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Can Lebanon Be Fixed?

A nation of warring tribes is locked in a failing state.
September 11, 2020
Can Lebanon Be Fixed?
BEIRUT, LEBANON - SEPTEMBER 04: Protesters wave a Lebanese flag and hold nooses, which have become symbols of public anger against the Lebanese government, as they commemorate a month since the city's deadly explosion on September 4, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. On August 4th, a fire at Beirut's port ignited a stockpile of ammonium nitrate causing a massive explosion that killed more than 200 people, destroyed surrounding neighborhoods and upended countless lives. (Photo by Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

The massive explosion last month in Beirut’s port has devastated the Lebanese capital. The great Arab metropolis is now convulsed in a solemn rage, with Lebanese civil society beginning to stir on behalf of “revolution!” Such is the nature of life in Beirut that it can move from something so lowering to the spirit to something so ennobling to the spirit within an instant.

Popular unrest has become the rule in this land racked by state malignancy. The mood of Lebanese is more outraged than surprised by the spectacle of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate being allowed to sit idle for years in a dense urban area until a spark blew away the last vestiges of the government’s legitimacy. For a growing number of Lebanese, it is a government and a regime that is manifestly failing to meet its rudimentary duties.

Lebanon, trapped in a constitutional vise evolved to ensure representation for its many sectarian communities while impeding the rise of cross-sectarian or secular parties, is hurtling toward full-scale breakdown. It is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, owing to entrenched patronage networks run by sectarian fiefs. The governing class plays each tribe against the other, Sunni against Shia against Christian against Druze, to enrich themselves while immiserating the nation. Woeful economic mismanagement has proceeded for many long years without respite. Combined with the arrival of the pandemic, rising unemployment has now plunged more than half the country—pushing upwards to three-quarters—into poverty.

To make matters worse, the power behind the throne in Lebanon resides with a vicious militia-cum-political party that is resistant to change and that refuses to treat Lebanese as fellow citizens. Hezbollah is the most conspicuous legacy of Syria’s long occupation of the country, and it has increasingly disfigured the proper operations of the government. Facilitated by Persian power and largesse, the Shia terrorist organization has risen to become the primus inter pares of Lebanese affairs. In concert with its domestic allies, the Party of God holds the majority in Parliament and dominates the government’s security and foreign policies.

French President Emmanuel Macron has visited the former French protectorate twice within a month to spur a reform-minded government in exchange for a bailout. Macron has countered claims that meaningful progress is impossible so long as Hezbollah holds the reins of government, and warned of the costs of challenging Lebanon’s main political force. “If we fight force with force, that’s called escalation,” he said, suggesting that war is not a viable option.

What Macron hasn’t addressed is how Lebanon’s corrupt and sectarian status quo can be changed at all when it is so conducive to Hezbollah’s true mission, which is to serve as a de facto sovereign police state and vessel for a foreign revolution. A functional state would mean an end to separate governing authorities, to say nothing of the paranoid death cult that maintains its own private army while taking orders from a theocratic foreign state. For this reason, Hezbollah has exhibited hysterical contempt for Lebanese civil resistance and democrats of every stripe and sect who seek to write “finis” to the power-sharing arrangement that allows a totalitarian polity to exist within a more or less free Lebanon. Put another way, it is impossible to imagine the Mediterranean branch of the Shia empire of “resistance” genuinely committing itself to rebuilding Lebanon, when it has long conceived of itself as part of a transnational confessional community with Tehran as its capital.

It must be conceded, though, that Hezbollah enjoys a considerable base of support, especially in the dahiyeh (suburb) of Haet Hreik, among other predominantly Shia areas. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s tenure has rescued the Shia—roughly a third of Lebanon’s population, and growing—from the fate of dispossession that had traditionally been their lot. Now they find themselves with a measure of prestige undreamt of in previous generations but also living as dependents on Hezbollah’s welfare system.

And yet, if the nation at large cowers in fear of Hezbollah, dissidents who live under the yellow flag surely have measured the grave risk involved in assailing the mighty Shiite leadership. Despite this risk, Shiite demonstrators joined the nationwide protests last autumn, and were promptly repressed by Hezbollah goons with the same brute force that was visited on the throngs of activists in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square. These teeming numbers of Shiite men and women prove the ill effects of having—as George Orwell put it in Coming Up for Air—cheered for the Leader “until they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke.” Under the right circumstances, they may decide to brave Nasrallah’s vengeful wrath yet again. And Lebanese society will have to provide them every means of support if they do so.

