REVIEW: Article

Hezbollah Complicates Lebanon’s Transition to Democracy and Public Accountability

For its 2007 New Year’s greeting, the Lebanon office of the international PR firm Grey International crafted a video that circulated quickly in Beirut. It cleverly depicts Lebanon’s idiosyncratic collection of politicians singing Lou Reed’s YouTube hit “Perfect Day.” Caricatures of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, Member of Parliament Saad Hariri and others from the pro-government side of Lebanon’s political divide hold hands benevolently with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Member of Parliament Michel Aoun, and other pro-Syrian politicians who, in real life, are struggling to topple Siniora’s government. With Beirut’s central business district withering under a Shia-dominated, pro-Syrian sit-in since December 1, the video’s absurdity is the implausibility of Lebanon’s feuding politicians joining together for anything—much less to sing about sangria in the park. 

But after a few chuckles—had anyone noticed that, yes, Jumblatt does sound like Lou Reed?—something is missing. As one would expect in a country known for both its creativity and its freedom of expression, this two-minute video gently pokes fun at all of Lebanon’s major political figures—President, Parliament Speaker, Prime Minister, and others—except one. Where is Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, without question Lebanon’s most powerful political and military leader?  Hezbollah, alone among Lebanon’s major political divisions and clans, does not appear, with the “Party of God” represented instead by a secondary figure. The video producers’ self-censorship is understandable: in spring 2006, Nasrallah’s supporters blocked major roads, including access to the airport, when a television comedy show that regularly skewers one and all (including this author) parodied Nasrallah briefly in a Saturday Night Live-type sketch.

At least for now, Lebanon’s bewilderingly array of politicians fall, generally, into two groups:  those backing the Siniora government and the current parliamentary majority (known popularly as the “March 14” bloc, after a massive demonstration on that day in 2005 that sparked the withdrawal of Syrian troops six weeks later), and those allied with Syria and Iran, of which Hezbollah is the most powerful.  The pro-Syrian bloc is known as “March 8,” after another significant 2005 demonstration. Disgruntled by the 2005 legislative elections, Maronite Christian MP Michel Aoun, whose followers participated in the original March 14 pro-independence demonstration, has aligned his movement with Hezbollah and the other pro-Syrian parties. 

Both the March 14 and March 8-Aoun movements contain an eccentric and eclectic collection of populist, clan, feudal, and sectarian leaders. One long-time Washington observer called Lebanon the last remnant of the Ottoman Empire in all its complexities, yet without the decisive authority of a Sultan.  For others, Lebanon’s competing loyalties and occasional spasms of violence evoke Tony Soprano’s world.  Early Renaissance Italy is for me, however, the most analogous to Lebanon: feudal lords and rich merchants with sophisticated, cosmopolitan taste in food, art, architecture, who rely on changing alliances to advance their own interests. Significantly, the March 14 movement transcended this model. When Lebanese of all confessions and backgrounds poured into the streets to protest the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s true democratic spirit emerged.  In working to achieve a common goal—Syria’s complete withdrawal from Lebanon and the truth behind the Hariri assassination—the Lebanese put old rivalries behind them—at least for a while. 

Although the Renaissance Italy analogy can explain traditional Lebanese clan, provincial, and confessional ties—at least prior to the democratic movement of spring 2005—it does have a flaw: it leaves out the most powerful political and military player in Lebanon today, Hezbollah. Hezbollah has already demonstrated its power to take Lebanon to war and to use this power as it sees fit.  If one is to believe Hassan Nasrallah’s public statements, the party’s secretary general miscalculated in ordering the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers across the Israeli border on July 12, 2006. But how does a man whom many observers claim is the most intelligent politician in Lebanon, if not the region, make such a mistake when the Israeli reaction was so predictable after the June kidnapping of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Guy Shalit by Hamas in Gaza? 

What happened subsequently is well known: a 33-day war, killing more than 1,200 Lebanese, displacing a third of Lebanon’s population, Israeli citizens terrorized by indis­criminate rocket attacks and extensive damage to Lebanon’s fragile economy. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, adopted in August and backed by a Lebanese consensus, offered the promise of stability in south Lebanon for the first time in decades. Within weeks, 15,000 soldiers of the Lebanese Armed Forces moved south of the Litani River for the first time since the 1960s, and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) troop strength expanded from 2,000 to 12,000. While the summer’s war was terrible, UNSCR 1701 and its aftermath should be, and mostly is—at least so far—a good news story.

