Lebanon will never get well as long as Hezbollah is strangling it
Since Beirut’s highly unexpected tragedy of Aug. 4 — when a monumental explosion facilitated by ammonium nitrate devastated its port and left 300,000 people homeless in one of the worst industrial accidents on record — everything has returned to normal, or at least what passes as routine in highly dysfunctional Lebanon.
On Monday, the country’s hapless and inept government fell, as outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab forthrightly allowed that the blast was ultimately caused by endemic corruption. Surprisingly, he went on to say, “corruption is rooted in every part of the state… I find that corruption is greater than the state,” and “the political class is using all their dirty tricks to prevent real change.” Hearteningly, international donors quickly pledged an impressive $300 million in humanitarian aid, though the costs of the disaster are estimated to amount to a gargantuan $15 billion. So isn’t this a rare and heartening example of government accountability, perhaps even the beginning of a brighter new chapter for this tragic country?
Well, hardly, as we have to look beneath the surface at the Kafka novel that is Lebanon as a failed state. First, the old discredited government is staying on in a caretaker capacity, meaning little change is likely to occur in the short term. Second, there is absolutely no indication that the new government will be populated by anyone other than the old discredited players in the outgoing government and the entrenched shadowy power brokers that sustain them. Rather, it is highly probable the old corrupt elite will continue to siphon off much of the country’s wealth for itself, providing next to nothing in return in terms of public services in a place where blackouts are endemic and the tap water is not safe to drink.
In fact, the old guard is already rallying round its exorbitant privileges. When asked if international calls for an investigation as to the precise causes of the blast was a good idea, Lebanese President Michel Aoun predictably (and illogically) said such an impartial effort would “dilute the truth.” The only “truth” such a statement reveals is that the country’s jaded elite is not very keen on being held accountable for its actions. Everyone alive knows this. In fact, it is telling that the international community’s $300 million in aid will be distributed through nongovernmental organizations, rather than swallowed up by the black hole that is the Lebanese government.
But beyond even all these daunting obstacles to making Lebanon well, one future mountainous problem stands out: The unbridled and pernicious influence of Hezbollah on the Lebanese state. For whatever comes next, unless Hezbollah is defanged, the country simply cannot be put back together, as the militia retains a pivotal voice.
Emerging from the brutal Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990, Hezbollah defied the 1989 Taif Agreement that finally put an end to the bloody conflict. Unlike the rest of the mosaic of militias that thrived during the carnage, Hezbollah alone ignored the accord’s terms, refusing to disband. The original sin of all that has followed comes from this, as retaining the hard men with guns has given Hezbollah disproportionate power in Lebanon, making it almost a state within a state.
Forging a strange alliance of expediency with the Maronite Christian faction of Aoun, their joint concord is the dominant force in the outgoing, corrupt, and discredited government. The alliance together controls 76 of 128 seats in parliament and runs 18 of the country’s 30 ministries. Indeed, the port of Lebanon itself, the epicenter of the blast, is an area under the militia’s direct control and a major source of its patronage. Suddenly, Aoun’s aversion to an international inquiry into the causes of the blast begins to make sense.
At base, the structural problem is that Hezbollah sees its interests in terms of what is best for itself and its financier, Iran, rather than what is best for the Lebanese people.
Retaining the hard men with guns has given Hezbollah disproportionate power in Lebanon.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
The best example of this is Hezbollah’s 2013 intervention in the Syrian Civil War. While such a decisive initiative furthered the goals of both the bloody Assad regime (to which Hezbollah has traditionally been close) and Iran, the intervention amounted to a predictable disaster for the Lebanese state itself. The heightened conflict led to 1.5 million refugees spilling over Lebanon’s border — an economic burden the country could ill afford. Further, sanctions put into place by several of the Gulf states hit Lebanon’s rocky economy hard, drying up the river of remittances that traditionally kept the country going.
The inconvenient truth is that Hezbollah has both the muscle and the political power to veto any real efforts at fundamental reform of the failed Lebanese state. No such program stands the least chance of success until Hezbollah’s grasp around Lebanon’s neck has been broken. So while, on its surface, the past week’s fall of the Lebanese government seems heartening, this closer political risk look at how the country actually works makes it crystal clear that, at least so far, all this political movement actually amounts to much ado about nothing.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.