Reforming Lebanon must start by putting Hezbollah in its place

People gather near the parliament one week after the major explosion at Beirut's harbor, in Beirut on Tuesday. (Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
People gather near the parliament one week after the major explosion at Beirut's harbor, in Beirut on Tuesday. (Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Last week’s blast in Beirut, one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history, has destroyed lives and devastated a city. It has also sharply intensified demands for change in a country that desperately needs fundamental reform.

A wave of public anger has already forced the resignation of the government, which was composed primarily of nominal technocrats beholden to a pro-Hezbollah parliamentary coalition. But demonstrators chanting “revolution!” are making it clear that they don’t just want early elections based on an outdated electoral system; they want meaningful, lasting change, from the ground up. That won’t be possible unless the country can tackle the most fundamental problem of all: the role of Hezbollah and the political elites it has co-opted.

Even before this latest disaster, Lebanese were taking to the streets to express their discontent with the status quo. Rampant corruption, economic decline and failure to guarantee basic public services have inspired a series of mass anti-government protests in recent years. But the blast — which many Lebanese attribute to the long-established rottenness of the government — has now vividly shown the consequences of empowering a parasitic political class.

It has been more than 30 years since the end of Lebanon’s civil war gave birth to a new constitutional arrangement that divides power among the country’s main religious groups. The 1989 Taif Agreement aimed to prevent any one sect achieving dominance over the rest. But in the years that followed it produced chronic paralysis and, finally, economic collapse. It also gave birth to a two-headed monster — a powerful militia (Hezbollah) that combined the roles of legitimate political party with a ruling mafia feeding off the state.

There is now heated debate among many Lebanese about how best to tackle this monster. Some insist that no progress can be achieved until the militia is disarmed. Others point out that it is precisely because Hezbollah is so powerful that a more realistic piecemeal approach is required; one that targets the ruling mafia and spares the militia.

This is a false dichotomy. Lebanon’s duality of a mafia and a militia are one and the same. Hezbollah has co-opted the Lebanese state through systematic corruption and the manipulation of sectarian interests. Under the guise of “support for the resistance,” it rewards supporters by permitting them to circumvent customs at ports and airports. It convinces many of Lebanon’s Christians that it can use its weapons to promote their interests over those of others.

Resuscitating the Lebanese state and constraining Hezbollah require an almost complete overhaul of Lebanon’s decrepit political structures. This includes implementing long-ignored provisions of the constitution that call for dismantling the institutions of sectarianism that block meritocracy and pit communities against each other. It must also involve a degree of political and administrative decentralization, allowing the country’s various communities some autonomy under the framework of a more united state.

Lebanon’s political elites, Hezbollah among them, will maintain that such constitutional change remains impossible in a deeply divided country. The politicians would rather settle for a new government and early elections held within the existing political framework. This would absorb public anger while preserving the system of entrenched parochial interests. Such elections may alter the balance between pro- and supposedly anti-Hezbollah politicians ever so slightly, perhaps even allowing a few civil society candidates into parliament. But the mafia and the militia would remain in business.

The thousands on the streets of Beirut recognize this charade for what it is and are determined to destroy it. As a symbolic gesture, they hung nooses in the city’s main square — emblems of the punishment they say is deserved by all the country’s political bosses, regardless of their religion or political affiliation. Hezbollah supporters quickly torched the makeshift gallows, perhaps sensing the risk posed to them by such a national awakening.

The United States and France are now showing great interest in Lebanon, presumably because they comprehend the regional instability that could be precipitated by its collapse. French President Emmanuel Macron was the first world leader to visit the devastated city. President Trump phoned his Lebanese counterpart promising humanitarian aid. Their sympathy is welcome, but they must be careful not to inadvertently empower Hezbollah and the politicians who led the country into its darkest hour.

Instead, under U.S. and French auspices, a new Lebanon can be born in accordance with its people’s aspirations. Together, Washington and Paris have great leverage, particularly given Lebanon’s dire need for long-term financial assistance. France enjoys goodwill among Lebanon’s various communities and can push toward reforming the system. It also has good relations with the regional powers that exercise influence in Beirut — Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular.

Given the exceptional historical moment, coinciding with Lebanon’s centennial, this is the time for a new local and international understanding over the country’s future. It is time to bury the failed system of the past so that a new, more inclusive and more prosperous Lebanon can rise.

Firas Maksad is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs and president of Global Policy Associates, a Washington consulting firm.

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