Many descriptions have been used over the years to refer to the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah. It was seen as a militant group; a terror group; a resistance group fighting Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon; a key supporter of the Palestinian cause rejecting all forms of peace with the Zionist enemy; a unit in the Iranian revolutionary guards working to advance Iran’s interests in the Arab world; and a protector of the Shiite community in Lebanon and beyond.
Slowly but surely, Hezbollah became a political force recognized by many Western governments as the political wing of a Lebanese Shiite militant group capable of getting its representatives elected as MPs in Lebanon’s parliament, as ministers in the Cabinet, or as officers across all key units of the embattled Lebanese armed forces and security forces.
In short, Hezbollah has, over the years, moved from being a mere militia propped up by Iran and Syria to a Trojan horse not only controlling Lebanon, but also penetrating the state and societies in the Middle East, as well as shaping the wider narrative in the Arabic-speaking world.
But, if the Cabinet formed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri
is sworn in at long last, history will record the first time Hezbollah has ascended to control the Lebanese government and, by default, the country through democratic means. This is the result of a carefully recrafted electoral law that has ensured Hezbollah and its allies from across Lebanon’s confessional and religious divide earned the majority of seats in Parliament and the government so that it is firmly and constitutionally in full control of the country’s executive branch. This is a battle that Hezbollah started with the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
This killing led to the speedy withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon after 30 years. Hezbollah, with Iranian and Syrian blessing, quickly filled the void, announcing that Syrian interests in Lebanon were the party’s own interests and therefore they would be upheld to counter the independence movement that emerged after Hariri’s assassination.
The second important event was the return from exile of the Maronite Christian ex-army general Michel Aoun, who tried but failed to remove Syrian forces from Lebanon through a destructive war of liberation in 1989. Upon his return, Aoun quickly positioned himself and his reform and change Free Patriotic Movement as Hezbollah’s key Christian ally. Hezbollah promised to support Aoun’s presidential bid as and when the matter arose.
Lebanon, with such a government, is most likely to be in the eye of the storm since the US is tightening the noose on Iran — Hezbollah’s paymaster general.
Thirteen years have lapsed between the senior Hariri’s assassination and the ascendance of Hezbollah to finally dominate the executive branch of government in Lebanon. This was not bloodless. Hezbollah, it is thought, followed Hariri’s assassination with a series of politically motivated killings of MPs opposed to the regime in Syria or opposed to Hezbollah’s remaining as an armed militia within the state of Lebanon. The campaign saw the deaths of several MPs, politicians, journalists and key military commanders seen as an obstacle for Hezbollah and the long-term plans of its patrons, Iran and Syria.
The war in Syria and the failure to topple Bashar Assad’s regime has further emboldened Hezbollah. A carefully crafted campaign of political intimidation, obstruction, disinformation, manipulation and exploitation of all political groups in Lebanon led to Hezbollah and its key Christian allies winning the largest number of seats in the parliamentary elections held in May 2018. This was after carefully tailoring the electoral law to deny groups opposed to Hezbollah and its patrons from achieving a majority. As a result, the new Lebanese Cabinet will include 18 pro-Hezbollah ministers and only 12 for Saad Hariri and his anti-Syria allies.
It will be interesting to monitor how the new government, which could be labeled the first Hezbollah-formed and dominated government in Lebanon, will govern and run the country. This is important as, since its emergence as a key powerbroker, Hezbollah has undermined all other governments, institutions and players in its game of vying for absolute control of Lebanon’s political, economic and social affairs.
Though headed by PM Saad Hariri, Lebanon, with such a government, is most likely to be in the eye of the storm since the US is tightening the noose on Iran — Hezbollah’s paymaster general. Lebanon today is a heavily indebted country and it needs the support of international institutions and Western powers to shield it from economic collapse.
Lebanon, we were told, was a miracle. A miracle from its inception as an idea, a miracle that it made it in the modern world as a nation state, and also miraculously survived many rounds of civil strife.
Saving Lebanon this time, with a proscribed terrorist party in the heart of its government, is maybe a long shot. In the last 20 years, Hezbollah has positioned itself as the only party that “can” in Lebanon, with its clear monopoly on power and success. In the past, the fractured nature of the country meant that Hezbollah could hide behind a weak government. If the new government is sworn in, it will be interesting to see how Hezbollah will manage its affairs from within after years of pretending to be in the shadows as an opposition group.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.