Hezbollah dragging Lebanon closer to new civil war

Hezbollah dragging Lebanon closer to new civil war

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Demonstrators gather during a protest against government performance and worsening economic conditions, in Beirut, Lebanon, June 6, 2020. (Reuters)

Activists in Lebanon called on citizens to take to the streets at the weekend and finish the mission they started on Oct. 17 last year. The manifesto of the “October Meeting” — a more or less unitary body representing the protesters — highlighted three “nos.” No to a government that behaves like a farm, no to a state that acts like the politicians’ private company, and no to a state that is used as plunder by the politicians. The protesters were faced by Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Movement. They felt threatened as the demands of the protesters could endanger their grip on the state. The confrontation resulted in armed clashes. The clashes died down, but if this trend is not contained it might threaten another civil war.

The protesters want a total break from the previous system. They have lost trust in the presidency, government and parliament. They have instead asked for a transitional government that reflects the spirit of Oct. 17. The activists’ statement even detailed what they expect from the transitional government. The first demand is for the transitional government to design and implement an economic rescue plan. Secondly, they want it to prepare for free elections under the supervision of an independent committee, according to a new law. The third mandate of the interim government would be to put in place laws that guarantee the independence of the judiciary. The fourth demand is for it to restore stolen funds and put corrupt politicians on trial. The last demand is for the government to adopt a neutral foreign policy that will shield Lebanon from Middle Eastern competition and prevent the country from getting embroiled in regional conflicts.

Hezbollah saw in these demands a veiled threat to remove its arms and hence to deprive it of its competitive edge over other factions. Its members pledged that no one would be able to take away the group’s arms. They went on to the streets with their light weaponry to show their might and determination in facing the peaceful protesters. However, this prompted a reaction from other antagonistic factions and groups carrying the flag of the Lebanese forces stood in Ain Al-Remmaneh, a Christian area adjacent to Hezbollah stronghold Chiyah, and denounced Hasan Nasrallah.

Hezbollah’s use of a sectarian and provocative slogan incited a partisan response on the other side. If the country takes this road, it can have another civil war. Lebanon is in a region that is sinking into a series of proxy wars. The factions antagonistic to Hezbollah could very easily find outside backers who would be ready to arm and fund them. Though a large number of activists are mature and know that a war will not solve Lebanon’s problems — but on the contrary will lead to more destruction — other factions feel that the country is already destroyed and only through arms can they stand up to Hezbollah.

The country is in a very delicate situation. Even President Michel Aoun, who has largely been in a state of denial, asked for a return to peace and for parties to refrain from provoking one another. In this case, as I have mentioned in previous articles, the army is the only unifying institution that can bring people together. The army still has the trust of the people. It has the moral authority and can impose order once it is in charge. However, in Lebanon, the military is under civilian control, hence the control of the corrupt political elite that has lost the trust of the people.

It is unlikely that the president will take the patriotic decision of stepping down and letting the army take control. He will not do anything that will jeopardize the chances of Gebran Bassil, his son-in-law and the apple of his eye, clinching the presidency after him. Though Bassil was recently voted on social media as the most hated personality in Lebanon, Aoun still thinks he can impose him on the Lebanese people.

However, there is hope in Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Unlike Aoun, he does not have a following and knows very well that his position is only meant to fill in a blank, rather than to conduct an active role. He might take a patriotic position and bow to the protesters’ pressure. If that is the case, he should declare a state of emergency in which the army takes control, and then resign. The swift and tight control by the army of any armed factions on the streets would ensure that the country does not slip into the chaos of a civil war.

Even President Michel Aoun, who has largely been in a state of denial, asked for a return to peace.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Rightly, the protesters asked for the removal of non-legitimate weapons, mainly meaning those of Hezbollah. Former Justice Minister Ashraf Riffi appeared on several news outlets asking for the enforcement of UN Security Council resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias in Lebanon. However, this radical demand might push Hezbollah to feel this is a do-or-die moment and so start a confrontation in a bid to protect its arms. If this happens, it would be the start of another civil war. A better alternative would be to call for the demilitarization of Beirut, hence confining Hezbollah’s arms to the south of the country. Then they could not be used against their fellow citizens.

Better than asking for the full enforcement of resolution 1559 would be for the protesters to ask Hezbollah to stick to its original mandate, which is that of a defensive force against Israel. In the current situation, where Lebanon is close to slipping into a new civil war, two people have the ability to prevent it from going down this path: The prime minister and the commander of the army.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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