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Lebanon is on the Brink of Economic Collapse
Lebanon is on the Brink of Economic Collapse

Hizbollah and the Lebanese Crisis

The Lebanese crisis has receded from the headlines but has not gone away. Today, all eyes are on the presidential election, the latest arena in the ongoing struggle between pro- and anti-government forces.

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Executive Summary

The Lebanese crisis has receded from the headlines but has not gone away. Today, all eyes are on the presidential election, the latest arena in the ongoing struggle between pro- and anti-government forces. Yet even if a compromise candidate is found, none of the country’s underlying problems will have been addressed, chief among them the status of Hizbollah’s weapons. If the election is to be more than a mere prelude to the next showdown, all parties and their external allies need to move away from maximalist demands and agree on a package deal that accepts for now Hizbollah’s armed status while constraining the ways in which its weapons can be used.

Looking back over the past ten months, Lebanese can feel somewhat relieved. The massive demonstrations in December 2006, followed by a general strike and clashes between pro- and anti-government forces with strong sectarian overtones, as well as a series of assassinations and car bombs, brought the nation perilously close to breakdown. State institutions are virtually paralysed; the government barely governs; the economic crisis is deepening; mediation efforts have failed; political murders continue; and militias, anticipating possible renewed conflict, are rearming. Still, fearful of the consequences of their own actions, leaders of virtually every shade took a welcome step back.

An important explanation lies in Hizbollah’s realisation that its efforts to bring down the government carried dangerous consequences. Facing calls for its disarmament and denunciations of its (allegedly foreign-inspired) adventurism in triggering the July 2006 war, the movement concluded that the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and its backers were hostile actors intent on cutting it down to size and further aligning Lebanon with the West. As a result, it carried the fight squarely on the domestic scene, removing Shiite ministers, taking to the streets and pushing for the government’s ouster. This resort to street politics was risky and ultimately self-defeating. At almost every social level, Shiite support for Hizbollah has solidified, a result of both the movement’s longstanding efforts to consolidate its hold over the community and a highly polarised post-war environment. Former Shiite adversaries are, for the time being, silencing their differences, viewing the movement’s weapons as their best defence in an environment where Shiites feel besieged from both within and without.

But while the movement demonstrated its mobilisation capacity and enjoyed support from an important segment of the Christian community, its use of an essentially Shiite base to bring down a Sunni-dominated government reinforced sectarian loyalties. Sunnis and many Christians were alarmed at Hizbollah’s might and ability unilaterally to trigger a devastating confrontation; they increasingly saw it as a Shiite not national movement and as advancing an Iranian or Syrian not Lebanese agenda. In short, while the movement sought to highlight the conflict’s political stakes, the street battles quickly morphed into confessional ones, forcing Hizbollah into a sectarian straitjacket and threatening to distract it from its primary objectives.

Hizbollah faces other dilemmas. Deployment of the army and of a reinforced United Nations (UN) force at the Israeli border have significantly reduced its military margin of manoeuvre. The movement’s Shiite social base also is exhausted and war-weary, a result of Israel’s intensive campaign. Sectarian tensions restrict Shiites’ capacity to take refuge among other communities in the event of renewed confrontation with Israel. Hizbollah thus has been forced into a defensive mode, prepared for conflict but far from eager for it.

Hizbollah appears to be in search of a solution that defuses sectarian tensions and reflects its new military posture. Its discomfort presents an opportunity to make some progress on the question of its armed status. Of course, Hizbollah will not compromise at any price. Its priorities are clear: to maintain its weapons and protect Lebanon as well as the Middle East from Israeli and U.S. influence through a so-called axis of refusal that includes Iran, Syria and Hamas. Should it feel the need, it likely would perpetuate Lebanon’s political paralysis, even at the cost of further alienating non-Shiites; mobilise its constituents, even at the risk of reducing itself ever more to a sectarian movement; and protect Syrian or Iranian interests, even at the expense of its national reputation.

Lebanese parties and their foreign allies should seek a package deal on a domestic arrangement that, while postponing the question of Hizbollah’s weapons, restricts their usage – in other words, that neither resolves nor ignores the problem. The elements of the deal will be neither easy to negotiate nor a panacea, and they will provide at best a temporary reprieve. Without fundamental political reform, Lebanon’s political system – based on power sharing between sectarian factions – inevitably will encourage cyclic crises, governmental deadlock, unaccountability and sectarianism. More importantly, the country’s future is intricately tied to the regional confrontation that plunged it into armed conflict with Israel, paralysed its politics and brought it to the brink of renewed civil war. There can be no sustainable solution for Lebanon without a solution that addresses those issues as well – beginning with relations between the U.S., Israel, Syria and Iran.

Beirut/Brussels, 10 October 2007

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