Hezbollah's cautious approach to the Lebanese presidential election

Burnt by its association with Aoun, the party may focus on shaping a consensus around a candidate this time

(FILES) A file photo taken on January 12, 2011 shows a poster of Lebanese opposition leaders, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (L) Christian Free Patriotic Movement and MP Michel Aoun (C) and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah appears on a wall in Beirut. There will be no ceremony to commemorate 100 years since French mandate authorities on September 1, 1920 proclaimed the creation of Greater Lebanon incorporating mainly Muslim former Ottoman regions. / AFP / Joseph EID
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On Thursday, Lebanon will enter the two-month constitutional period during which parliament must elect a successor to President Michel Aoun. Revealingly, Hezbollah has adopted a different attitude than the one six years ago, when it had provoked a debilitating two-year presidential vacuum as leverage to bring Mr Aoun to office.

As a number of observers have remarked, Hezbollah cannot look back on its support for an Aoun presidency as a success. While this did allow the party to reinforce its alliance with a major Christian partner, strengthening Hezbollah’s leverage in the political system, it also exposed the party to the repercussions of Mr Aoun’s falling popularity. Rightly or wrongly, many Lebanese associate the economic collapse that began in 2019 with the President, even if there is plenty of blame to spread around the country’s corrupt political class.

With economic pain reaching deep into the Shiite community, Hezbollah appears to be more careful in its presidential calculations today. To an extent, conditions have also imposed this. The outcome of the parliamentary election in May led to a legislature in which none of the country’s major political alignments has a majority, making for what is often a hung parliament. Only on rare occasions can Hezbollah impose a majority, as when it compelled its reluctant Aounist allies to help ensure the re-election of Nabih Berri as Speaker.

Rather than naming a presidential candidate, Hezbollah appears to be waiting and seeing if a consensus emerges around a given figure. The problem is that two of its Maronite Christian allies are competing for the presidency – Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of Mr Aoun and head of the Free Patriotic Movement, and Suleiman Franjieh, the grandson of a former president. However, both men face major problems – Mr Bassil is under US sanctions, while Mr Franjieh provokes little enthusiasm outside a small portion of his own community.

Hezbollah has faced challenges that showed antagonism towards it was growing in potentially dangerous ways

Hezbollah can see that if it were to openly choose between either man, it would risk alienating the other, leading to tensions with an ally. At the same time, the party is also very keen to ensure that the next president does not pose a threat to its strategic interests, and does not represent an obstacle to its agenda in Lebanon. The reason for this is that in the past year, Hezbollah has faced challenges that, if they did not undermine the party, did show that antagonism towards Hezbollah was growing in potentially dangerous ways.

In August 2021, Hezbollah supporters were ambushed by members of a Sunni tribe in Khaldeh, after a tribesman had killed a Hezbollah member in a revenge killing. The incident could have easily spread into a broader Sunni-Shiite armed conflict had the army not intervened immediately to control the situation.

Not long thereafter, Hezbollah members were forcibly prevented by Druze villagers from firing rockets at the contested Shebaa Farms area. The villagers, fearing Israeli retaliation, manhandled the party’s members and detained them, until the issue was resolved. The incident led to tensions between Druze and Shiite, before order was reimposed.

Most significantly, last October, Hezbollah and allied Amal supporters demonstrated against the investigation into the Beirut Port explosion and some entered the Christian neighbourhood of Tayyouneh. Young men from the area fired on them, killing two of the parties’ supporters, while several others were shot when the army intervened. The episode was the most serious breach of civil peace in years, and heightened Christian-Shiite tensions.

While Hezbollah was defiant in all three cases, the message could not have been reassuring: an increasing number of Lebanese sectarian groups appeared willing to challenge the party, even militarily in some instances, and Hezbollah’s options to respond were limited. If the party resorted to its weapons to intimidate its foes, this could have unleashed broader, sectarian-driven conflict, which could well have backfired against Hezbollah.

In a speech last week, Hassan Nasrallah, the party’s secretary general, echoed this unease, when he declared that Hezbollah would not be dragged into a civil war, nor would it allow such an outcome. He stressed that Hezbollah sought a dialogue, stating: “Our prime issue during the next stage is co-operating with various political powers in order to build a just and capable state.”

Activists confront soldiers guarding the entrance of the Lebanese parliament building during a demonstration in Beirut on August 4, 2022, on the day that crisis-hit Lebanon marks two years since a giant explosion ripped through the capital. AFP

Nasrallah went further, saying Hezbollah was even willing to discuss a national defence strategy, which would ultimately seek to integrate Hezbollah’s weapons into the state.

One might question Nasrallah’s sincerity, but his conciliatory tone was certainly a sign of the party’s more open attitude towards the presidency. With agreement over the nuclear deal with Iran reportedly close, Hezbollah feels this may be a good time to be mollifying, as Tehran and its regional allies are expected to benefit from the outcome.

This brings out a paradox in the party’s behaviour today. On the one hand it remains strong, as it has continued to exploit internal Lebanese divisions to remain dominant, while the regional outlook is also playing in its favour if Iran comes out strengthened.

At the same time, the party is more conscious than ever of its vulnerabilities. This is especially true in a domestic context shaped by Lebanon’s economic collapse, for which Hezbollah offers no remedies. Regionally, even if Iran secures its interests, developments in Iraq and Lebanon reflect increasing resentment of Iranian hegemony.

Unless the region moves towards greater confrontation if the nuclear accord fails, Hezbollah is likely to pursue its facade of conciliation over the Lebanese presidency. That doesn’t mean a candidate will be elected soon, and a vacuum remains highly likely, but Hezbollah will not force the issue. Rather, it will probably focus on helping to shape a consensus around any candidate who doesn’t endanger the party.

Published: August 31, 2022, 4:00 AM