On Tuesday, Lebanese president Michel Aoun sat down with two journalists to speak about the worst crisis his country has seen since the end of the civil war in 1990. For nearly a month, nationwide protests have taken place because of deteriorating economic conditions and the pervasive corruption of the ruling class. The protesters have been demanding a government free of politicking, clientelism and sectarianism.
It has been more than two weeks since prime minister Saad Hariri resigned. Despite a worsening financial crisis, the political forces seem no closer to forming a government. Mr Hariri would like to form a government made up of technocrats. Not only is that what the protesters are demanding but the prime minister believes this is a prerequisite for outside assistance to Lebanon. A government filled with career politicians – or even one mixing politicians and technocrats – is not one that would generate confidence at home or internationally.
Yet Mr Aoun, who is apparently tone deaf, repeated in his interview that he backed a mixed cabinet and that he could not prevent the return of his son-in-law Gebran Bassil as a minister. Mr Bassil, whom protesters consider highly corrupt, is among the most reviled of Lebanese politicians. His return would represent an insult to the protest movement. Even as Mr Aoun was still speaking, people throughout the country began blockading roads in anger.
Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil are backed by Hezbollah in opposing a technocratic government in which they would not be represented. Hezbollah is worried that if it is left out of the government, this would the first step in isolating the party and ultimately disarming it. From the start, Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah viewed the protests as a threat to a political order that has long protected the party. That is why he initially sought to undermine the demonstrations by sending thugs to attack protesters.
This attitude has created a contradiction that will continue to profoundly affect Hezbollah, and Lebanon more broadly. Nasrallah, by trying to impose a mixed cabinet against the popular will, might hinder the foreign financial assistance that is needed to avert an economic collapse. This in turn could hasten the breakdown of the system he is trying so hard to preserve.
At the same time, Nasrallah has turned Hezbollah into another focus of the protesters’ frustrations. By first trying to deflate their demands for better, less corrupt governance and economic management, he was seen as the defender of an intolerable status quo. This is no small thing for a party that has made its purported solidarity with the deprived a part of its identity.
Hezbollah's threat perception is tied not only to events in Lebanon but more broadly to the situation in Iraq and the party's relationship with Iran. Iraqi protesters have spent weeks defying a corrupt political order bolstered by Iran and its Iraqi proxies, leading demonstrators to target symbols of Tehran's influence. In fact, on October 30, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seemed alarmed enough by developments to state that the Lebanese and Iraqi protests were the work of the US and its partners, which angered protesters.
In his latest speech on Monday, Nasrallah did not mention the formation of a new government, saying that negotiations were ongoing. However, he did spend a great deal of time talking about the party’s martyrs, since November 11 was Hezbollah’s Martyrs Day. It was his way of rallying his community around the party at a time when even the Shiites have been joining the Lebanese protests.
But the reality is that Hezbollah has yet to resolve its dilemma with Mr Hariri. However, Mr Aoun’s support for a mixed political-technocratic government appeared to signal that both Hezbollah and the Aounists have decided to press ahead if Mr Hariri remains unwilling to head a mixed government. This is very risky, since such a government would be opposed not only by a wide cross-section of Lebanon’s population but also by much of the international community, and most critically by vital western donors.
If that is what Mr Aoun and Hezbollah decide, Lebanon will be in for difficult times ahead. The protests will continue and doubtless escalate, with uncertainty as to how Hezbollah might react. The possibility of violence is definitely there, particularly if the economic situation collapses, as seems increasingly inevitable.
If the government were to attempt to repress the protests using unrestricted force, the most probable outcome would be some sort of rift in the Lebanese state, as the army seems unwilling to carry out such action. If Hezbollah itself attempts to intimidate the protesters and possibly moves into areas of non-Shiite religious sects to do so, this would almost certainly lead to civil war.
Whatever the outcome, Mr Aoun’s reckless decision to ignore the protesters, a step that Hezbollah has supported, means that both are taking Lebanon into the unknown. Even if the country could avoid a domestic conflict, a clearly pro-Hezbollah government rejected by most Lebanese would not avert an economic calamity or isolation from the west and the Arab world. Lebanon could find itself on its own, perhaps as the Venezuela of the Middle East.
Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut