On Lebanon's turmoil, there can be no middle ground

There are multiple players responsible for the country’s current crisis, but none carry the weight of Hezbollah

Lebanon has lost its foundation. Its inability to govern is a condition that goes back to 1970. Any country that remains a battlefield 31 years after the end of a civil war would struggle to survive.

The temptation to follow the narrative that there are “two sides to every story” holds little weight when measured against Lebanon’s reality. Yet, a list of misinformed comparisons echoes among analysts. Perhaps this is out of a concern to not appear ”one-sided” or a desire to remain ”sensitive” towards an armed group’s position.

Take, for example, the case from last week of the American ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, pushing for a World Bank arrangement that would allow Beirut to purchase enough Jordanian electricity while avoiding Caesar Act sanctions. That is not the same as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah promising an Iranian oil tanker while circumventing Lebanese state authority that his paramilitary force helped paralyse. The former is a diplomat pursuing politics through standard state channels. The latter is a proxy militia leader, sponsored by Iran, responsible for enduring state failure.

Then there are the attempts to compare Hezbollah with other political groups. For example, it is wrong to describe as militiamen members of the Lebanese Forces political party who hurled sectarian slurs and viciously attacked protesters during the Beirut Port blast anniversary on August 4. The Lebanese Forces are not a militia. Thugs undoubtedly resorted to violence, and those criminals must be held to account.

On the other hand, it is Hezbollah members – who launched rockets into empty patches of Shebaa Farms earlier this month in order to avoid full-scale Israeli reprisal and angered villagers from Hasbaya for placing them in harm’s way – who are militiamen. They belong to the country’s only post-war militia. The problem with labelling previously armed groups as ”militia-in-waiting” – and thereby characterising every Lebanese political party as a paramilitary force – is that it removes Hezbollah’s unique and detrimental place in the country’s politics.

Of course Arab tribes in the town of Khalde used low-grade weaponry earlier this month. It is also a fact that Palestinian factions in camps across the country retain small arms. And various groups have used guns since the end of the civil war. But their weaponry cannot be compared to Hezbollah’s sophisticated arsenal, or the group’s ability to wage terror and conduct political assassinations. Violent opponents may pose short-term security challenges, but when that line is crossed, they are immediately dealt with by the Lebanese army. Justice, however, is one-sided. Hezbollah have free rein to exert authority as they see fit.

Similarly, it is not fair to compare the so-called March 14 Alliance with the March 8 Alliance. Indeed, there are no firm pros and cons to both political coalitions. The former called for political reform, wanted the previously occupying Syrian army out of Lebanon, independence from Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s henchmen and Hezbollah’s disarmament. The latter wanted to preserve the status quo, including Mr Al Assad’s influence over Beirut, at least until Hezbollah inherited that security arrangement. March 14 – whatever one thinks of that movement today – did not use violence to achieve political ends. March 8’s most potent party, Hezbollah, forced a "national unity government" on its terms by turning weapons inwards in May 2008, as its heavily armed fighters seized control of western Beirut in what was meant to be a show of force.

A car passes under a Lebanese flags with picture of slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. A U.N.-backed tribunal on Tuesday convicted one member of the Hezbollah militant group and acquitted three others of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s economic policies and post-war reconstruction efforts were not as destructive to society as Syria’s invasion-turned-occupation of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, or for that matter, Hezbollah’s proxy dominion. Those critical of “Haririism” (euphemism for the term “neoliberalism”) and the massive debt that his government accrued should be mindful of the context in which those policies were pursued. It was at a time when the Madrid Conference of 1991 and the Oslo peace process were appearing to move the region on from conflict.

It also promised a scenario whereby Lebanon would edge its way out of the Assad regime’s control. It was meant to be a country that – following the post-war Taif Agreement’s signing – would undergo reforms, including the creation of a senate that channels sectarianism to its rightful chamber, allowing for a merit-based parliament rather than one administered by confessional quota; bringing to an end the Syrian occupation; and the disarmament of all militia. Alas, Syrian hegemony and political suffocation through intimidation by the military and intelligence agencies ensured these steps weren’t taken. And even after Hezbollah lost its raison d’etre to remain armed, following Israel’s own withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, the country – 21 years later – hosts an ever-expanding regional army that curtails political aspirations and engages in battles to protect the Syrian regime.

Lebanon is a country with a consensus-based confessional power-sharing system that is in dire need of reform. The country itself is not a flawed idea born in error, but our worst traits today are borne from the inevitable consequences of remaining a battlefield for more than half a century. The corrosive impact of this is that ours has become a society unable to hold its leadership to account and rid its worst custodians from power.

026673 12: A group of women carry supplies down a street August 8, 1982 in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1982 a siege by Israeli forces led to the expulsion of Palestinian Liberation Organization guerrillas and Syrian army soldiers from its western sector, prompting the intervention of a multinational peacekeeping force. (Photo by Roland Neveu/Liaison)
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Truth has one side. The rest is false equivalence

Our government ceased to function effectively from late 1969, in the aftermath of the Cairo Agreement, which allowed Palestinian guerrillas to continue operating inside Lebanon without being regulated by authorities, thereby turning southern Lebanon into a war zone between the Palestinian group Fatah and Israel. Our curses are not the mid-19th century Ottoman massacres in Mount Lebanon or the birth of Greater Lebanon in 1920. Divisions on their own do not destroy society, and a complicated mosaic can indeed function in a country with agency and absolute control over its destiny. Our sectarian system represents an old, and in many ways outdated, form of governing. But blaming it for our current state of affairs is to overlook all that transpired in the 20th century.

The US was, no doubt, militarily involved in 1958 and in the mid-1980s, but that is not the case today. Iran has been continuously expanding its military presence in the country from that period. American policy towards Lebanon during the Cold War may have been anti-Soviet until the 1970s, but it accepted the Assad regime’s reign from 1989 until 2005 and limited its actions to sanctions. But today, Iranian policy towards Lebanon – carried out through Hezbollah – is one of state subversion and sub-state investment that favours a Tehran-led foreign policy, basing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ most effective external military force in Beirut.

Iran violates our sovereignty. So does Israel, when its fighter jets fly over Lebanon on their way to attack positions in Syria. But by tolerating Iran’s detrimental role while at the same time condemning Israel’s, people are engaging in what they perceive to be balanced opinion.

Truth has one side. The rest is false equivalence.

Updated: August 27th 2021, 4:41 AM
Ronnie Chatah

Ronnie Chatah

Ronnie Chatah hosts The Beirut Banyan podcast, a series of storytelling episodes and long-form conversations that reflect on all that is modern Lebanese history. He also leads the WalkBeirut tour, a four-hour narration of Beirut’s rich and troubled past