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Pity the Revolution: The Future of Lebanon Hangs in the Balance

As Lebanon veers toward collapse, its people have risen up against a corrupt system.
November 25, 2019
Pity the Revolution: The Future of Lebanon Hangs in the Balance
Lebanese demonstrators burn tires and wave their national flag during a protest against dire economic conditions, on October 18, 2019 on a highway between the capital Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli. - The Lebanese government faced calls to resign after thousands of furious demonstrators took to the streets across the country to protest dire economic conditions. Public anger has simmered since parliament passed an austerity budget in July to help trim a ballooning deficit and flared on Thursday over plans to tax calls on messaging applications, forcing the government to axe the unpopular measure (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)

“All of them means all of them” — the Lebanese chanted in the streets at the outset of nationwide protests that broke out last month. The slogan expresses the long-suppressed indignation of the Lebanese people toward a multi-confessional political class that is distinguished mainly by its looting and beggaring of the state and society.

The righteousness, and apparent hopelessness, of Lebanon’s latest emancipation movement, has made it at once thrilling and terrible to behold. At least one million people have joined the protests in that small Levantine state, more than a quarter of the country’s entire population, hoisting the national cedar tree flag as their rallying symbol. Their demand for a new regime—free of the taint of self-dealing and unrestricted by the narrow confines of sectarianism—is fraught with obstacles.

To understand the crisis, one must first come to grips with Lebanon’s economic woes. It is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, owing to extensive borrowing and expensive patronage networks run by entrenched political parties. In recent years, the coalition government has struggled to fulfill its most elementary duties such as providing reliable electricity or drinkable water. Last month, against the backdrop of slow Internet connections due to telecom firms riddled with fraud, the government proposed to tax services via WhatsApp that sparked the protests.

And yet, the chronic economic mismanagement is only one feature of the larger corruption of Lebanese state institutions. I refer to the government’s acquiescence to another state in its midst, in the guise of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia-cum-political party. If Prussia was less a state with an army than an army with a state, Lebanon today is a theocratic gang with a host of pliable ministers. That corruption has garnered much less attention than the risk of a sovereign default and, given the probable costs of facing it, understandably so.

The rotten political system responsible for much of the country’s present misery was forged by the complex power-sharing arrangement that emerged from the country’s fratricidal civil war (1975-1990). The governing class has since grown adept at playing off tribe against tribe, Sunni against Shia against Christian against Druze, in this fractured land. This divide-and-rule strategy has worked splendidly for the venal elite and miserably for the nation. Since the demonstrations forced the resignation of the prime minister, Saad Hariri, this multi-confessional spoils system is being held firmly in place by Hezbollah and its junior partner Amal, as well as the Christian Maronite President Aoun.

Although the protests have not been suppressed with the same vehemence experienced by their Iraqi counterparts, neither have they gone unmolested. From the outset, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah denounced the protests, without a blush, as a foreign plot. (This took some gall, coming as it did from the Iranian revolution’s man in Beirut.) Before long, thugs clad in black emerged from the dahiyeh [the notorious Shia suburb south of Beirut where Hezbollah has its command-and-control] and stormed Martyrs’ Square, the locus of the demonstrations in the capital. “Shia, Shia,” they chanted as they meted out cruelty to protesters and burned tents in service to Sayyed Nasrallah. The army remained encamped at a safe remove while the riot police on hand watched with indifference.

Officially, there is one army in this land: the Lebanese Armed Forces. Unofficially, there is another: Hezbollah. This distressing episode has revealed once again which of the two is, or at least feels itself to be, the inferior force—and, alas, it’s not the party carrying aloft the green and yellow flag with its upraised AK-47 logo.

Lebanon is still reeling from its long and bloody civil war, and the sectarian residue of that conflagration remains a potent social force. It is this PTSD generation that wields its considerable clout in service of the corrupt bargain underlying the regime, and that has been able (so far) to frustrate any attempts at reform. Although few outside of Hezbollah’s orbit have any sympathy for Nasrallah’s guns that (in contravention of the 1989 Taif Agreement) warp the country’s delicate balance of power, a vast majority of Lebanese are loath to confiscate them lest they invite the wrath of the Party of God.

The national government makes no claim and exercises no writ in Hezbollahland in the south. This Shiite-dominated territory extending to the Israeli border persists in a state of what foreign correspondent Robert Kaplan has dubbed a shatter zone in which government authority is absent and primed for conflict whenever it suits Hezbollah’s needs.

Hezbollah and its allies, holding the majority in Parliament, are resolutely opposed to systemic reform that will undo its control over the government’s security and foreign policies. If a new government sought to exercise a monopoly on the means of violence (to say nothing of the use of externally-directed force) and thereby undo this wretched state within a state, Hezbollah’s zaim [power broker] wouldn’t hesitate to plunge Lebanon back into sectarian strife and indiscriminate slaughter. However, Sayyed Nasrallah would surely prefer to induce the cowered political class to smother any people’s demand to break free of Hezbollah’s stagnant and hysterical guardianship.

This is why President Aoun, while pledging fiscal reform to quell the protests, has also delivered a demarche to the fractured cabinet to ward off any serious effort at political reform. (Perhaps this is the reason that the U.S. government, which has long supported Lebanon and its military—sending more than $3 billion in aid since 2002, has frozen aid.) With near-incredible effrontery, Aoun has told the dissatisfied throngs to quit the country if they object to routine graft and state-orchestrated theft. Pledging to ensconce the fossilized ruling order with a patina of technocratic administration, Aoun is betting that the older generations will be only too happy to oblige and retain their party bosses who prefer the coin to martyrdom.

“Pity the nation divided into fragments,” Kahlil Gibran wrote, “each fragment deeming itself a nation.” The future of Lebanon hinges on whether these barbed fragments can at last be overcome in the interest of a forging a nation greater than the sum of its parts. The overriding obstacle to realizing this vision is that Lebanon remains cursed by geography, and its core fragments are liberally supplied by powerful and ruthless foreign patrons. (A Lebanese joke holds that the Sunnis have Saudi Arabia, the Shia have Iran, the Christians have France, but the secularists have no one but god.) None of these forces today is more deleterious of Lebanese nationhood than Persian power, which shows unmistakable signs of exhaustion.

It is clear that throngs of young Lebanese understand this reality perfectly well, for which they deserve their due. Lest there be any confusion about who they have in their sights, the original chant “All of them means all of them” was soon joined with “and Nasrallah is one of them.” Despite the inspired demonstrations “to bring down the regime,” however, the odds seem solidly set against that outcome. The principal task for the revolution at this stage is to maintain and elevate the Shiite faction within its ranks without regard to the immense pressure being applied by Hezbollah and its partners. A mass Shiite defection from the uprising would almost certainly spell its doom.

There should be no amnesia about what we already know: A peaceful disarmament of Lebanon’s “second army” has not been possible since its rise to power under the protracted Israeli occupation during the civil war. This condition is what makes one despair for those raising aloft the Lebanese cedar banner in a land whose cruel history seems so unfairly weighted against them. There is some ground for hope, however, that Hezbollah’s Persian benefactor may be entering its imperial denouement. Such a salutary historical event is perhaps the only chance to spare Lebanon the fate of its strongest fragment delivering it as a client state of the Islamic republic. Meanwhile, the state of suspended animation in this brave little country will instill as much fear as hope in its distant well-wishers.

Editor’s Note: Reference to Sheikh Nasrallah has been corrected to Sayyed Nasrallah. 

Brian Stewart

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