Precarious times for Lebanon

Beirut - Lebanon

The situation in Lebanon is worrisome. Since May, political impasse persists as the prime minister-designate fails to form a cabinet. The economy worsens; national debt soars: over 150 % of GDP; badly needed international aid is postponed due to instability.

A more important threat to this weak government comes from the southern neighbor. Israel -and its allies- are not willing to allow Hezbollah to play a major role in the Beirut’s next government. If a new regional war is coming, it would be sparked by an Israeli strike on Hezbollah’s home base, Lebanon.

Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing, fuels corruption, complicates the formation of the cabinet, dilutes the loyalty of citizens to the state and strengthens ties to outside powers.

Making power sharing even more dysfunctional is an outmoded demographic assessment of the various religious communities. In the parliament, the Christians are overrepresented. The Sunnites get a larger share of representatives than the Shiites. The latter community is gravely underrepresented. Inequality may have given the pretext for the Shiite community to create an informal state-within-a-state: Hezbollah -The Party of God.

For many in the region, Hezbollah is a confessional political party and a military resistance force – a self-assigned “national guard.” Justified or not, this form of self-preservation, in a dangerous and unstable region, explains Hezbollah’s participation in the civil war of Syria and in its previous wars with Israel on Lebanese territory. Hezbollah supporters argue that the Shiite community in Syria and Lebanon would have been seriously threatened under a post-Assad rule, had the rebels toppled the regime. Many believe that Hezbollah fought in Syria, primarily, for the protection of its own people in Lebanon.

Each ethnic or religious community has its own self serving the narrative. Lebanon’s Christians defend their inflated shares of formal power. The Lebanese Christian community- roughly estimated to be a third of the total population- is entitled to the presidency of the state, the leadership of the armed forces, and to half the number of legislators and cabinet ministers.

The Christian leaders of Lebanon hold on to the status quo of power sharing, which they acknowledge is problematic. But they believe that this familiar system of “confessional” democracy is “safer” in a region which is tough on minorities.

Had Lebanon’s problems been purely domestic, reforming the sectarian power-sharing would have been easier. But Lebanon is a small country surrounded by insecure states, constantly in search of legitimacy. Neighboring states impact Lebanon with fundamentalist ideologies, failing regimes, international terrorism, war refugees, invasions, rebels, and economic threats.

Precarious Lebanon is blamed for its involvement in the Syrian civil war through the active participation of its Iran-backed Hezbollah. Linked with Iran and Syria, and having a solid record of fighting against Israel in Lebanon, Hezbollah is viewed, by many, as the only potent Arab army facing the Zionist state.

Backed by the current US administration, Israel is serious about neutralizing Hezbollah’s elaborate offensive arsenal, which includes 100 000 missiles in Lebanon. History is easily overlooked. In the background of Beirut’s domestic instability is Israel’s past occupation of south Lebanon – which lasted for 22 years, ending with Hezbollah’s war of liberation in 2000; and in the foreground is a possible Israeli assault to “deal” with Hezbollah.

If Israel is planning a new war, it would be in Lebanon, possibly far-reaching and finished before Trump leaves office. President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seem to be coordinating a plan to humiliate Iran through US sanctions, and to defeat Hezbollah through a surprise attack from Tel-Aviv. There are even signs of Arab complicity in this plot. Since he ascended to power three years ago “Thwarting Iran’s influence in the region” is what Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been advocating passionately.

We return to the Lebanese prime minister searching tirelessly for political consensus. Hariri is urging President Michel Aoun to accept a cabinet in which Hezbollah and its Christian allies would have a majority of positions. Despite Saudi warnings, Hariri, by late October, managed to get a green light from all local leaders for a well-balanced proposal. This proposal gives Hezbollah’s wider bloc a slight majority of ministers- acknowledging its impressive (70%) results in the past parliamentary elections. Such a scenario would serve Hezbollah’s status locally and consolidate its position.

Hariri is risking his ties with the Saudis and Washington by cooperating fully with Hezbollah in a unity government. He has no choice. The Saudi Crown Prince, Netanyahu and Trump are perturbed by Lebanon’s tolerance of Hezbollah, which they have labeled as a terrorist organization. These three leaders, who have much in common, are willing to see fragile Lebanon return to civil war rather than tolerate a community-based, Iran-supported and hard to control resistance.

Unexpectedly, and unwisely, at the eleventh hour, Hezbollah demanded an additional portfolio in Hariri’s cabinet. With this additional request, the Saudis are back in the “trenches” giving orders to Hariri to refuse any more concessions. The deadlock continues.

It is hard to tell if Hariri can form a cabinet in time to avoid an economic collapse or a new round of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Last week Israel created a pretext for an intervention to destroy Hezbollah’s border tunnels, which according to some Israeli reports, are old and no longer that strategic.

An optimist would say that resilient Lebanon will pull out of this crisis soon. But a realist might argue that Lebanon is poorly led, governed timidly, stuck in outmoded power sharing, and no longer able to handle the pressures of developing regional threats, particularly from Israel. Time will tell.