In about 1980 – the exact date is disputed – Hezbollah descended like an incubus on Lebanon’s body politic, fastening itself onto a sleeping victim. Subsequently, while it has been taking its pleasure from its unhappy prey, all attempts to shake it off have failed.
Hezbollah is a creature of the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution. It drew its inspiration from the extremist Shia-based philosophy expounded by Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei. Its aims were to resist Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Responsible for a string of notorious terrorist actions, such as the suicide car bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983 killing 63 people, and the blowing up of the United States Marine barracks six months later, Hezbollah was born in blood, fire and explosion.
It managed to infiltrate itself into Lebanon’s governance because of the very particular nature of the country’s constitution.
In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the one and only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict.
Modern Lebanon, founded in 1944, was established on the basis of an agreed “National Pact”. Political power is allocated on a religious or “confessional” system, with seats in the parliament allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians. Posts in the civil service and in public office are distributed in the same way. The top three positions in the state are allocated so that the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim.
Theoretically no system could seem more just, more designed to satisfy all parties in a multi-sectarian society and prevent one group from lording it over the others. But in practice, having a weak central government and sharing power has proved a constant irritant. Efforts to alter or abolish the confessional method of allocating power have been at the center of Lebanese politics for decades. Moreover a small country, divided in beliefs and weak by design, was easy prey for its totalitarian neighbour, Syria.
During Lebanon’s civil war, which began in 1975 sparked by clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias, the Syrian army invaded. The end of the war in 1990 did not end Syria’s military occupation. It was only the Cedar Revolution in 2005 that forced it to withdraw. The Taif Agreement at the conclusion of hostilities required the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon, but President Bashar al-Assad’s army, which oversaw the disarmament, left Hezbollah in place, partly because it was a useful ally in Syria’s war against Israel.
Hezbollah duly fulfilled this function for Assad, and for Iran, standing at his back. In the words of award-winning American journalist Michael J Totten, Hezbollah “started a 2006 war with Israel that cost more than 1,000 Lebanese citizens their lives, created more than a million refugees (almost 25 percent of the country), and shattered infrastructure from the north to the south. And, thanks to a slow-motion takeover that began with their invasion and brief occupation of West Beirut in 2008, Hezbollah and its local allies are virtually in charge of the government.”
Hezbollah had already achieved a certain acceptability within Lebanon. In the elections which followed Israel’s withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone it had established along the border, Hezbollah took all 23 South Lebanon seats, out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has consistently participated in Lebanon’s parliamentary process, has been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government, and has slowly achieved dominant power within Lebanon’s body politic – far too much, according to the “March 14 Alliance” .
Lebanon’s March 14 Alliance is a coalition of politicians opposed to the Syrian régime and to Hezbollah. March 14, 2005 was the launch date of the Cedar Revolution, a protest movement triggered by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri earlier that year. The demonstrations were directed against Assad, suspected from the first of being behind the murder, and his Iranian-supported allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, who were widely believed to have carried out the deed. The March 14 Alliance is led by Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s younger son.
The echoes of Rafik Hariri’s cold-blooded slaughter have continued to reverberate through Lebanese politics. Hariri had been demanding that Hezbollah disband its militia and direct its thousands of fighters to join Lebanon’s conventional armed forces, a demand that leading opinion-formers in Lebanon continue to make. With Hezbollah fighting to support Assad, while a large segment of Lebanese opinion is in favour of toppling him, the conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions.
Many Lebanese, even those of Shi’ite persuasion, resent the fact that Hezbollah is, at the behest of Iran, fighting Muslims in a neighbouring country – activities far from the purpose for which the organization was founded. They resent the mounting death toll of Lebanese fighters (Hezbollah has reportedly been paying the families of its fighters killed in Syria to keep quiet about their relatives’ deaths). Many, aware that Lebanese Sunnis and Lebanese Shi’ites are killing each other in Syria. fear that it may be only a matter of time before they stop bothering to cross the border and start killing each other at home.
Joumana Haddad is a Lebanese journalist and women’s rights activist, nominated as one of the world’s 100 most powerful Arab women for three years in a row by Arabian Business Magazine. Writing in Lebanon’s Al-Nahar journal on June 21, 2016, she declared: “What Lebanon is witnessing today is a hijacking of our national ideas and values. We have allowed Hezbollah to exploit our political system and our people…we cannot let factions within us take over the country. We cannot fight the wars of others. We have had enough of being Assad’s soldiers.”
The big hope for Lebanon is for Assad to be ousted from the Syrian presidency. If Syria becomes a parliamentary democracy, or if it disintegrates, it will cease to be a permanent threat to Lebanon, while Hezbollah’s puppet-master, Islamist Iran, will have lost a key element from the extremist Shia empire it is attempting to construct. The departure of Assad might provide Lebanon’s élites with the will to break through the inertia that has allowed national politics to stagnate over the past few years (no president, no parliamentary elections), absorb the “state within a state” that is Hezbollah, and muster the energy to put their political house in order.