Continuous limbo for Lebanon in 2016
Beirut - Lebanon is going through one of the most stagnant phases of its political history. The dynamics that dominated the political and security situation in the country in 2015 are expected to continue in the new year. Those can be summarised as a sterile political life that is leading to a precarious security environment.
Stagnation is partly the result of the political vacuum in Lebanon due to the indefinite freezing of parliamentary and presidential elections. The main reason behind the absence of elections is Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict in aid of the Bashar Assad regime. It is more in Hezbollah’s interest for there to be a vacuum rather than a government or a president who might question its actions. As such, the fate of the political process in Lebanon is tightly linked to what happens in Syria.
Even though the Syrian crisis is beginning to give glimpses of hope, from the Vienna talks to the Riyadh conference, it will certainly take more than a year for those developments to produce concrete outcomes. This leaves Lebanon in a state of waiting in the year to come. With its political rivals too weak to challenge it, Hezbollah will remain at the steering wheel in 2016. Even if a president is elected in Lebanon soon, he can only be someone aligned with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s prominence is not just due to its intimidation of rivals (the possession of weapons is a pillar of its political power) but also to the enabling environment that is Lebanon’s political system, which is based on mutual interests for rival political actors. Hezbollah has manipulated the system to cause the government to fall through withdrawing its members and allies from the cabinet. This system is therefore the broader cause of stagnation but the ruling classes cling to it because they all benefit from it.
The popular pro-reform protest movement that took place in Lebanon in 2015 saw modest attempts at challenging the system but, although the movement did achieve small gains on the societal front — this was the first time that Lebanon witnessed a genuine grass-roots reform movement cutting across sectarian and class divisions — it has not been able to challenge the political status quo. Lebanon thus enters 2016 with its dysfunctional political system intact.
Although Hezbollah did not play a hands-on role in crushing the protest movement, it still wanted it to fail. Hezbollah gave its indirect blessing to the use of thugs by its ally the Amal Movement to intimidate protesters. In being against the movement, Hezbollah’s position was ultimately aligned with that of many of its political opponents from the March 14 camp, who also regarded the movement as a nuisance because it threatened to disturb the status quo.
But the status quo also leaves the door wide open for Hezbollah to exert indirect control over the country. State institutions have become ceremonial as Lebanese citizens have learnt to generate their own electricity, buy household water from private suppliers and even take the rule of the law into their own hands. This serves Hezbollah’s interests because weak state institutions provide justification for its own state-within-a-state.
However, despite Hezbollah’s might, it has not been able to stave off the threat of terrorism, as witnessed by the Islamic State (ISIS) attack in Beirut in November. Ultimately, it is strong state armies and institutionalised and coordinated security apparatuses that can stand up to terrorism on a national scale.
As long as the mutual interests-based status quo continues in Lebanon, the country will remain vulnerable, not only to terrorism, but to Hezbollah’s political control and manipulation.