Lebanese look to the army to keep country united

Lebanese look to the army to keep country united

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Lebanese soldiers patrol the market in the Palestinian refugee camp at Sabra, south Beirut, as measures are taken to shut down all shops. (AFP)

Since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic first reached Lebanon, it has revealed how the country operates and where its real center of power lies. As the crisis started, it showed that the airport authority was unwilling to act when it came to travelers from Iran. This is not new information, just a reminder of the humiliation that the real owner of Beirut’s international airport is not the state of Lebanon but the Iranian mullahs through their Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah. The Lebanese state is just a tenant.

Then, as the number of cases increased, people started calling for a state of emergency and to give the army more authority to protect the nation. However, such a decision still has not been taken simply because Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is against it. This was followed by complaints of negligence against the Ministry of Health, which is directly controlled by Hezbollah.

The refusal of Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun to declare a state of emergency proves that Hezbollah is not comfortable with the army taking greater and even sovereign responsibilities. It is even less comfortable with the army taking control of the streets and overseeing people’s movements. The armed militia believes that this is its monopoly.

This situation brings to light the complicated relationship between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army. There is clearly an understanding within the leadership of the army to abide by Hezbollah’s strategic vision and interests. This is a fact. But opinions differ on whether it is completely under the influence and within the decision-making process of Hezbollah, or if it benefits from some independence. It is undoubtable that Hezbollah has enough of its own people within the army to know and control many aspects. Yet it is also clear that there is an intrinsic will within its ranks to keep it as independent as possible.

It may be that a remnant of the nation’s conscience and soul survives in this sovereign institution, or this might just be an illusion or a ruse. Time will tell. This ambiguity has also created a debate in the US on whether military aid should be granted to the Lebanese Army. Since 2006, it has been given more than $1.6 billion by the US. This aid does not seem to have been granted with the objective of confronting Hezbollah or for political leverage, but in order to support Lebanon as a nation and to avoid seeing it become a failed state, where other terrorist groups might develop.

The army has never faced Hezbollah directly to preserve its unity, instead always opting for a neutral position or a withdrawal when their interests collide on the ground. Even during the most recent protests, it did not venture into areas that were under the direct control of Hezbollah. It focused on maintaining order in other areas of the country and left Hezbollah to deal with its areas.

The same rules applied when Hezbollah invaded Beirut in May 2008 and the army did not act to confront the militia’s forces. The speed of deployment and full takeover planning of Hezbollah came to light during these events — from the infamous scooter riders that mimicked the Iranian paramilitary Basij force’s bike riders, which repress protests in Iran, to the more military-type forces that deployed and gained control of key areas. These actions were not planned overnight: They were and are still plans that are prepared and well-rehearsed, clarifying the party’s intentions and vision for the country.

Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri are still paying the political price of their fatal mistake of threatening Hezbollah’s nerve center by daring (and subsequently failing) to order the shutdown of the group’s telecommunications network and the removal of Beirut’s airport security chief at the time.

For Hezbollah, the streets are key. The militia will not let any other formation, protesters or the army gain this tactical advantage, and this is part of why it opposes declaring a state of emergency. 

Today, the army is still seen by a large majority as the last line of defense against COVID-19 and the only institution that can force a complete overhaul of the political system. Lebanon, regardless of any potential International Monetary Fund deal, will face the larger risks of instability, social unrest and violent protests, most of which will be increasingly aimed against Hezbollah — the true regime.

It may be that a remnant of the nation’s conscience and soul survives in this sovereign institution, or this might just be an illusion or a ruse.

Khaled Abou Zahr

The Lebanese Army will be under extreme pressure to do Hezbollah’s dirty work, but it cannot move from a neutral position to helping Hezbollah oppress the people. Quite the opposite; it should be on the side of the people. It is time for this institution to answer the Lebanese people’s calls. The army must also know that the Lebanese reject how Hezbollah continuously tries to undermine their achievements as it pushes the narrative of being the only and true protector of Lebanon. Adding insult to injury, this Iranian-financed proxy accuses any voice that raises against its own of treason.

The Lebanese will no longer live under the constant threat that the country and its army might break down along sectarian lines. Hezbollah is an armed militia whose existence clearly violates UN Security Council resolutions and has usurped Lebanese state legitimacy and sovereignty. The people want a true nation with strong institutions and will stand as one with their army to achieve this. The army is the only power capable of keeping the country united, and it is stronger than many assert. It might just be a dream, but I choose to believe it and I am sure many in the army do too.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view