From time to time, Lebanese authorities try to enforce traffic laws by fining drivers not wearing their seat belts. Those who get busted often complain: “Hezbollah is free to stock missiles, but the state comes after me for a traffic violation.”
Articles written in the wake of the August 4 Beirut explosion have focused on corrupt politicians and have avoided the big elephant in the room: Hezbollah and its role as ruler of Lebanon. But while a corrupt oligarchy has been the mainstay of Lebanon’s politics since inception in 1920, Hezbollah is a relatively new phenomenon on whose watch the country has sunk to unprecedented levels.
Since massive protests in 2005 forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005, Hezbollah has taken over as the chaperone of the Lebanese state. In fact, Hezbollah has transformed Lebanon from a traditional sovereign state into one modeled after Iran, which the party calls the resistance state. In Hezbollah’s model, two organizations rule the country – Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah, and a subordinate state.
In Iran, the resistance state model is enshrined in the constitution. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his paramilitary group the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hold most of the power and leave day-to-day management to the state, headed by a much weaker, elected president Hassan Rouhani and his toothless army and security forces.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah has forced the Iranian model onto the country without constitutional cover. If anything, the constitution, as amended in the Taif agreement in 1989, stipulates that all militias be disbanded.
The Iranian-backed group has ensured that subsequent governments have adopted the tripartite formula when a new Cabinet is presented to Parliament for a vote of confidence. The formula – consisting of the people, the army, and the resistance – is Hezbollah’s nod at legitimacy.
By receiving recognition that its formidable paramilitary force be called “resistance” instead of militia, Hezbollah maintains its place in the formal government. If Hezbollah were to hold the title militia, it would be subject to UN Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680, and 1701 that demand all militias in Lebanon be disarmed.
Hezbollah needs the structure of a state to carry out its plans. It has employed a system of carrots and sticks it uses with subordinate politicians. Defiant ones are assassinated. Loyalists are rewarded with senior state positions and allowed to rule with unprecedented nepotism and corruption. Hezbollah needs the state, but not a strong one that can stand up to the party and potentially regain sovereignty, just a lousy, corrupt and minimally functioning one.
Corruption is as old as Lebanon, which celebrates the centennial anniversary of the French-proclaimed State of Greater Lebanon next month. But Hezbollah has flouted sovereignty and allowed the state to erode and corruption to spread like never before.
Lebanon has fallen apart.
And with Hezbollah copying Iran’s choice of engaging in regional conflicts at the expense of maintaining international friendships and relations, both countries are sinking, both their economies are in free fall, and both their populations are suffering increasing homelessness and hunger. Other factors, like US and international sanctions on Iran and the banking sector and liquidity crisis in Lebanon have also contributed to the countries’ downfall.
If Lebanon is to be saved, disbanding and disarming Hezbollah is key to restoring a sovereign and accountable state, or as the patriarch of the Maronite Church Bechara Al-Raii puts it: Lebanon must become a neutral state and steer clear of regional conflicts.
Corruption exists in almost every state. In some countries, it is more manageable than others. The Lebanese oligarchy, perceived as being corrupt, is as old as Lebanon itself. Sectarian chiefs, like the Jumblatts, the Gemayels, the Salams, the Franjiehs, the Khazens and the Arslans, among others, have been in government since the country was founded. But throughout their past, Lebanon and its corrupt oligarchy have never witnessed a situation as miserable and as desperate as the one Lebanon lives in today. Even the civil war years now compare favorably to Lebanon under Hezbollah.
The Lebanese oligarchy has watched the country’s golden years from 1949 to 1969 and benefitted from its neutrality on regional conflicts. In the post-civil war era that began in 1990, the Lebanese oligarchy watched the country fall under Syrian tutelage until 2005. The same oligarchs who watched Hafez al-Assad’s troops leave Lebanon have watch Hezbollah grow and take over. But this last epoch has proven to be the worst.
The key to solving Lebanon’s problem is to restore its regional neutrality, a demand that patriarch al-Raii has raised since June. If Hezbollah’s militia is disbanded and state sovereignty restored, some institutional reforms can take place, and the future of Lebanon will brighten. It will still not be ideal, but it will be much better.
Once the statelet and its “resistance state” model are replaced by a “normal state,” even with an oligarchy, the Lebanese can start focusing on further improving their polity by chipping away at the oligarchy until it vanishes. But going after the oligarchs while ignoring Hezbollah’s militia will prove to be the antithesis of change and a mere distraction from the real problem.