Will Lebanon’s collapse herald Hezbollah dominance or demise?
Hezbollah and Iran appear more discomforted and defensive than at any time in recent memory, faced as they are with intensifying sanctions, financial hardship, mass protests, pandemic-related constraints and political setbacks. Like a hollow tree, they are decaying from the inside. Their aggressive responses to these onslaughts betray inner weakness and desperation.
One of the clearest signs that Hassan Nasrallah’s back is against the wall is the Hezbollah-backed government’s grudging acquiescence to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout. An IMF program will come with painful strings attached, but this may be Lebanon’s only way out of the financial abyss.
Yet vested interests will vigorously negotiate to protect their sectarian patronage networks and prevent scrutiny of their corrupt assets, rather than on behalf of the citizens. These skewed priorities were on display in recent parliamentary sessions, when MPs sidelined proposed legislation for bailing out citizens and holding corrupt officials to account.
Officials warn that 75 percent of citizens will require urgent aid, as soaring unemployment tramples even Lebanon’s middle classes below the poverty line. About 220,000 Lebanese lost jobs during 2019 and matters have deteriorated sharply since then. When demonstrators in Tripoli last week chanted, “We’re hungry,” security forces shouted back, “We’re hungrier than you.”
Under the crushing weight of its $90 billion debts, Lebanon wants $10 billion from the IMF and hopes to unlock another $11 billion previously promised by international donors. However, it will be impossible for even a fraction of these funds to be made available unless Western institutions and wealthy Gulf donors see evidence of Lebanon definitively emerging from Iran’s clutches.
Reduced to this humiliating state of bankruptcy, serfdom and divested sovereignty, Lebanon is an affront to the entire Arab world
Some observers fear that, in paying lip service to the IMF route, President Michel Aoun and Nasrallah are simply playing for time — having no intention of being bound by IMF constraints — in the expectation that Lebanon’s disintegration and the resulting demise of political pluralism leave them in absolute control.
With Lebanon’s wealthiest 1 percent having smuggled billions of dollars safely overseas, there have been persistent rumors of citizens’ modest bank deposits (which have already lost half their value and with access to funds restricted) being subject to a savage “haircut.”
Ahead of the IMF announcement, France reprised its traditional maternal role by doling out some tough advice: French officials bluntly stressed that, if Lebanon failed to implement reforms, seize the IMF lifeline and mend fences with Arab states, “nobody will help you.”
“Opposition” politicians like Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt have pragmatically pledged support for the government’s rescue plan “if it is positive.” However, Jumblatt condemned the Hezbollah-Aoun “policy of elimination” to eliminate rivals and convert Lebanon into an “Iranian province.”
Lebanon’s president-in-all-but-name Gebran Bassil has been appeasing grassroots supporters with his threats to put corrupt officials in jail. However, Jumblatt questioned why Bassil has taken no action against his own Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) for its eye-watering corruption and wastage (estimated at $60 billion) during its management of the energy portfolio.
A key factor in Lebanon’s tragic demise is the fateful decision by Arab and Western states — in the context of Hezbollah’s ascendance — to distance themselves from the country. This approach has destabilized a precarious equilibrium and surrendered the arena to Hezbollah. Some diplomats believed this bitter medicine would undermine Hezbollah. Intensified sanctions have indeed sharply reduced its revenues and cut affiliated financial institutions off from the outside world. However, with rival factions rendered almost penniless and the loss of influence of Sunnis, Druze, (non-FPM) Christians and other communities, the pro-Iran elements are left in the superior position.
After 100 days in power, Hezbollah puppet Prime Minister Hassan Diab hasn’t visited a single Arab state. He obviously wouldn’t be received by most Arab leaders, but this speaks volumes about Lebanon’s extreme isolation, which it has never before experienced, even in its darkest days.
Germany last week joined the growing list of nations to have proscribed Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization. German intelligence warned that more than 1,000 individuals on its soil are affiliated with Hezbollah’s “extremist wing,” along with a multitude of Khomeinist theological institutions, which elsewhere in the world act as fronts for Quds Force activity, money laundering, organized crime and terrorism.
In just a few years of absolute Hezbollah supremacy, Lebanon has plunged from “jewel of the Middle East” to an impoverished failing state. Yet matters can only get worse. Lebanon isn’t Somalia: Its citizens are accustomed to relative prosperity. This is an educated, cultured nation that relished its sparkling reputation as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” — a regional hub for commerce, banking, media, tourism and entertainment. Lebanon’s sprawling diaspora has made its mark around the world. Reduced to this humiliating state of bankruptcy, serfdom and divested sovereignty, Lebanon is an affront to the entire Arab world.
In 2008, a senior Iranian politician visited Lebanon and asked a minister: “How would it be possible to make Sayyid Nasrallah ruler of Lebanon?” Today we can see how this approach has played out. A Lebanese official informed me that the Tehran regime had instructed Nasrallah to “retain power at all costs and grab more of it,” even if this causes discomfort, because Tehran fears that setbacks in Lebanon could weaken its position in states like Iraq and Syria. “There is no light at the end of the tunnel,” he told me bleakly. “This is a deteriorating situation, a social explosion, and people are going hungry.”
With their wanton sabotage of everything that made Lebanon great, Nasrallah, Aoun and Bassil may be sowing the seeds of their own demise. There was astonishment when protesters in Shiite areas recently braved the rage of Hezbollah to turn out in large numbers. In the coming months, Hezbollah must contend with demonstrators who have experienced the agony of their children being pushed toward starvation and are willing to face down automatic weapons because they have nothing left to lose.
Coronavirus may have temporarily removed large numbers of protesters from the streets. Nevertheless, the furious “hunger revolts” erupting in my proud birthplace of Tripoli and elsewhere herald that the grapes of wrath are ripening throughout every corner of this land. Day by day, the Lebanese nation’s determination to eradicate the cancers of root and branch corruption and Iranian hegemony strengthens and proliferates.
* Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.