriaPolitics

A Tale of Two Lebanons: Stuck Between Hezbollah and a Republic

Some Lebanese political actors, like the Kataeb Party's Samy Gemayel, believe that the country cannot move forward so long as the Shiite group continues building what is effectively a parallel society .

For years, certain voices in Lebanon have opposed the rising influence of Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian political military movement, and have warned of the dangerous consequences of not directly addressing this issue with a clear vision. Among these voices is Samy Gemayel, the president of the Kataeb Party, whom I recently had the chance of interviewing. For Gemayel, the reality is simple: Hezbollah is the greatest threat to Lebanese sovereignty, and all roads lead to them.

Gemayel and his Kataeb supporters have a specific grievance against Hezbollah. They view the movement’s decisions and current form as that of an autonomous armed group, which poses an unnecessary danger to the Lebanese people. This danger is especially apparent given the country’s current economic crisis, the worst in Lebanese history. While the existence of Hezbollah’s arms did not solely cause the crisis, other factors, such as the lack of strong state institutions and weak accountability for corruption by other political forces, played a role. Despite this, the problem of how Hezbollah sees Lebanon and what it is remains relevant. It raises the question of whether Lebanon can modernize as a country if it cannot have a single source of authority. Two viewpoints exist on this matter. On the one hand, some in Lebanon argue that the power of Hezbollah grows because of the absence of a state. On the other, there are those who argue that the state is weakened because of Hezbollah and thus cannot effectively legislate and govern. It is even possible that both views are right, leaving Lebanon in a catch-22 situation.

Kataeb is striving to explain the issue of Lebanon's sovereignty to other members of Lebanon’s parliament to ensure a unified approach. Gemayel notes that though economic and other reforms have been agreed upon, there is a lack of consensus on how to address Hezbollah. Whether this was due to naiveté or fear, he answered: “I don’t know, I think it is a bit of both. They didn’t face Hezbollah in the last fifteen years like we did. They didn’t see firsthand the violence, the intimidation, and the will to block the country and to destroy the economy the way we saw it. We cannot hide this elephant in the room called Hezbollah and we cannot escape from tackling this problem.” Gemayel emphasized the need to confront the problem posed by Hezbollah, which has imposed its convictions on all other players in Lebanese politics, leaving no benefits for the Lebanese people.

Opposing Hezbollah has been a top priority in Mr. Gemayel’s political life, but after years of nonviolent resistance alongside other allies of the March 14th Alliance, a political coalition which sought to disarm the Shiite political party, Hezbollah has only grown stronger. Gemayel attributed this to Hezbollah’s ability to bring everyone under its umbrella since 2015–2016, which resulted in the election of Michel Aoun, their primary ally, as president. This move effectively included everyone under their umbrella. “All the political players, played the game of Hezbollah. This was the problem.”

Why did March 14th Alliance Fail?

In 2005, following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, most Lebanese people rallied across the country demanding an end to Syria’s near thirty-year-long military occupation. This call for sovereignty paved the way for the formation of the March 14th Alliance. Syria had intervened in Lebanon’s civil war at the request of the Lebanese government in March 1976. The intervention was intended to halt the war and continued until the signing of the Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia in 1990, which was endorsed by all Lebanese military and political factions. However, the Syrian army remained in Lebanon despite the agreement's promise that the troops would leave eventually.

As opposition to Syria’s increasing influence in Lebanon grew, so did the voices of dissent. Among them was Pierre Gemayel, the late brother of Samy Gemayel, who was eventually assassinated for his opposition to Syria’s military rule and its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Pierre was killed along with others who spoke out against Syria’s power in Lebanon. Prominent anti-Syrian regime voices within the early stages of March 14th Alliance were also assassinated, including the independent politician and respected former editor of An-Nahar, Gebran Tueni, in 2005. In December 2013, former Lebanese minister and Hezbollah critic Mohamad Chatah, who was an advisor to the Saad Hariri government, a Lebanese ambassador, and member of the March 14th Alliance, was also assassinated in downtown Beirut. Shortly before his death, he tweeted a warning about Hezbollah's attempts to take control of specific state responsibilities: “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 yrs.”

To this day, no one had taken responsibility Chatah’s killing. Hezbollah has denied all involvement in the assassinations of their political rivals, saying it benefits the enemies of Lebanon to sow internal division. Putting accusations aside, the greatest common factor for all these kinds of assassinations is that none of their perpetrators have been brought to a fair and just trial. Why? Because the rule of law is not practiced in Lebanon. The truth of the matter is, if every March 14th leader had the courage of Gebran Tueini, Pierre Gamayel, and Mohamed Chatah, Lebanon might be in a better situation today. Instead, everyone pursues their own narrow interests. The public is forced to remain silent out of fear and total cynicism of the country’s political, judicial, economic, and other systems’ failure to live up to promises of a better future.

What Comes Next for Lebanon?

Gemayel believes that Lebanon’s current problems are due to the concessions made to Hezbollah, which has caused Lebanon to be in a state of “confrontation with all the Arab countries and the Western world.” He notes that his party has been opposed to these concessions from the start.

Yet there are some minor signs of change. While in the past, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has condemned Saudi Arabia as a sponsor of terrorism, there has been a shift in rhetoric following a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia mediated by China. Nasrallah welcomed the normalization, stating “This is a good development. We have complete confidence that this will not come at our expense.”

There is optimism that the resumption of ties between the region’s most influential players could help Lebanon. Nevertheless, it is a matter of principle, not deal-making, for Kataeb. No political party today in Lebanon must be allowed to carry weapons. “As long as we have this military organization in parallel to the Lebanese army, making decisions parallel to the Lebanese state and acting like first-degree citizens while the rest of us are second-degree citizens, the problem will remain,” Gemayel says. He hopes for a positive impact but acknowledges that “as long as Hezbollah’s behavior with the Lebanese people and Lebanese institutions doesn’t change, the problem is still there.”

And If Lebanon Does Not Change Course…?

 In early February, Gemayel spoke at Kataeb’s 32nd general assembly about how he sees the country’s present situation: that there are effectively two Lebanons.

“On the one hand, you have the Republic of Lebanon, with all the people from all the sects who believe in it and believe in the democratic system and the constitution, which governs the relations of the Lebanese from all sects with one another. And on the other hand, there is a state called the Islamic Republic of Hezbollah.” He went to declare that Hezbollah’s actions are tantamount to asking for a national divorce, and if that is what it wants, “lets have it.”

When we spoke, I pressed him on this question. Some have accused him of desiring partition or federalism for the country—policies that are not practical or within the best interest of all Lebanese.

Gemayel indicated that what he was doing was pointing out that living under Hezbollah’s hegemony is not an option. He clarified that Kataeb’s resistance to Hezbollah will always remain non-violent, but that regardless, political paralysis cannot remain an option. “What I am trying to point on that Hezbollah is responsible for creating this huge gap between the Lebanese society. This gap may turn into something more dangerous, which is a kind of two Lebanons.”

In other words, Gemayel’s statement about the two Lebanons was not about partition or federalism, but rather a warning about the division between those who believe in the democratic system and those who follow Hezbollah. Such a situation, if not ultimately resolved amicably, could certainly turn into something more dangerous. For a tragedy-ridden country, such a prospect is grim.

Adnan Nasser is an independent foreign policy analyst and journalist with a focus on Middle East affairs. Follow him on Twitter @Adnansoutlook29.

Image: Shutterstock.