As Lebanon Forms its New Government, Hezbollah Seeks to Strengthen its Influence

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

If we were to adapt Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity to the Lebanese elections, it would read like this: Insanity is electing the same politicians over and over again, but expecting different results. As dust from Lebanon’s parliamentary election settles, Michel Aoun is still president, Nabil Berri has been reelected to his sixth consecutive term as speaker, making him the longest serving speaker on earth with 26 years in office and counting, while Prime Minister Saad Hariri is expected to form a cabinet, which, barring minor reshuffle, will maintain the current political lineup.

The same officials will certainly produce the same failing policies. Hezbollah will still control the levers of power, especially on foreign policy and security, while the Lebanese can expect more of the same: severe electric cuts, garbage piling up in the streets, alarmingly high levels of air and water pollution, a deteriorating infrastructure, and more corruption and embezzlement of public funds.

The election could have been a chance for Lebanon to improve some of its abysmal world rankings. According to the IMF, the country is the third most indebted country in the world. Lebanon ranks 143rd out of 180 countries in corruption, according to Transparency International. The country ranks eighth in the world in “prevalence of tobacco consumption,” according to World Health Organization.

Nothing in the election results suggests that any of the country’s miserable governance indicators will be altered. In fact, the only substantive change the election brought was to clip the wings of Hariri, and to make him more reliant on Hezbollah and its allies. After losing 14 of his bloc’s previous 35 seats, Hariri has become much weaker, while the Lebanese proteges of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, now turned into Hezbollah’s assets, have made a noticeable comeback.

After losing another chance of replacing their sub-par leaders, the behavior of the Lebanese populace might seem puzzling. Yet, it is always good to remember that populism is a weapon that can be wielded in a similar manner across nations. In every country, including Lebanon, populism can severely undermine democracy.

Like Americans who erroneously believe that imposing tariffs on imports can boost their jobs markets, and like the British who fail to appreciate the perks of the European Union, the Lebanese settle for sectarian choices that make them feel good, in the short term, but drastically hurt their long-term interests. By employing populism, Lebanon’s politicians, including Hezbollah’s leaders, depicts elections as a zero-sum game: Should the other sects win, our sect would lose and face extinction. Such rhetoric made most Lebanese go to the polls, not because they appreciate the leadership of their own sectarian patriarchs, but because they wanted to spite members of other sects. And as long as the Lebanese get their fix from petty politics and short-term sectarian bickering, they will always vote away their interests by reelecting the same politicians who have failed them time and again.

The recent elections did not create any major changes to the government. Parliament and the cabinet mostly reconstituted themselves, with Hezbollah weakening whatever faint opposition remained to its unchecked military and security dominance of the country. Aoun, Berri, Hariri and the other patriarchs will resume their race to expand their patronage networks.

It is unfortunate that Lebanon seems to be sinking, with its leaders and their constituents unable to see beyond their immediate personal interests. Who can save the country, and how, are questions with few answers.

For a long time now, the world’s powerful capitals have assumed that the Lebanese have been taken hostage by the firebrand pro-Iranian Hezbollah. While that assumption might have been true in the past, it looks outdated today. The majority of the Lebanese seem to have made peace with their country being refashioned in the image of Hezbollah, a country that is in the “axis of resistance against world arrogance.” Whatever that means.

One after another, Lebanese leaders have arrived at settlements with Hezbollah. First Aoun, then Walid Jumblatt, and most recently Hariri. In this deal, Hezbollah let them toy with the state, while Iran’s party in Lebanon gets free pass in transforming the country into a base for its regional adventures.

Logically then, as long as Lebanon’s leaders remain unable or unwilling to challenge Hezbollah and take back their country, there should be consequences. The world should stop dealing with Beirut as a government too weak to deal with a rogue militia and start dealing with it as a government that is complicit with the Hezbollah militia that is causing trouble across the region and around the world. Maybe when world capitals raise the stakes, Lebanese and their leaders will rethink their pact with Hezbollah. Perhaps then the Lebanese will go to the polls with the goal of forcing their leaders to step up and make Hezbollah understand that Lebanon is not willing to bear the consequences of the party’s troublesome behavior. They have clearly missed an opportunity in this year’s election, yet it is never too early to start preparing for 2022.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.