Why the US can’t abstain from Lebanon’s pivotal elections

On May 15, Lebanese citizens will go to the polls to vote for a new parliament.

Lebanon has gone through one of the most difficult periods in its history since its last election in 2018. The country is currently experiencing one of the worst economic and financial crises of the last century, as well as having to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and the lingering aftermath of the blast at the port of Beirut. These conditions have revealed the disastrous impact that corruption has had since the end of fifteen years of civil war in Lebanon, leaving the ruling class desperately searching for a way to retain power without reforming the system that has enriched them for so long. However, there is a silver lining. With the collapse of the post-civil war status quo, independent candidates and members of civil society have an opportunity to fight their way through parliament and try to forge a new consensus. This presents the United States with an opportunity to help strengthen democracy in Lebanon while weakening Hezbollah’s influence in the country.

The problem for the United States, however, is that beyond its limited possibilities, security focused support approach to the Lebanese Armed Forces (FAL), it lack a tangible strategy towards Lebanon. While it is certain that the independents will not win the majority of the seats, it is hoped that the dissatisfaction of the electorate will allow enough independent candidates to enter parliament to weaken the grip of the established parties on power and forge a new political consensus.

The January 2022 announcement by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri that he would not contest the general elections has left a power vacuum that all parties are struggling to fill. The most prominent are Fouad Makhzoumbusinessman and MP for Beirut, and older brother of Saad Hariri, Bahaa Hariri. However, neither figure wields considerable influence within the Sunni community, leaving a window of opportunity for other groups, such as the Lebanese Forces (LF) and Hezbollah, to convince Sunnis to ally with them. the LF appears to be the strongest party in areas like Tripoli, where it has allied itself with Makhzoumi as well as former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, who enjoys substantial support in the city. The LF will also benefit from financial support from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia who see in Saad’s withdrawal from politics an opportunity to support a camp that will reverse some of the compromises created between Saad Hariri and Hezbollah.

Hariri’s retirement also weakens Hezbollah’s network within the Sunni community. In the past, Hezbollah was able to establish relationships with Sunni politicians who opposed the influence of the Hariri family on the community. Now that Hariri is irrelevant, those same politicians are much more likely to distance themselves from Hezbollah, reducing the party’s support base and leaving it more isolated.

Hezbollah’s other weak flank is its relationship with President Michel Aoun and his FPM party. After a falling out with his former March 14 coalition allies in 2005, Aoun changed his support for the March 8 coalition and signed the Mar Mikhaël Agreement with Hezbollah in 2006. This memorandum was mutually beneficial for both sides, with Hezbollah increasing its political legitimacy by allying with the largest Christian party and Aoun gaining a powerful ally that helped him win the presidency in 2016. Tensions began to emerge shortly after Aoun’s election. his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, was elected to replace Aoun at the head of the FPM. Bassil is known to have ambitions to replace his father-in-law as president; he repeatedly made remarks that he is ready to work with other political actors in Lebanon to achieve this goal and built relationships with the Hariris that were distinct from those with Hezbollah. The biggest sign, however, that relations deteriorated significantly was when Bassil made a speech in early 2022, declaring that the 2006 agreement between the FPM and Hezbollah was no longer to the advantage of the Christian party and that it had to “evolve”. He justified this position by noting that the financial crisis and the Hezbollah crisis statements regarding the objectivity of Judge Tarek Bitarappointed to investigate the explosion in the port of Beirut after the dismissal of his predecessor, had cost the FPM significant support among its base.

Despite these tensions, the FPM and Hezbollah have come to the conclusion that, for the time being, it would be in their interest to put aside the outstanding issues between them and create a common list in the next elections. This marriage of convenience has less to do with shared goals and more to do with the fact that neither party really has a choice. As with the Sunni bloc, Hezbollah has lost substantial support within the Christian community, although it should be noted that this is not a new fact. While the average Hezbollah and FPM supporter tended to keep their distance from each other, a significant portion of the population initially supported the deal as Alliance between minoritiesjustified by fears of an increase in violence by Sunni Islamist terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Things got complicated in October 2021, when a large number of Hezbollah supporters, who were calling for the removal of Judge Bitar, marched through the Tayyouneh district, stronghold of the LF, and began to cause material damage. Clashes then broke out, leading to the death of several Hezbollah members and sympathizers. Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, then accused the LF for instigating the shooting to incite wider sectarian conflict across the country.

In order to appear as a neutral actor, Bassil launches a statement in which he condemned the actions of the protesters for trying to impose their views on others while also condemning the people of Tayyouneh for shooting at the protesters. This middle path backfired as the clashes led to a rare moment of consensus within the Christian community. By refusing to condemn the rioters outright and blaming the LF, the FPM was perceived as giving tacit support to the rioters, which offset support to the LF, which is seen by a growing number of Christians as one of the few groups willing to protect the interests of the community.

Among the dominant parties, Hezbollah paradoxically remains the most powerful and the most vulnerable. While it has historically declared itself a resistance movement that acts to protect the weak, the trajectory of its role in Lebanese politics has placed it at the top of the pyramid. In 2008, in response to government attempts to dismantle its communications network, Hezbollah mobilized its military arm and, in a series of clashes against March 14-affiliated militiamen, managed to assert control over Beirut, raising concerns of a renewed spiral into broader sectarian conflict. In an effort to dissipate tensions and end the eighteen-month political stalemate that began in December 2006, members of the March 14 and March 8 coalitions met in Doha, Qatar, where they reached agreement on several issues, including the formation of a government of national unity and the decision to elect General Michel Sleiman to the presidency as a consensus candidate. While the 2008 Doha Agreement tempered the situation in the country, the events of the previous two years created a new political framework in which Hezbollah was the most powerful political actor. This enabled Hezbollah to act not only as a kingmaker, but also as a parallel state within the state. However, as the situation in the country continues to deteriorate, Hezbollah and its allies have taken further steps to tighten control and protect their strategic interests, even at the expense of the country’s ability to recover from its problems. After Hassan Diab’s resignation following the Beirut port explosion, the political arena saw another long period of deadlock as negotiations for a new government dragged on for thirteen months. One of the main reasons for the standoff was the insistence that the portfolios of Finance and Public Works Ministries are assigned to Shiites, which the FPM was not prepared to do. The control of the Ministry of Finance means the control of mechanisms such as the collection of taxes, customs duties and the monitoring of the annual budget. The control of the Ministry of Public Works will allow Hezbollah and Amal to supervise the control of the main infrastructures. It is hoped that if negotiations with the IMF for a bailout succeed, the control of the Ministry of Public Works will allow Shia parties to push government contracts to companies that are either friendly or controlled by them, thus filling their coffers with money. fresh money as well as circumventing international sanctions.

However, it is important to note that Hezbollah is aware of the volatility of the situation and has taken steps to isolate itself as much as possible. The party uses several tactics, including mass protests, leveraging its influence to manipulate politics, and even the use of targeted political violence. As previously reported, Nasrallah exerted significant pressure on the Lebanese government to dismiss Tariq Bitar and derail its investigation into the Beirut port bombing in an effort not only to cover up possible Hezbollah involvement , but also for fear that the investigation will reveal the level of Corruption in the countryside. The reason is simple: in addition to relying on sponsorship networks to surround itself, the establishment uses fear and intimidation to crush dissent. As it was the only militia to retain its weapons after the end of the civil war, Hezbollah uses its powerful arsenal to leverage situations to its advantage. If the investigation confirms that the ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion was part of a Hezbollah weapons cachethen the party would struggle to contain the fallout and increasingly isolate itself outside of its regional strongholds in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and southern Beirut.

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