The roadway to reform in Lebanon must tackle the issue of Hezbollah
Only hours before the second visit from President Emmanuel Macron of France to Lebanon last week, the political elite selected Mustafa Adib as the new prime minister. Adib is an unknown diplomat who is denounced for having little charisma, no track record, and shaky integrity, which is a profile that seems to have become an archetype of the prime minister of Lebanon at a time when the political establishment is under fire.
Adib secured the backing of an overwhelming majority in the parliament, representing Hezbollah and its linked political groups, including the Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement. The nomination of Adib was met with dismay by the civil society and youth activists leading numerous protests to overthrow a kleptocratic ruling class that has been turning the country dry. This same revolution brought down the government last year and turned into a grassroots resistance against the establishment. It even took on Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shia militia backed by Iran which is increasingly viewed as the main obstacle to change in Lebanon.
Is Lebanon going through a familiar mutation to another face of the same entrenched sectarian elite that has ruled Lebanon since the conclusion of its civil war? While tasked to form a new cabinet that can introduce reform measures, the leaders are threatened this time around by sanctions if they do not. But Adib has to confront a financial crisis because of this spiraling national debt, a fraying banking sector, and endemic corruption.
Lebanon has hyperinflation, unemployment is at 40 percent, and half the population lives on poverty. Government branches, public administration, political parties, and the security sector are also plagued with bribery and nepotism that are fueled by pervasive clientelism and patronage. There is no will to battle the broad corruption or structures to combat it.
Macron called on the government to focus on policy and credible reform promises from leaders, including a timeline to enact changes. Hezbollah was also left out of the framework. Elections are seen as the solution, but they will not solve the national problems of Lebanon. The current system draws constituencies along sectarian lines, so that citizens are mobilized to vote with these narratives, all but securing victory for sectarian blocks and leaving the political outsiders out. Lebanon needs a law that enables new actors to enter the system and ensure a level playing field.
For any chances of success, a path to reform must realize that Lebanon is captured by a political and military formation with striking power superior to the Lebanese Armed Forces and the chain of command that runs not to the office for the prime minister, but to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in Iran. The domestic and foreign deployments by Hezbollah are conducted on the orders from Tehran. Its political strength eclipses even the military strength. It has held positions of power in the agencies and institutions in Lebanon. Its party wing has intertwined itself within the system.
Hezbollah has used violence judiciously over the last few decades to form the political environment and suppress opposition. But the mainstay is the psychological operation which saturates the cultural space with narratives designed to instill support for an agenda of resistance. The disinformation campaign masks all this corruption in which Hezbollah is widely engaged, ranging from street level shakedowns that are done by mafias and militias to the clientelism and patronage viewed in authoritarian states.
After the explosion in Beirut, the unthinkable happened. Anger against the ruling class turned into outrage and then into condemnation of Hezbollah. In addition to dominating the government, Hezbollah had blocked access for years to that port which it controls. Days after the blast, the verdict by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon implicating a Hezbollah operative for the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri fueled the ire of citizens who are finally waking up to the nefarious critical role of Hezbollah.
If it does not lead to change, the concord envisioned by Macron could be part of a history of failures that has befallen Lebanon in the last decade. It will validate the political establishment that oversaw economic collapse, a public health crisis, and now a humanitarian catastrophe with long lasting implications. Any solution has to focus first on sustaining this momentum with the civil society and to prevent it from sinking into despair.
But a roadmap to reform must ultimately tackle Hezbollah and its role in Lebanon. The balance of power can only shift with its disarming. Finally when it happens, the satrapy will be unveiled, as the people of Lebanon will be handed a great opportunity to move forward and thrive.
Patricia Karam is regional director for the Middle East at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy.