The Lebanese people will head to the polls on Sunday, and the country’s future could depend on a high turnout among the diaspora and voting changes inside Lebanon. However, the Hezbollah stranglehold on the country is expected to remain.
This leaves us with the similar Catch-22 that we have faced for years to our North: we want Lebanon to be stable and successful, but Hezbollah seeks to siphon off resources of any success and use them to build up its arsenal. If Lebanon is weakened, Hezbollah wins by forcing Lebanese to flee the country as it continues to grow its Iranian-financed tentacles.
More than 100,000 Lebanese living abroad have already cast ballots for the parliamentary election, many backing political newcomers after the worst crisis since Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war led to widespread poverty and a wave of emigration. Sunday’s election would be the first for the 128-member legislature since mass protests in October 2019 against political elites widely seen as responsible for decades of corruption and mismanagement.
The tragedy of Lebanon is one that shocks the region. Once a successful country seen as a stable, prosperous, diverse and beautiful global destination for tourists and intellectuals it has long fallen into religious extremism and chaos.
Hezbollah has benefited from that chaos. When Saudi Arabia and Sunni Arab powers grew concerned about the Iranian-backed Shi’ite extremist movement, Lebanon began to look like it could fall into sectarian conflict similar to Iraq. Later Riyadh appeared to withdraw support. Saudi Arabia had helped guarantee peace in the country after the Civil War of the 1970s and 1980s. However, the demographic-sectarian balance that underpins politics in Lebanon has been hijacked.
Hezbollah not only uses Lebanon as a launching pad for threats against Israel; it also threatens the entire region. Yet Hezbollah does not have a way to solely control the parliament in Lebanon, and the sectarian voting system means it must ally with Christian and Druze parties. It has successfully done so in the past, controlling appointments to the presidency and even coming to control ministries.
Meanwhile, Lebanon is facing a huge financial crisis. Reports say that 80% of Lebanese are already in living poverty, and the Lebanese currency is losing value. This is likely, in part, the fault of the country’s elites who keep their money abroad. But the pandemic, inflation and the new crisis in Ukraine that has disrupted some global food supplies will add to the woes of the small country. Consider also that supply chain issues related to China mean that Lebanon will suffer even more. Endless and tough lockdowns in places like Shanghai are spreading global chaos. Lebanon was already on the brink. What might happen next?
Some media reports see Lebanon as being a victim of rivalries in the region. This posits that actors like Iran prey on Lebanon because they want to harm Israel. However the reality is much more complex. Iran uses Lebanon as an outlet to the Mediterranean, and Tehran is now involved via militias in the drug trade from Syria that threatens Jordan and the Gulf.
Lebanon is part of the Iranian axis, even though many Lebanese don’t approve of this hijacking. The UN has failed to rein in Hezbollah and enforce demands that its illegal weapons do not percolate around the country, yet Hezbollah continues to build up an arsenal. A recent video appeared to show a new anti-ship missile in Hezbollah’s hands. Israel recently upgraded and received new naval platforms, such as the Sa’ar 6. This will matter in any future conflict with the armed Lebanese terror group.
Hezbollah also slammed US mediator Amos Hochstein recently, proclaiming in a video that it did not want to meet with any more “Steins,” a thinly veiled antisemitic reference that sought to highlight Hochstein’s Jewish background. With this language, it is hard to be optimistic about any future negotiations with Lebanon that might settle the maritime boundary and also enable peace and stability.
Nevertheless, we should not give up hope. Lebanon is an important country, and our friends in the Gulf care about what happens in Beirut. We should work closely with the US and partners in the region to make sure Lebanon remains stable, regardless of the outcome of the election.