Polarised divide continues to define Lebanese politics

Since 2005, the Lebanese political landscape has been dominated by two camps: the March 8 Alliance and the March 14 Alliance.
Sunday 17/03/2019
At a crossroads. Supporters of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri cheer during a rally in Beirut.     (dpa)
At a crossroads. Supporters of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri cheer during a rally in Beirut. (dpa)

Since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, the Lebanese political landscape has been dominated by two camps: the March 8 Alliance and the March 14 Alliance.

The two designations refer to competing rallies on those dates in Beirut, the former expressing support for the Syrian regime and Iran and the latter expressing joy over the departure of Syria’s troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence.

The heated rivalry between the two camps defined Lebanese politics for years.

However, the split went beyond domestic issues that directly affected the lives of the Lebanese. It mirrored a more complicated regional split, with Iran and Syria on one side and conservative Arab countries on the other.

While March 14 enjoyed a popular and parliamentary majority, it remained a loose coalition without a clear agenda. With the rally over, the group was all dressed up with no place to go.

It sent a delegation to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on a mission that illustrates the group’s lack of coherent direction. The delegation was to convince Nasrallah to deliver his party’s arsenal to the Lebanese government and join ranks with March 14. He promised to “consider” the proposal.

Members of Hezbollah were later charged by an international tribunal with taking part in the Hariri assassination.

Hezbollah was the main pillar of March 8. The party had a clear long-term agenda — to place Lebanon in Iran’s orbit. The party publicly declared its allegiance to Iran, which, Nasrallah said, “armed, fed, financed and inspired” Hezbollah. No means were to be spared to achieve its objectives.

The militant group did not hesitate to turn its weapons on its rivals. More than 20 leaders and journalists of the March 14 Alliance were killed in the ensuing years.

The threat was so intense that the movement’s leaders sought refuge in secure locations or fled the country altogether. This included the leader of the coalition, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned and was all but evicted from the country.

Moreover, the March 14 Alliance soon showed signs of cracks in its foundation.

In February 2006, the Christian leader, Michel Aoun, once a fierce opponent of the Syrians and Hezbollah, and a presidential hopeful, changed sides. He left March 14 and signed a pact with Hezbollah. In May 2008, following Hezbollah’s militia occupation of Beirut, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt also broke ranks with March 14, although he did not join the rival group.

Still, through intimidation and bullying, the party’s influence grew. In 2014, it was so powerful it prevented the election of a new president for more than two years, insisting that its own candidate, Aoun, be elected to the office.

From exile, Hariri began to plan his comeback. It became evident to him that his return to the country — and the premiership — was contingent on Hezbollah’s consent.

In 2016, after lengthy negotiations that included Hezbollah and Aoun, Hariri struck a deal. He would endorse Aoun as president and he would become prime minister.

His real power, however, would be greatly diminished. In other words, he would be under the sway of Aoun and Hezbollah. The deal included Hariri’s consent to a new electoral law that was tailored for Aoun and Hezbollah. Moreover, while Hariri demanded that Hezbollah end its involvement in regional conflicts, the party ignored his plea.

The “presidential deal” all but sealed March 14’s fate.

Hariri’s critics accused him of backstabbing the March 14 Alliance for his own political ends. He argued that the deal was necessary to fill the presidential vacuum and reverse the country’s economic deterioration. However, more than two years after the deal was forged, the Lebanese economy has only worsened.

Following the “presidential deal,” Hezbollah’s influence reached all the vital organs of the Lebanese state. Appointments to senior government posts became subject to the party’s approval. And when the Lebanese army wanted to hold a public rally in downtown Beirut to celebrate its victory over ISIS, Hezbollah objected. The rally was cancelled. Moreover, when Hariri was asked by a French journalist about Hezbollah’s arsenal, he denied that the party used its weapons inside Lebanon.

Hezbollah, as well, has been careful to conceal its widening influence in the country. It does not want to be seen as the mover and shaker of Lebanese politics.

A few weeks after the Hariri government was born following nine months of intense negotiations, Nasrallah urged the media not to describe it as “Hezbollah’s government.” When a member of parliament belonging to the party declared in parliament that Aoun came to office “through the barrel of Hezbollah’s gun,” the party took disciplinary action against him.

When it was founded in 1982, Hezbollah’s declared objective was to liberate occupied Lebanese areas from the Israeli occupation. Today, it is in a position to dominate important issues of political life in the country and define its agenda.