Lebanon dances on the edge of the abyss

Lebanon dances on the edge of the abyss

Comment: In Lebanon, the country's development and future are being held hostage to domestic divisions between elite groups, writes Imad K. Harb.
5 min read
12 Dec, 2018
A man protests the poor state of the country on independence day [Getty]
Once again, Lebanon has reminded everyone that it remains a subject of serious concern.

It has just celebrated its 75th birthday as an independent country; yet its development and future remain hostage to domestic divisions between elite groups.

To be sure, if the current state of political discord continues, no one can guarantee that Lebanon will be able to pull itself back from the brink of a new civil war. So far, it seems that only the fear of the potential devastation from such strife is preventing a fall into the abyss.

Polarisation and stalemate

Political compromise in Lebanon in the service of a unifying national ethos has almost atrophied as confessional groups compete for a bigger piece of an already diminutive pie and attempt to subjugate each other.

Only a few weeks after the independence celebration, Lebanon experienced an unwarranted mix of careless agitation, a tepid and weak state response, and a clear challenge to legitimate state authority.

Former minister and pro-Syrian personality Wiam Wahhab insulted Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri and the memory of his late father Rafiq who was assassinated in 2005. Belonging to the Druze faith, Wahhab's deed riled Hariri and his large Sunni constituency.

A group of Hariri partisans filed a defamation lawsuit against Wahhab with the State Prosecutor accusing the former minister of inflaming sectarian tensions. But when a security detail arrived in Wahhab's hometown to execute a warrant for his arrest for questioning, a firefight erupted in which one of his bodyguards was killed.

Confessional groups compete for a bigger piece of an already diminutive pie and attempt to subjugate each other

Wahhab was quick to blame Hariri and the government for the death while his supporters staged public demonstrations and formed car caravans that traversed the Shouf district, the heartland of the Druze community whose most popular leader is former warlord, Walid Jumblatt. Jumblatt, however, is one of Saad al-Hariri's allies and considers Wahhab a mere rabble rouser in the pay of the Syrian regime.

Not to be upstaged, Hizballah quickly came to Wahhab's aid, sending a delegation to the bodyguard's funeral. Party officials in the delegation accused the government of exploiting the summons to send political messages and of politicising the security agencies.

Their comments threatened to widen the friction beyond the Druze and the Sunnis who have been chafing from the Party of God's influence over the political process in the country. To many anti-Hizballah partisans, the party is also responsible for the killing of Hariri Sr. when the Syrian army was still in full control of Lebanon.

Hizballah has also been a most reliable ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Since 2012, it has dispatched thousands of its fighters to Syria to defend his regime against the Syrian opposition.

That Assad is an Alawite (an offshoot sect of the Shia) suppressing a mostly Sunni opposition in Syria has tainted Hizballah in the eyes of most Syrians and Lebanese opposed to the Syrian president.

It also does not help that Hizballah is the main obstacle on Hariri's road to forming a new government. The premier-designate has been on this quest since he was chosen for the task by Lebanese President Michel Aoun following last May's parliamentary elections.

After months of difficult negotiations and backroom deals that appeared to lead to the seating of a new cabinet, Hizballah now demands that Hariri offer a position to a group of pro-Syrian Sunni politicians who had long been a thorn in his side. So far, he has refused.

The impasse does not appear to be on its way to resolution as Lebanon faces dire security, social, economic, and environmental problems. It is also caught up in the throes of a regional maelstrom involving Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Israel.  

Unforgiving regional pressures

For one thing, the Hizballah-Hariri discord is in large part an extension of the regional divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

With Riyadh suffering the repercussions of repeated and ill-advised actions - the latest of which was 
ordering the killing of Jamal Khashoggi - its Lebanese allies, chiefly Hariri, appear weakened and bereft of initiative.

Additionally, Lebanon's domestic politics cannot escape the repercussions of the approaching end of the Syrian civil war.

With Bashar al-Assad reconstituting his repressive regime and tightening grip on his autocratic rule, his Lebanese opponents are likely to be a target in the future, including Hariri and Jumblatt, among others.

The impasse does not appear to be on its way to resolution as Lebanon faces dire security, social, economic, and environmental problems

Finally, because of Hizballah's military dominance in the country, Lebanon has become victim to the party's decisions about war and peace with Israel. Hardly a day passes when the Lebanese are not reminded that war is a clear possibility.

Just a few days ago, on 6 December, the commander of the United Nations Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) supervising the Lebanese-Israeli border confirmed the existence of a tunnel Hizballah had allegedly dug into Israeli territory.

This could very easily be used by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - who wants to cover up for his legal troubles - as pretext for at least a limited confrontation with Hizballah.

The mix of a dangerous absence of political compromise, Hizballah's political and military dominance, and the region's instability may be driving Lebanon into a much feared unknown.

Only a reasoned look by domestic actors at their intransigence and careful handling of the regional impact can help pull Lebanon back from the abyss.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.