Hezbollah remains a strong and popular force in Lebanon, particularly in the south.  Yet “how Lebanese” Hezbollah is remains a subject of debate.  Rank-and-file support for Hezbollah—which is genuine and large-scale—comes from Lebanese Shia seeking to improve the welfare of Lebanon’s traditional underclass. But the motivations of Hezbollah’s leadership are generally considered a blend of Iranian ideology, Syrian orders, and Lebanese domestic calculations. Those who are most sympathetic to Hezbollah play up the Lebanese calculations, typically claiming that Nasrallah is at heart a Lebanese patriot. Impatient with the United States government’s definition of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, they argue that Nasrallah’s Levantine pragmatic sensibilities will ultimately keep him on a moderate course. When Nasrallah makes decisions seemingly not in the interest of Lebanon, the apologists quickly explain his need to satisfy more radical members of Hezbollah’s leadership. 

Those more suspicious of Nasrallah, on the other hand, portray him as a key pillar of Iran’s revolutionary regime. They see him as Iran’s Lebanese tool to promote a Shia “crescent” that extends from Iran and Iraq through Syria and into Lebanon, including allegiance from Hamas-oriented Palestinians. They fear that a radical “Islamic Republic of Lebanon” would end Lebanon’s traditional openness to foreigners and overwhelm the “live and let live” tolerance of contrasting lifestyles for which Lebanon is known.  Such changes would put an end to Lebanon’s freewheeling tourism industry, with almost as severe an impact on the banking and real estate sectors that drive the Lebanese economy.

The Taif accord, which ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, replaced Lebanon’s Maronite “veto” by putting veto power in the hands of a “blocking” third in the cabinet. Legislation cannot be adopted unless the Parliament Speaker, a Shia, convenes the Parliament and puts Cabinet-submitted proposals on the agenda of the Parliament. While the cooperation with Michel Aoun’s largely Christian movement provides a convenient facade covering its real goals, Hezbollah has—with its walkouts of Shia ministers both on December 12, 2005 and November 11, 2006—in essence demanded the right of veto for itself. This, despite the fact that of the more than 4,800 cabinet decisions taken by the Siniora government before November 11, all but two or three were decided by consensus.  Thus, the Shia have not only a voice in the cabinet but have been able to set the agenda by threatening to withdraw if their views are not heeded.

As the Shia-dominated, pro-Syrian sit-in of downtown Beirut extends beyond 100 days, many Lebanese are asking themselves what the protest is really about.  Aoun, whose Free Patriotic Movement is dominated by Christian followers continues to demand that his bloc be represented in the cabinet roughly commensurate with its parliamentary share—a peculiar constitutional interpretation of how parliamentary democracies work, but a demand that the Lebanese—not any foreign power—should consider how to answer.  The Shia parties—Hezbollah and its junior partner Amal—continue to stoke discontent among their followers by claiming that the March 14 majority arrogantly ignores their voices.   Indeed, the March 14 majority could argue with far greater credibility that Hezbollah has ignored majority voices in such decisions as kidnapping Israeli soldiers. And in taking the major decision of going to war, Hezbollah failed to consult the Government of Lebanon or the Parliament in which all major blocs, including that of Michel Aoun, are represented.  Hezbollah’s Nasrallah had, in fact, assured his fellow Lebanese publicly that the summer tourist season would be a quiet one. US government officials, it must be noted, neither meet nor interact with members of Hezbollah.

What does Hezbollah want? Nasrallah may be using his populist base and his cynical alliance with Michel Aoun to affect the outcome of three major political decisions facing Lebanon. First, Hezbollah’s actions are delaying, if not yet derailing, the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, to be set up in the framework of a UN Security Council Resolution to try suspects in the murder of Rafik Hariri and related crimes. While none of the UN investigative reports on Hariri’s assassination have hinted at culpability on Hezbollah’s part, Hezbollah’s declarations of support for the principle of the tribunal diminish when seen in the context of Hezbollah action: On December 12, 2005, on the day prominent newspaper publisher and MP Gibran Tueni was murdered, Shia ministers withdrew from the cabinet, beginning a seven-week boycott, during which the cabinet (in one of the rare instances in which consensus was broken) voted to ask the UN to establish a tribunal to investigate Rafik Hariri’s assassination. 

On November 11, 2006, the five Shia ministers resigned from the cabinet, alleging they had not been given sufficient time to study the proposed statute of the tribunal to be discussed by the cabinet two days later. Given the certainty that such resignations would spark a constitutional crisis that is still ongoing, one has to question the sincerity of the stated justification for the resignations. Although the March 14 bloc agreed to consider the concerns of Hezbollah and its allies regarding the tribunal, Hezbollah has so far not explained its reservations to the tribunal. But Hezbollah has made it clear that, in any March 14-March 8 committee work to examine the tribunal documents, those who know the documents best—the judges who negotiated the texts with the United Nations—are not welcome to participate. While Hezbollah accuses March 14—and the United States—of politicizing the tribunal, Hezbollah’s refusal to accept the participation of experts in any tribunal discussions reveals just who looks for political, rather than legal, solutions.  Hezbollah sympathizers also claim that the United States will use the Special Tribunal to pounce on Hezbollah for its crimes against the United States from the 1980s.  This, at best, is just a pretext: while the United States does want to bring to justice those who murdered US Marines, diplomats, and others, the UN Security Council Resolutions regarding the Hariri investigation and tribunal are clear in limiting the jurisdiction of the tribunal. One wonders whom Hezbollah is trying to protect from justice in its objections to the tribunal. 