In the aftermath of the blast, the old question about the nature of a Lebanese government that exists alongside such a formidable militia has returned to the fore: is the regime criminal or merely derelict? The grim truth is that it is both: it is derelict because the Lebanese government is run not by high-minded technocrats or even civic-minded politicians but instead by a multi-confessional gang of oligarchs and criminals.

The negligence that led to the port explosion was one true expression of the character of the Lebanese state, but it is not the only one. Another is Hezbollah’s implacable hostility toward Israel—a powerful neighbor double its size—and the United States. Yet another is the repression meted out to protesters who long for a decent state that addresses their modest needs. This was the thinly-veiled threat issued by Nasrallah days ago when he warned of a reversion to civil war should protests gain momentum.

All of this perfidy points to the same conclusion: Lebanon will remain on its current downward trajectory as long as Hezbollah is permitted to maintain its “state within a state.” In addition to being an affront to Lebanon’s sovereignty, Hezbollah’s arms deter and debilitate the kind of initiatives required to lift the Lebanese people out of their excruciating economic decline. “Eventually,” as Michael Totten writes in his fine study of contemporary Lebanon, “The Road to Fatima Gate,” “the state would have to absorb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah would devour the state.”

The authentic question before the Lebanese people, and their foreign allies, is how to ameliorate—or even begin to address—the malignant state responsible for a historic act of malfeasance and the host of other maladies afflicting Lebanon today. How can Hezbollah be confronted and ultimately defanged?

It has lately become fashionable in certain quarters to argue that Lebanon is something of a lost cause, that it has emerged as Iran’s client state, fully entwined with Hezbollah. These skeptics of the U.S. alliance with Lebanon warn that any further support would constitute de facto support for Hezbollah, bolstering and preserving its capacity for mayhem. This is not an unreasonable fear. If this fear leads to American disengagement, however, it will point Lebanon toward the very outcome it seeks to prevent. A failed Lebanese state will become a plaything of Hezbollah, to the detriment of U.S. and Lebanese interests alike. Likewise, issuing foreign aid without attaching stringent conditions for how it is used will pursue the same path of state failure, because as presently constituted those charged with distributing the aid are also its chief beneficiaries.

All this would suggest that reforming state institutions is the only path to eventually dismantling Hezbollah and preserving Lebanese pluralism. A functional state capable of delivering essential services and drawing on the actual and potential human capital of this resilient citizenry will wean Lebanese from their dependency on crooks and faith-based fanatics. What’s more, the enduring sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic of Iran will deprive the Party of God of crucial resources. (Please note, Mr. Biden and Mrs. Harris.) But the great issue of political reform cannot be neglected.

This means devising a government of direct rather than sectarian representation. This can be achieved by means of a non-sectarian elections law to hold the next vote for a refurbished system free of the stain of entirely sectarian parties. Needless to say, this measure would represent an almost complete overhaul of Lebanon’s decrepit political structures, but as Firas Maksad writes, it is the only conceivable way of “resuscitating the Lebanese state and constraining Hezbollah.”

The good news is that the United States has the leverage to help the Lebanese accomplish this weighty task, should it choose to do so. It is already providing about $200 million annually in equipment and training for the Lebanese military and security forces, according to U.S. officials. And it’s the largest aid donor for Lebanon’s estimated 1.3 million Syrian war refugees. The entirety of this aid can be made contingent on Lebanese rulers finding a new structure for the country that represents the future instead of the past, and is more oriented toward liberal democracy than autocratic kleptocracy.

“The solution” to the problem of Hezbollah and its foul militia, as the sage Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt is fond of saying, “is not in Lebanon.” What this means is that the solution lies with the rulers of Iran, who have long staked the greatest claim to this Levantine nation. Meanwhile, the Lebanese government has been too fractured to assert its authority, the Israelis never possessed the capacity to dictate political outcomes across the Blue Line, and the French (let alone the Americans) have lacked the grit required for such a monumental undertaking.

It behooves those in the West who oppose Iranian hegemony in the Middle East to resist the temptation to write off Lebanon. The greatest gift that could be offered to Hezbollah and its Persian masters in this moment is a cringing “realism” that has no policy save a stick used to hold together a wretched status quo. A more enlightened strategy would see the United States, acting in concert with other like-minded nations, putting its comprehensive power and potential influence in the service of building a new political compact in Lebanon. Until this happens, fear will continue to stalk this troubled land to the unspoiled advantage of the forces of menace.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.