Hanin Ghaddar, the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on April 15 about Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah regime.
The eruption of anti-government protests in Lebanon last October marked "the first time where three main Shia cities in Lebanon (Tyre, Nabatieh, and Baalbek) participated in a national revolution," said Ghaddar. Animated by anger over the country's economic collapse and widespread corruption within its Iranian-backed coalition government, the street protests led to the resignation of Lebanon's beleaguered pro-Western prime minister, Saad Hariri. Rejecting protestor demands for a reform-minded, non-partisan figure to head the new government, the Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement instead engineered the appointment of a cabinet dominated by the pro-Iranian March 8 bloc, with no representation for the pro-Western March 14 bloc. The continuing demonstrations were met by violence, but Hezbollah could not subdue them through brute force – it took the spread of coronavirus to achieve this, temporarily.
Lebanon, which experienced a civil war from the mid-70s through the late 80s, followed by Syrian domination until the Cedar Revolution in 2005, has seen Hezbollah assume greater and greater political power in the face of weakened Lebanese institutions and opposing forces. Having achieved near-absolute control of the government for the first time, however, Hezbollah faces severe challenges. Reeling from the collapse of local currency and deteriorating living conditions even before the pandemic, much of Lebanon's population is now on the brink of starvation due to skyrocketing unemployment. International donors are unwilling to bail out the government unless it makes reforms that Hezbollah "cannot tolerate," according to Ghaddar, because its allies depend on the spoils of corruption.
Moreover, because Iran is unable to send funds as a result of US sanctions, Hezbollah is "incapable of providing its own [Shia] constituency with jobs and basic needs" as it has done in the past. Its core base of political support is slipping. Ghaddar noted that there was a demonstration last week in Hay al-Salloum, a poor southern suburb of Beirut within Hezbollah's stronghold of Dahiyeh.
Hezbollah is "incapable of providing its own [Shia] constituency with jobs and basic needs."
The public is well aware that Hezbollah bears responsibility for the spread of the virus in Lebanon, which was fueled by thousands of its members and supporters traveling to and from Iran. Hiding the thousands of cases erupting within the Shia community to avoid blame, Hezbollah's response to the spread has been to publicize a strategic "health emergency plan," but without the resources and equipment to support it.
Ghaddar anticipates that any easing of social distancing constraints will trigger a second wave of protests, "bigger, more vicious [and] angrier," by "hungry people in the streets who have nothing left to lose," cutting across all segments of the poor sections in Lebanon. "[W]hen it comes to hunger ... politics will not be important anymore."
The next wave of protests will be "bigger, more vicious [and] angrier."
Ghaddar urged the international community to press Hezbollah to yield the reins of power to a government capable of enacting reforms. The most credible figure to lead such a government is former UN ambassador Nawaf Salam, a favorite of the protestors. Vetoed by the political class, however, he would need to be supported by the international community to have "power, leverage, and authority." Ghaddar sees the introduction of a new electoral law followed by "early elections as a second step" as the way forward for any real change to occur.
While urging Washington to put pressure on Lebanon, Ghaddar cautioned against proposals to terminate U.S. aid for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) until Hezbollah ends its domination of the government. Instead, this aid should be "restructured and conditioned heavily" to bolster anti-Hezbollah segments of the LAF and weaken pro-Hezbollah segments. "It's a small country and everybody knows everybody," she added, so "it's not difficult to figure out" which are which. Ghaddar described the military as more "nuanced" than Lebanon's other security institutions, so pressure applied through "appointments and restructuring" can more easily undermine Hezbollah's influence.
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.