Life of the Party?

Hezbollah finds itself near another verge today, that of remaining relevant in the evolving Lebanese state.

Hezbollah’s military show of force on May 21 in the southern town of Aramta sent several messages, not least to Israel. In the shadow of regional reconciliations—between Saudi Arabia and Iran first, followed by Riyadh’s rapprochement with Syria—Hezbollah has apparently reoriented its focus on its enemy to the south. There was already an indication of this in early April, when an unidentified group (doubtless with Hezbollah’s approval) fired 34 rockets at northern Israel from Lebanon, leading to speculation that the party was seeking to unify the Lebanese, Gaza, and Syrian fronts.

Hezbollah’s weaponry notwithstanding, does the party really have the wherewithal to enter into a conflict with Israel today? The ensuing devastation would be so terrible that it could lead to a potentially destabilizing backlash inside Lebanon by a population that has little left to lose. In light of this, we are entitled to ask a longer-term question about Hezbollah. What is its ultimate purpose? In the same way as the party’s decision to participate in parliamentary elections in 1992 showed that it had sought to transform itself into a component of the Lebanese state, Hezbollah today finds itself near another verge. From a major actor—the major actor—in Lebanon, the party now has to decide what it wants to do with the state, and in the state, so as to remain relevant.

The answer remains elusive. All the potential options Hezbollah might consider pose risks for the party. If Hezbollah’s sole aim is to continue to serve as Iran’s proxy, then its priority will be to retain its weapons and impose a stalemate in Lebanon that ensures the party’s power is not threatened. However, this will have negative repercussions. It will build up resentment domestically, reinforced by sectarian impulses, as Hezbollah tries to preserve its supremacy while propping up a largely broken system that resists reform. The party cannot indefinitely keep the rest of the country under its thumb.

Take Hezbollah’s formal endorsement of Suleiman Franjieh as president. The party has moved into uncharted waters in trying to force a Maronite Christian president on a Maronite community, all of whose major political parties strongly oppose Franjieh. Reports in the past 24 hours suggest that the three main parties—the Lebanese Forces, the Free Patriotic Movement, and the Kataeb Party—have endorsed a rival to Franjieh, namely the former minister Jihad Azour, who is currently the director for the Middle East and Central Asia at the International Monetary Fund.

We’ll see what comes of that move, but what was more revealing was the response to this endorsement by Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc. Raad declared on May 28, with visible anger, that Azour was the candidate of “some in Lebanon who had the necessary impertinence to publicly declare their rejection of the candidate of the resistance axis (mumanaa),” in favor of a candidate of “submission.” Raad’s message was clear: Hezbollah is willing to engage in a dialogue over the presidency, on condition that the president defends its priorities. The party’s efforts to impose its candidates in posts not slated for the Shia community are greatly resented in non-Shia circles, and this mood is bound to grow in the future.

A second option that Hezbollah has is to reinvent itself in order to remain dominant in an evolving Lebanese social and political order. This means the party would have to begin compromising seriously with its sectarian and political interlocutors, but less to change the Hezbollah-dominated political system than to preserve it. It would involve making real steps toward addressing vital issues for the party—such as its weapons and involvement in regional conflicts—but in such a way that the compromises that emerge anchor Hezbollah’s objectives in the Lebanese system.

It’s highly improbable that Hezbollah would choose such a path. This was roughly the logic behind Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Perestroika in the 1980s, and for Iran’s paramount personality, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the result was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hezbollah, too, must realize that once it begins a process of selectively conceding on certain issues, it may lose control of the dynamics and be forced to give up much more than it intended. If anything, the party’s behavior has gone in the opposite direction—trying to widen the spaces in which it can foist its strategic concerns on Lebanon, regardless of what this means for internal sectarian politics.

Hezbollah’s third option is even riskier. It is one where Hezbollah goes all the way in trying to refashion and stabilize a new Lebanese social contact around its interests, with the goal of consolidating its power indefinitely in the state. Here, we are speaking about a restructuring of the constitutional and sectarian order, taking over institutions through a new national pact that gives the Shia community more power. This would then allow Hezbollah to set up permanent guardrails to defend its primacy in the country.

However, such a scheme could well break Lebanon apart, since the biggest losers from a revised national pact would be the broader Christian community. At a time when Christians are openly talking about federalism, or even partition, a new social contract built mainly around the Shia and Sunni communities—the two largest in the country—would almost certainly alienate many Christians. The consequences of this would be greater Christian mobilization against change, followed by larger communal emigration from the country, forcing Hezbollah and the Shia to face off primarily against a Sunni community that has no intention of formally turning Lebanon into a proxy of Iran.

For Hezbollah to try to overhaul Lebanon’s National Pact to its advantage would require major concessions to the other communities, including granting the Christians broad administrative and financial decentralization. It would also require a new strategy toward the Sunnis, who very probably now constitute a majority in the country and who will also want to see their power enhanced in national institutions. Such a process would be complex and treacherous for Hezbollah to navigate, and it seems impossible to imagine that the Sunnis wouldn’t ask for Hezbollah’s disarmament as a prerequisite for approving any greater Shia role in the state. No new pact can emerge from a situation in which one community is seen by the others as having hegemonic powers nationally.

That is what Hezbollah doesn’t quite realize. Sectarian politics will always be more potent in Lebanon than any ideological commitment to “resistance” or other such principles. By displaying overconfidence in trying to assert its preferences, Hezbollah is provoking existential fears among Lebanon’s other minorities. If there is no functioning institutional structure to channel and address these, the outcome may be violence. For Hezbollah, this is the worst option, since it could bog the party down in an open-ended civil war, which its many regional and international enemies would seek to exploit.

Hezbollah seems unconcerned by such matters, so self-assured it feels because of its weapons. But war is not an option, for the party could not build anything durable on the ruins. The sectarian system, despite its flaws, remains the strongest barrier against Hezbollah, which is why it tries to constantly keep its sectarian adversaries off balance and divided. That explains why the possibility of Christian unity against Franjieh was so disturbing to Mohammed Raad. Hezbollah may soon find itself outmaneuvered by sectarian realities, and the party just doesn’t like it.

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