In Lebanon, military rule is no solution but the army can hold things together

That is not to say that the army should strive to take power

This double exposure photo taken on May 3, 2020 shows a Lebanese protester wearing a Lebanese flag face mask as members of the Lebanese Armed Forces stand guard during a demonstration against dwindling economic conditions, at al-Nour Square in the centre of the northern port city of Tripoli. (Photo by Ibrahim CHALHOUB / AFP)
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Lebanon may see a government in the near future, after a delay of eight months. Yet waiting on the political cartel in power to take decisions that are beneficial for the country is rarely advisable. That is why foreign countries that want to avoid a complete collapse of Lebanon should look at ways of reinforcing the Lebanese armed forces and integrating them into their efforts.

The military is a rare institution that retains appeal across Lebanon, embodies national unity and acts as a reminder of a state project – against sectarian parties and leaders who are ensuring the country’s ruin. If a cabinet is not formed soon, fragmentation could accelerate.

No one has been more guilty of this situation than the militant party Hezbollah. In October 2019, when anti-government protests began, Hezbollah sought to undermine calls for change because the corrupt system in place protected its interests. Today, the party is facing the system’s collapse. That its leader Hassan Nasrallah called for a new cabinet last week may show he recognises the risks.

Then again, Nasrallah often makes statements hiding his intentions. Yet the economic crisis is having a harmful effect on the Shiites as well, particularly on communal unity. A portion of Hezbollah's followers earn salaries in US dollars, creating resentments from supporters of the Amal Movement, another Shiite party, many of whom work for the state. Their Lebanese pound income has melted amid hyperinflation.

A continued vacuum in the government that leads to insecurity and further economic disintegration could mean the state’s breakdown. This could create dynamics that encourage sectarian parties to manage areas under their control, taking the country back to the civil war years. Even if conflict is averted, what the sectarian parties gain is lost to the state, to the disadvantage of a functional order.

In contrast, the armed forces, whatever their shortcomings, can maintain a certain level of security and represent a national alternative to the politicians and parties that have blocked progress. This is hardly an appeal for military rule, which would be a disaster for Lebanon and for the military itself.

The notion that the army is a Hezbollah tool misstates reality

However, the armed forces have long been a cause of worry for Lebanon’s political cartel, especially as they enjoy popular support. The military is a paradox in that it embodies all the contradictions of Lebanon’s sectarian society, but also has an alternative institutional belief system, allowing it to stake out an independent position with regard to the sectarian leaders and parties.

That is why a reinforcement of the military should focus on pushing the political class to be more flexible towards compromise and reform, for fear that the armed forces could gain from any popular backlash against the leadership’s behaviour.

How the army should engage with this situation is complicated. The idea is not to precipitate a war between the military and Hezbollah. This would lead to stalemate, destroy Lebanon and alienate many Shiite Lebanese.

Nor should the armed forces be prompted to openly oppose the government. This would undermine the idea of civilian control over the military and encourage political parties to exacerbate the sectarian contradictions in the institution.

A more achievable role is to encourage the army to assert its differences with the political parties, above all Hezbollah. It could do this by imposing itself as the main balancer in Lebanon, along the lines of what the army did during the civil war of 1958, enhancing its credibility. The military would maintain order, protect public property but not intervene to break up legitimate protests.

An anti-government protester argues with Lebanese army soldiers as they try to open a main road that links to the presidential palace, during a protest in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, March. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
An anti-government protester argues with Lebanese soldiers as they try to open a main road that links the presidential palace, during a protest in Baabda, east of Beirut, March, 27.AP

The armed forces could also highlight relations with Lebanon's partners in the West and the Arab world. In a recent speech, army commander Joseph Aoun noted that foreign states – by which he meant the US, among others – had provided vital assistance to the armed forces when the state had failed to do so.

More subtly, the military could boldly begin defining itself as the axis of a national vision in its public statements, one contrasting with the lack of vision from the political leadership. That is not to say that the army should strive to take power, but that as a national institution it should be blunter about what it regards as the ideals necessary for protecting the county in a time of crisis.

Some will see this as an electoral platform for the army commander, but this should be an institutional not a personal initiative. The aim would be to show that amid Lebanon’s myriad parochial and regional agendas, there is still a platform to take steps that can appeal to all Lebanese.

There will be those who recklessly argue that the army must be denied assistance because it is a front for Hezbollah. This is a line being pushed in the US, the armed forces’ main supplier, by the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative congressional Republicans incited by right-wing think tanks.

However, this approach fails to see that at a time when Hezbollah is concentrated on weathering a storm of social dissatisfaction, there is room for the military to exploit the situation. The notion that the army is a Hezbollah tool misstates reality. At a time when Lebanon is under threat, the army can yet hold things together.

Michael Young is a Lebanon columnist for The National