Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose is a French epigram immortalized by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”). Literally: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The maxim would seem to be an apt summary of the Lebanese quagmire: caught in an endless political deadlock, Lebanon has become a failed state, unable to provide governance because of its sectarian-based political system. Having declared bankruptcy, its future is uncertain.
Modern Lebanon is an artificial creation of the French Mandate, which, at the request of the then-Maronite Patriarch, added in 1920 geographical areas populated by Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims to a homogenous Christian Maronite territory. The act laid the foundations of the failed state of today; the short-sighted Maronites became the victims of their own creation. Adding insult to injury, the heads of the Christian and Sunni communities decided in 1943 on a division of national leadership positions that ignored the rights of the Shi’ite community and left the richest ministries and national institutions in the hands of the Maronites and the Sunnis, who consolidated Christian supremacy over other sectarian and religious communities.
The resultant imbalance could not last long. Lebanon, the only Arab state governed by non-Muslims, could not resist the assault of Arab nationalism and later the growing Shi’ite and Sunni resentment. Three civil wars (1958, 1975 and 1983) changed the governing formula by reducing the Christian representation in parliament, as agreed in the 1990 Taif Agreement, which was meant to serve as “the basis for the ending of the civil war and the return to political normalcy in Lebanon.” However, this was only a short lull.
The tectonic change in Lebanon occurred slowly but surely among the Shi’ites, the country’s most disadvantaged and persecuted community, who were, even before independence, treated as second-class citizens by the Lebanese elites. Inside Lebanon, the Shi’ites suffered from Palestinian mistreatment in the 1970s and ’80s until Israel’s military incursion into Lebanon in 1982. They finally rose to become the most important political faction in Lebanon, with the active contribution of their Iranian sponsor.
The Shi’ite awakening was aroused by the cleric Imam Musa Sadr in the early 1970s, followed by the establishment of the Amal movement and the formation of Hezbollah by Iran in 1982. As a result, the basic formula used to govern the Lebanese state underwent an unprecedented change, culminating in the collapse of the Christian and Sunnite supremacy enjoyed by those communities until the start of the 21st century.
The assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 was the catalyst. As a result of massive protests and accusations that Damascus was behind the assassination, the Syrian military presence in Lebanon came to an end, and exiled Lebanese politicians returned to the country. The architect of the change was Michel Aoun, exiled to France for 15 years (after fleeing invading Syrian forces and finding shelter, in his pajamas, at the French embassy in Beirut). In 2005, he signed a strategic agreement with Hezbollah, which replaced the historical alliance signed in 1943 between the Maronites and the Sunnis with a new one that served as the basis of the “new Lebanon.”
President Aoun bows to Hezbollah
Aoun followed the example of predecessors, striking deals with foreign powers to assure his tenure. (Examples include Camille Chamoun, who allied with the United States; Fuad Chenab, who allied with Egypt’s Nasser; Suleiman Frangieh with Syria’s Hafez Assad; and Bashir Gemayel with Israel.) In Aoun’s case, he decided that aligning with Iran’s Shi’ite Hezbollah movement would assure the continuation of Christian rule in Lebanon. By doing so, Aoun changed the country’s political course, bringing it closer to Hezbollah’s vision of an Islamic republic, a province of the larger Shi’ite empire to be ruled by the Supreme Leader in Iran.
After its “successful” military confrontation with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah was hailed as a hero throughout Lebanon and the wider Arab world. However, Hezbollah became the target of criticism and mockery when, at the direction of Tehran, it mobilized to fight in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and to organize subversive activities in the Arab Gulf states.
This intimate Hezbollah-Iran relationship wrought havoc on Lebanon. By 2013, large numbers of Arab depositors had withdrawn their investments in Lebanese banks, signaling the beginning of Lebanon’s “descent into hell.” Hailed as a hero in 2006, Hezbollah, with its leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranians sponsors, became the target of vitriolic attacks as being responsible for Lebanon’s calamity. Nasrallah has been hanged in effigy in the streets of Beirut, and Hezbollah has been discredited in the eyes of many Lebanese, including some Lebanese militias, which have even dared to confront Hezbollah in scattered skirmishes.
Lebanon is now a failed state, and is heading towards a fourth civil war, crumbling under an unprecedented economic and political crisis.
Despite its recent setbacks, however, Hezbollah remains the only power in town, having built a state-within-a-state and an essential component in Lebanon’s economy, military and politics. The more the crisis expands, the more Hezbollah dares to initiate state-like decisions, such as its recent announcement of its intent to solve Lebanon’s grave energy crisis by importing oil from Iran.
As is its nature, Hezbollah will seek to fill the void and do the job. In the case of energy imports, Hezbollah’s seemingly altruistic actions are nuanced: most of the oil products will be channeled to Hezbollah’s facilities (mainly hospitals and social institutions), and the rest will be sold to Hezbollah’s political allies or smuggled to Syria.
The silent and acquiescent President Aoun is eager to secure Hezbollah’s political support in the 2022 presidential elections for his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, the former foreign minister and head of the “Free Patriotic Movement.”
Recent reports from Lebanon tell that under the instructions of Tehran, Hezbollah has convinced its strategic partner Aoun to compromise and accept the formation of a new government, only 13 months after the resignation of Hassan Diab following the mega-explosion in the port of Beirut on Aug. 4. By accepting Hezbollah’s mediation and solution, Aoun has given Tehran not only the keys to Lebanon’s political puzzle but also turned Tehran into the kingmaker in Lebanon’s politics.
All observers of and commentators on the Lebanese scene concur that Hezbollah is the real winner following the announcement of the formation of the Lebanese government headed by Najib Miqati, especially since the formation of the new government represents the so-called “typical Lebanese compromise.” The newly named ministers and leaders represent the same sectarian equation in the partition of portfolios and are totally dependent on the traditional political parties.
At this time, it seems that there is no remedy to Lebanon’s catastrophic economic state of affairs, a situation favoring further moves by Hezbollah to replace the functions of a failed state. Hezbollah will be emboldened to assume the failed Lebanese institutions responsible for other fields of neglect: water, energy, medicine and social services. If Hezbollah pushes to absorb the duties of Lebanon’s police, intelligence, or army, then Lebanon’s entire state structure will be in the hands of arsonists.
Going back to the opening sentence of this article, with regard to Lebanon, plus ça change, plus ce n’est plus la même chose—“things are definitely not staying the same.”
IDF Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly a foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.