The second issue that concerns Hezbollah is the implementation of UNSCR 1701. During August 2006, the Lebanese cabinet—including Hezbollah ministers—unanimously approved the terms of the resolution, including the related cabinet decision ordering deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to the south, and Prime Minister Siniora, sensitive to Hezbollah’s concerns, successfully fought back calls to adopt the resolution under Chapter VII authority. The population of the south and Hezbollah fighters there were, at the time, eager for a break in the fighting. The almost instantaneous return of nearly a million displaced persons to the south immediately upon the cessation of hostilities seems, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been motivated less by individual decisions and more by Hezbollah’s desire to give its battered fighters an opportunity to emerge from underground bunkers by melting back into a returning civilian population. 

UNSCR 1701—the result of international compromise and Lebanese input—is by no means the perfect solution to the instability that has plagued southern Lebanon for decades. It has, nevertheless, restricted Hezbollah movement in the south even as Nasrallah trumpets the so-called “Divine Victory.” How does Nasrallah explain to his followers that despite “winning” the war they launched, paid for in lives and badly damaged villages, that Hezbollah no longer has freedom of movement in the south? Nasrallah distracts attention from this inconvenient truth by focusing on what he claims is the Shia right to veto government decisions. It should surprise no one if Nasrallah revisits the terms of UNSCR 1701, either by hinting at force protection issues for the foreign peacekeepers or by shifting Hezbollah fortifications to the north of the Litani River. There are already indications that he is pursuing both courses.

The third issue that concerns Nasrallah is Lebanon’s presidential election, scheduled to take place by mid-November 2007.  In September 2004, under Syrian orders, Lebanon’s parliament (which elects the president) amended Lebanon’s constitution to give a three-year term extension to the pro-Syrian head of state, Emile Lahoud.  Lahoud’s term expires November 24.  Hezbollah—and surely its external backers—hopes for a successor who will be as indulgent of the “resistance” as Lahoud has been for the past nine years.   By acquiring a blocking minority—constitutionally, more than a third—within the cabinet now, Hezbollah and its allies can more effectively promote either the replacement of Lahoud with another Syrian proxy or simply topple the cabinet before presidential elections, creating an internal political crisis that would operate to the detriment of the March 14 majority. While three years ago Lebanon’s Christians often lamented that Lebanon’s presidency—always held by a Maronite Christian—had lost all power in the post-Taif reshuffle, Lahoud has proven over the past two years how much power he still retains in blocking appointments, refusing to sign cabinet decrees, and preventing genuine judicial reform. 

In this fight between March 14 and March 8-Aoun forces, the United States is often accused of taking sides. Criticized in the past for allegedly turning a blind eye (or even indulging) Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, the United States is now on the side of those Lebanese who, at last, want to build a strong, credible state. The United States does not believe that Lebanon needs to subcontract out its foreign policy to Syria or its defense policy to Hezbollah. We firmly believe in the importance of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, not only to bring to justice those who assassinated Prime Minister Hariri but also to act as a deterrent to those who would attempt to silence Lebanese voices for sovereignty and independence.

But United States support for the principles of a sovereign, strong, independent, and prosperous Lebanon is also rooted in the belief that the Lebanese people themselves need to undertake the necessary political, security, and economic reforms to at long last lay the foundations of a state for all Lebanese. As long as Lebanon permits a foreign-funded militia not subject to public accountability to control parts of Lebanese territory, as long as lawless areas of religious extremism—Sunni as well as Shia—breed terrorism, and  as long as the Lebanese people lack confidence in their elected institutions, Lebanon will retain only the appearance of a state without the substance.

In the coming months and years, Lebanon will face innumerable economic, political, and security challenges that would strain even the strongest state. Like pre-unification Italy, Lebanon faces this uncertain future as it strives to earn the loyalty of its citizenry and to establish credible institutions that transcend sectarian differences. The international community’s intense focus on Lebanon, offers opportunities to strengthen or in some cases even establish the public institutions Lebanon needs to be a viable state.  Yet, as supporters of the March 14 movement have manifested so clearly, the desire for a free and democratic Lebanon remains strong among the Lebanese people. Unfortunately, the potent mix of militarism, religion, and sectarian political power of Hezbollah threatens this optimistic vision for the future. What the Lebanese people can count on, however, is that the United States will remain steadfast and generous in its support for a sovereign, independent Lebanon.

Photo credit: The World Factbook, 2007.

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United States Ambassador to Lebanon