In Lebanon, Iran-backed Hezbollah and their Christian allies have heavily swayed internal politics for years, but now, there appears to be a growing rift within the Christian bloc, threatening the cohesion of in the once-solid alliance.
For years, the pairing allowed Hezbollah to dominate the Lebanese political system and influence major decisions related to the country’s foreign and defense policies.
But the past two weeks have been marked by fiery statements from several Christian party leaders aimed each other and at their long-time ally Hezbollah.
For veteran journalist Paul Khalifeh, misunderstandings between Hezbollah’s Christian allies are twofold: “They represent a pushback by traditional leaders against reforms brought by the [Hassan] Diab government – such as in the case of Member of Parliament Sleiman Frangieh – and emphasize feuds within Christian blocs.”
Frangieh, who heads the Christian Marada movement, launched scathing attacks against the FPM, and specifically its leader Gebran Bassil, following the arrest of his friend Sarkis Hleiss on corruption charges at the Ministry of Energy and Water.
At the demand of the government, public prosecutor Ghada Aoun – a close ally of President Aoun and his son in law former Foreign Minister Bassil – ordered the arrest of several employees at the energy ministry as news of a defective fuel scandal broke.
Frangieh accused Bassil and the FPM of corruption as it has headed the energy ministry for more than 10 years.
The Marada refused to comment to Al Arabiya English.
The deepening Marada-FPM divide has its roots in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
“The relation between the Marada and the FPM degraded significantly after the parliamentary elections, as the two parties competed instead of collaborating in several regions,” said Khalifeh.
Recently, MP General Chamel Roukoz who ran on an FPM ticket in the 2018 parliamentary elections denounced the party’s contribution to the country’s mismanagement and rampant corruption.
In a veiled criticism of the FPM, Roukoz said the fight against corruption, a popular FPM slogan, had become empty words. In another spat directed at Bassil, Roukoz criticized the populist and divisive use of defense of “Christians’ rights,” largely promoted by Bassil.
Roukoz is a respected military leader and, like Bassil, is a son in law of President Aoun.
In an interview with Al Arabiya English, Roukoz said that all political factions that have been ruling over the country for the last decade – including the FPM – are responsible for the country’s collapse.
Roukoz has significantly distanced himself from the FPM since the October 2019 anti-corruption protests that shook Lebanon to the core. Another close ally of the FPM, MP Nemat Frem, a respected business figure, also dissociated from the movement by joining the October protests.
“The catastrophic situation in which Lebanon finds itself is the result of the (2008) ‘unity government,’ which consecrated the principle of clientelism and ‘mohassassa’ (allocation of certain post to specific parties), by diffusing political responsibility across the system and gave free reign to corruption,” explained Roukoz.
The 2008 Doha agreement that ended an 18-month political crisis confirmed the principle of consensual government and gave a veto right to the minority, which at the time was led by Hezbollah and the FPM.
Hezbollah consolidates power
In recent years, Hezbollah has consolidated its grip on the Lebanese political system. Its alliance with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) ultimately allowed the movement’s founder Michel Aoun to become Lebanon’s president in 2016.
In the 2018 parliamentary elections, another alliance – that of the Marada with support of the Shia Amal movement – allowed Hezbollah to win a comfortable majority.
Fast forward a year. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation in the wake of popular uprising, paved the way for Hassan Diab’s government to form with Hezbollah’s blessing. The Diab government is said to be a “one-color” government lacking opposition.
While Hezbollah back the Diab government, the new ruling elite is slowly eroding the political understanding between the various factions making up the March 8 coalition, explained Nabil Boumounsef, assistant editor at the Annahar newspaper.
“The cohesion within [the] March 8 coalition (dominated by Hezbollah), allowed the party to strengthen its power within the Lebanese political system,” said
Beyond cracks between Christian allies, the FPM has also directly targeted its ally Hezbollah. On May 22, FPM deputy Ziad Assouad, stated that “we could not continue to carry weapons when people are hungry,” in a direct reference to the armed militia and political party.
The widening rift is slowly destroying the March 8 coalition dominated by Hezbollah, predicted Boumounsef.
Outside experts believe that when President Aoun, who is 85, is no longer at the head of the state, his absence will further fragment the movement.
The challenging economic situation in Lebanon and the need for reform is also putting pressure on the alliance.
Outside domestic political squabbles, “Iran’s regional containment and growing sanctions will further weaken the Hezbollah led March 8 coalition position in the future,” said Boumounsef.
A possible fragmentation of the coalition will have significant impact on Hezbollah, he said. The party needs a strong alliance with another major party from a different community base to deflect accusations of hegemony, banned by Lebanon’s sectarian system. As Hezbollah’s allies jump ship, those accusations could become increasingly difficult to prove wrong.