BY : Osama Al-Sharif
For decades, the sectarian power-sharing understanding between Lebanon’s warlords, who became the faces of its ruling political elite, was a marriage of convenience that allowed each to claim a slice of the country’s lucrative economic cake. That understanding, the Taif Agreement, provided a period of economic recovery after years of civil war. Thus, while the political elite enjoyed the economic windfall, leaving enough for their respective sects to survive and endure, the system itself, imperfect as it is, kept going on thanks to its sheer momentum. That is until one party to the deal decided to change the rules and claim a wider share, or what became known as the disruptive vote in any government.
Hezbollah’s rise came by accident. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in collaboration with Christian militias led by the Kataeb Party, and the ensuing series of events that culminated with the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization from the country finally led, in 1985, to the emergence on the scene of Hezbollah, with Iran’s solid backing. Back then, Hezbollah had a just cause: To rid Lebanon of Israeli occupation. Along with its fellow Shiite partner Amal, it fought Israel and finally drove it out of Southern Lebanon in 2000.
And when the civil war ended in 1990, Hezbollah refused to disarm while Israel was still occupying parts of the country. That was a milestone in the evolution of the party as an armed militia within the Lebanese state. And that reality remained a major challenge — if not an impediment — for successive Lebanese governments. The sectarian power-sharing deal had become skewed.
Hezbollah became a major political player because it had infiltrated key state institutions. Slowly but surely, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, began identifying himself as a regional player with unabashed fealty to the agenda of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
It is no wonder that the paralysis that hit Lebanon’s political system was followed by economic collapse. Lebanon became hostage to the man ruling from Beirut’s southern district. He dragged the country into a devastating war in 2006 and admitted he was wrong. But his apology was not a remorseful one. He became more defiant as he built an arsenal of Iranian missiles that he threatened to launch at Israel, even though a war of that sort would surely destroy what is left of Lebanon.
In May 2008, after a long political stalemate, Hezbollah’s forces briefly overtook Beirut to pin down their Sunni foes. The message was clear to all: Hezbollah had become a state within a state and it now manipulated the sectarian agenda to bring down the government whenever it pleased.
Its alliance with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, led by President Michel Aoun, proved to be unholy in all aspects. To serve narrow political objectives, Aoun allowed Hezbollah to derail the political process on more than one occasion, leading to the mass civil protests in 2019. From then on, Lebanon went into a downward spiral. And the plunge continues.
Setting aside the alleged involvement of Hezbollah in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the explosion that destroyed Beirut’s port in August 2020 complicated things for the group. Lebanon’s political crisis deepened when a judge was appointed to investigate the incident. Hezbollah and Amal objected and wanted the file closed. Aside from the huge economic losses to the port and property — estimated at $15 billion — the explosion killed 218 civilians and injured more than 7,000.
A month after joining Najib Mikati’s newly formed government last September, ministers belonging to the two Shiite groups began a boycott of the Cabinet over the port explosion investigation. The lira has since lost almost 90 percent of its value, putting 80 percent of the Lebanese population below the poverty line. To make things worse, Nasrallah launched an irresponsible and unwarranted verbal attack on Saudi Arabia, a country hosting no less than 150,000 Lebanese expatriates. The diplomatic backlash from Gulf Cooperation Council countries was severe and Beirut found itself politically and economically isolated.
The leaders of Hezbollah and Amal have abandoned their Lebanese identity and brought the whole country to its knees.
Now, Hezbollah and Amal have announced that their ministers are ending the Cabinet boycott for the sake of passing the 2022 budget and alleviating the economic crisis. This is yet another ploy to tighten Hezbollah’s grip on the government. The bitter fact is that the two groups’ leaderships have abandoned their Lebanese identity and brought the whole country to its knees.
The end of the boycott could be related to news that the West and Iran are closer than ever to reaching a deal in Vienna. Hezbollah might be feeling that Iran’s regional priorities are about to change. Whatever the reason, Hezbollah has become a burden on Lebanon’s tired back. Even in a sectarian power-sharing understanding — one that has become anathema for most Lebanese — the group is claiming much more than its fair share.
Going back to business as usual is no longer an option for Lebanon. A new deal must be struck; one that replaces the sectarian power-sharing system with an equitable arrangement that recognizes a single Lebanese national identity and that ends the two-decade hijack of the state by Hezbollah.
Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.