Lebanon’s protesters should not lose hope
Explaining the details of the budget vote presented to the Lebanese Parliament by the newly appointed government this week is a difficult task, but it is a good symbol of both the current situation and what is to come. The most interesting point was the action of the Future Movement led by previous Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who had prepared the budget himself. He called on his MPs to join the session, enabling a quorum to be obtained, but then had them vote against the budget. He knew very well that his MPs’ votes would not be enough to derail the budget and thus the spending program — which is oblivious to the current financial crisis — was approved. His action was basically aimed at allowing the new Hezbollah-controlled government to pass the budget, while pretending to oppose it. This was, therefore, not welcomed by militants nor the protesters, and rightly so.
If you were lucky enough to have understood this budget vote tragicomedy, then it will be clear that new Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government is nothing more than a continuation of Hariri’s. The only difference is that its appearance now reflects its content — there are no more disguises. Hezbollah was in control during Hariri’s time in office and still is now: No more, no less. It also seems clear that Hezbollah can still count on Hariri’s continued support for the new government. He no longer represents a credible opposition. The opposition to Hezbollah and the system is in the streets. The slogan, “All means all” will not fade away anytime soon.
There has thus been much speculation on what stance US President Donald Trump’s administration will take toward the new government. One thing that is clear is that the US will keep opposing Hezbollah and will treat it as the Iranian proxy it is. It will hence look closely at the actions taken by Diab and increase its pressure, especially if the government takes unilateral decisions or uses excess violence against the protesters. But the US’ margin for maneuver is tight as it is an election year and other files might prove to be more pressing. Meanwhile, it seems that French President Emmanuel Macron is leading the European position and will support the new Hezbollah government, while trying to find solutions for Lebanon’s economic crisis. The main objective of his policy is continued appeasement with Iran and it is deliberately in contrast with the US position. It is even possible that Macron will try and convince the US to soften its stance against the newly formed government.
This is also nothing new. In late 2018, Macron was preparing for a visit to Tehran, and his objective then was to initiate negotiations after the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. It is seemingly for this reason that Macron looked then and still looks today to appease Hezbollah in order to create a special relationship for France and Europe with Iran. He was aware of Hezbollah’s control then and reportedly encouraged Hariri to continue working and protecting Hezbollah’s interests internationally under the false claim that they were indissociable from Lebanon’s.
The French and European position is clear and, beyond regional stability, it has a lot to do with business interests. French and German companies benefited from contracts with Iran reaching the vicinity of €30 billion ($33 billion) following the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015. Lebanon is a small price to pay in order to please the Iranians. Once again, this partly explains why France and Germany have given the cold shoulder to protesters in Lebanon, while giving full support to the regime represented by Hezbollah, with the coverage of President Michel Aoun and Hariri.
It is becoming a much tougher situation for Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah as he is becoming the focus of the protests.
Khaled Abou Zahr
What does this mean for Lebanon, as the risk of sovereign default looms and the country might soon be in desperate need of foreign assistance? If the US does not lose its focus on pressuring Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, then there is little France can do. It will be difficult for Hezbollah to navigate US objections and it will be forced to accept heavy concessions in favor of the protesters if Lebanon urgently needs an international bailout. The other solution for Hezbollah would be total confrontation, which is unlikely given the regional situation. However, if the US gets sidetracked from the Lebanese file for any reason, then Hezbollah will be able to escape international pressure, mainly thanks to France and other European nations, but also thanks to any Iranian terror action in other, more sensitive, regions. It is, nevertheless, becoming a much tougher situation for Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah as he is becoming the focus of the protests.
One final, game-changing issue is what the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) capacities will be in the aftermath of Qassem Soleimani’s demise and how that will impact Hezbollah. The IRGC is Nasrallah’s lifeline, true master and financial sponsor. Any change, such as a succession war among the upper echelons, could lead to its weakening and have a direct impact on Hezbollah. The protesters and the US will know how to exploit this, and it could drastically change the political landscape in Lebanon. The protesters should, therefore, not lose hope, as many factors could play in their favor.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.