Don't count Lebanon's election as a victory for Hezbollah

Don't count Lebanon's election as a victory for Hezbollah

Early returns in Lebanon’s historic parliamentary election last weekend showed allies of the Hezbollah party gaining seats in the Lebanese Parliament and the international media ran with the story before letting the dust settle.

Headlines in publications like the New York Times read “Lebanon Elections Boost Hezbollah’s Clout” played right into Hezbollah Leader Nasrallah’s hands, as he declared a wave election victory for Hezbollah. The actual election results tell a different story.  They show a Lebanese people less confident in Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s leadership, looking to allies of Hezbollah or anti-Hezbollah Christians to lead them.

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Turnout was down to 49.2 percent from 54 percent in the last election held in 2009. This low turnout was reflected in major losses for Hariri who saw his Future party drop down to 18 seats, the most significant change in the electoral landscape. This came as little surprise as the electorate was restless after years of corruption and dysfunctional public services in Lebanon, leading to an electricity crisis and a waste management disaster.

Hariri’s loss did not necessarily mean Hezbollah’s gain, though. The second biggest change in electoral fortune actually went to Lebanese Forces, an anti-Hezbollah Christian party. Lebanese Forces is led by Samir Geagea the former commander of a Christian militia that opposed Syrian occupation and Hezbollah’s growth.  Although President Aoun has a tendency to work with Hezbollah and give their influence political legitimacy, his Free Patriot Movement party is deeply divided, with most of them identifying as solidly pro-western.

Hezbollah only picked up one seat, going from 12 to 13 total seats, but their close ally Amal party added four going from 13 to 17, while the Syrian Socialists party, another reliable ally held at 3. When all Hezbollah’s allies are accounted for it would be naive to deny they have the potential to make life in the Lebanese Parliament very difficult for Hariri’s pro-Western agenda, but that is hardly a new development from this election.

The real take away from the Lebanese election should be that two thirds of the seats were won by candidates that align with the west over Iran, either aggressively or passively. Far from the rhetoric we have seen in the past few days suggesting that the words Lebanon and Hezbollah are now interchangeable, this should be a reminder that over half the Lebanese people reject Hezbollah and are turning toward more dogmatic parties hoping they will finally bring stability and save Lebanon from foreign meddling.

The generally accepted narrative being repeated by most media outlets that Lebanon has been “taken over by Hezbollah” is dangerous and gives undeserved credibility to Hezbollah at a time when the U.S. and international community should be doing all we can to marginalize and weaken them.

In fact, the United States should continue, or even increase, its support for the Lebanese Army and the country’s counter terrorism and intelligence apparatus. Lebanon has been a key ally in the fight against extremism in the Levant and this has only been made possible by the millions of dollars the United States as poured into the Lebanese army to increase its capabilities to protect the state and its democratic institutions, ensure a diverse and plural society where Christians, Muslims and Druze continue to live together, and most importantly, counter Hezbollah’s heavily armed militia.

Ending U.S. assistance to Lebanon will hand a country with access to the Mediterranean, bordering Israel, home to the most empowered Christian community in the region and housing millions of Syrian refugees to Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s Syria, destabilizing the region for years to come.

Toufic Baaklini is a Lebanese-American with more than 30 years of business experience in finance and development. Baaklini is the president and chairman of the Board of Directors of In Defense of Christians and has committed years of service to preserving the historic Christian communities of the Middle East.