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Disastrously, Lebanon does not follow its usual script

By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
 web posted September 20, 2021

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” is a French epigram immortalized by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”). Literally: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The maxim illustrates more than anything else the Lebanese quagmire: caught in an endless political deadlock, Lebanon has become a failed state, unable to provide governance because of its sectarian-based political system, a state that has declared bankruptcy with an uncertain future.

Lebanon of today is an artificial creation of the French Mandate, which, at the request of the then-Maronite Patriarch, added in 1920 geographical areas populated with Sunni and Shiite Muslims to a homogenous Christian Maronite territory. The act laid the foundations of the failed state of today; the short-sighted Maronites became the victims of their creation.Adding insult to injury, the heads of the Christian and Sunni communities decided in 1943 on a division of national leadership positions that ignored the rights of the Shiite community and left the richest ministries and national institutions in the hands of the Maronites and the Sunnites who consolidated Christian supremacy over other sectarian and religious communities.

The resultant imbalance could not last long. Lebanon, the only Arab state governed by non-Muslims, could not resist the assault of Arab nationalism and later the growing Shiite and Sunni resentment. Three civil wars (1958, 1975, and 1983) changed the governing formula by reducing the Christian representation in parliament as agreed in the 1990 Taif Agreement, which was meant to serve as “the basis for the ending of the civil war and the return to political normalcy in Lebanon.” However, this was only a short lull.

The tectonic change in Lebanon occurred slowly but confidently among the Shiites, the most disadvantaged and persecuted community in Lebanon, who were, even before independence, treated as second-class citizens by the Lebanese elites. Inside Lebanon, the Shiites suffered from Palestinian mistreatment in the 1970s and 80s until released by Israel’s military incursion into Lebanon in 1982. They finally rose to become the most important political faction in Lebanon, with the active contribution of their Iranian sponsor. The process of the Shiite awakening was aroused by the cleric Imam Musa Sadr in the early 1970s, followed by the establishment of the Amal movement and the formation of Hizbullah by Iran in 1982. As a result, the basic formula used to govern the Lebanese state has undergone an unprecedented change and provoked the collapse of the Christian and Sunnite supremacy enjoyed by those communities until the start of the 21st century. The assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 was the catalyst. As a result of massive protests and accusations that Damascus was behind the assassination, the Syrian military presence in Lebanon came to an end, and former Lebanese politicians who had been exiled returned to the country. The architect of the change was Michel Aoun, exiled to France for 15 years (after fleeing invading Syrian forces and finding shelter in his pajamas at the French embassy in Beirut). In 2005, he signed a strategic agreement with Hizbullah, which replaced the historical alliance signed in 1943 between the Maronites and the Sunnites with a new one that served as the basis of the “new Lebanon.”

President Aoun Bows to Hizbullah

Michel Aoun followed the examples of modern Lebanese leaders who preceded him and struck deals with foreign powers to assure their tenure. (Examples include Camille Chamoun, who allied with the United States; Fuad Chenab with Egypt’s Nasser; Suleiman Frangieh with Syria’s Hafez Assad; and Bashir Gemayel with Israel.) In Aoun’s case, he decided that aligning with Iran’s Shiite Hizbullah movement would assure the continuation of the Christian presence, dominance, and rule in Lebanon. By doing so, Aoun changed the political course of Lebanon and brought it closer to Hizbullah’s vision of turning Lebanon into an Islamic republic, a province of the larger Shiite empire to be ruled by the Supreme Leader in Iran.

After its “successful” military confrontation with Israel in 2006, Hizbullah was hailed as a Lebanese and Arab hero throughout the Arab world. However, Hizbullah became the target of criticism and mockery when it appeared it had transformed into a mercenary organization directed by Tehran to fight in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and to organize subversive activities in the Arab Gulf states.

This intimate Hizbullah-Iran political relationship has brought havoc on Lebanon. By 2013, large numbers of Arab depositors withdrew their investments in the different Lebanese banks, signaling the beginning of Lebanon’s “descent into Hell.” Hailed as a hero in 2006, Hizbullah, with its leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranians sponsors, became the targets of vitriolic attacks as responsible for Lebanon’s calamity. Nasrallah’s effigies have been hung on imitation gallows in the streets of Beirut, and in the eyes of many Lebanese, Hizbullah has lost credentials with some Lebanese militias which have even dared to confront Hizbullah in scattered skirmishes all over Lebanon.

Lebanon has become a failed state, heading towards a fourth civil war, crumbling under an unprecedented economic and political crisis, waiting for an unrevealed savior.

Despite its recent setbacks, Hizbullah, however, remains the only power “in town,” having built a state-within-a-state and having become an unavoidable component in Lebanon’s economy, military, and politics. The more the crisis continues and expands, the more Hizbullah dares to initiate state-like decisions, such as its recent announcement of intent to solve Lebanon’s grave energy crisis by importing oil and distilled products to Lebanon from Iran. As is its nature, Hizbullah will seek to fill the void and do the job. In the case of energy imports, Hizbullah’s seemingly altruistic actions are nuanced: most of the oil products will be channeled to Hizbullah’s facilities (mainly hospitals and social institutions), and the rest will be sold to Hizbullah’s political allies or smuggled to Syria.

The silent and acquiescent President Aoun is eager to secure Hizbullah’s political support in the next 2022 presidential elections to nominate his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, the former foreign minister and head of the “Free Patriotic Movement,” as his successor.

Recent reports from Lebanon tell that under the instructions of Tehran, Hizbullah convinced its strategic partner, Michel Aoun, to compromise and accept the formation of a new government only 13 months after the resignation of Hassan Diab, following the mega-explosion in the port of Beirut. By accepting Hizbullah’s mediation and solution, Aoun has given Tehran not only the keys to Lebanon’s political puzzle but also turned Tehran into the kingmaker in Lebanon’s politics. All observers and commentators of the Lebanese scene concur that Hizbullah is the real winner following the announcement of the formation of the Lebanese government headed by Najib Miqati, especially since the formation of the new government represents the so-called “typical Lebanese compromise.” The newly-named ministers and leaders represent the same sectarian equation in the partition of portfolios and are totally dependent on the traditional political parties.

At this time, it seems that there is no remedy to Lebanon’s catastrophic economic state of affairs, a situation that would favor further moves by Hizbullah to replace the functions of a failing state. Hizbullah will be emboldened to assume the failed Lebanese institutions responsible for other fields of neglect: water, energy, medicines, and social services. If Hizbullah pushes to subsume the duties of Lebanon’s police, intelligence, or army, then Lebanon’s entire state structure will be in the hands of arsonists.

Going back to the opening sentence of this article by Alphonse Karr, one can say for sure that in Lebanon “plus ca change plus ce n’est plus la même chose”: the more it changes the more it is not the same thing. ESR

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

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