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Hizbollah stands in the way of a new deal for Lebanon

Aug 11,2020 - Last updated at Aug 11,2020

Lebanon is in turmoil after last Tuesday’s horrific explosion at Beirut’s Port, which shattered major parts of the capital and left more than 160 people dead and thousands injured. The devastation comes after months of political and economic ordeals that brought Lebanon to its knees. With last week’s explosion the Lebanese state was dealt a lethal blow and without outside help its survival is very much in doubt.

Negligence is most likely the cause of the explosion but without transparent and independent enquiry the people of Lebanon will not be satisfied. The latest catastrophe has become an emblem for decades of official corruption nurtured by a failing political system. No wonder that protests have erupted renewing calls for the sacking of the ruling elite. On Monday, the Hizbollah backed government of Hassan Diab was forced to resign; most likely because of foreign pressure. What happens next in terms of finding a suitable replacement to Diab; a Sunni bureaucrat who is not tainted or influenced by local players, will determine the country’s future.

Foreign assistance is conditional and the burden of moving away from the political status quo that has besieged the country for more than three decades will fall on the ruling elite. Ironically, this ruling class poses both a problem and a solution for Lebanon’s calamity. The path towards ending the sectarian power sharing deal will not be easy. Hizbollah holds a monopoly over Lebanon’s political dynamics. Over the years it has become a state within a state; refusing to disarm or amalgamate its militia into the national army while dictating a pro-Iran agenda both locally and externally. Hizbollah has become a liability for Lebanon and the country is paying a price for its policies.

But that is not to say that other sectarian based political players are without blame. For years, former warlords have maintained a corrupt system of power sharing that has benefitted the few at the expense of millions. The question now is can Lebanon survive? The immediate demand is for accountability and that will not happen without an independent and transparent enquiry. Lebanon needs international assistance but that is linked to key political and economic reforms. With the current government gone it now appears that a constitutional battle will ensue in order to pass a new election law, with or without the current legislature. A vast majority of Lebanese want an early legislative election under a non-sectarian election law; a goal now shared by both France and the United States. This will be a major game changer for Lebanon and it is almost certain that the ruling political class will do its most to resist it.

The task now is to convince Hizbollah to accept the terms of a new political setup, under which its grip over the political reins must end. Failing to reach a new deal will open the doors to dangerous scenarios including a possible military takeover, civil war or de facto partition.

Hizbollah will resist changes to the political status quo but its options are limited. It is now facing an existential decision: Either it accepts stern foreign terms for badly needed international assistance or risk facing the responsibility for pushing the country to the brink. There will not be a repetition of what happened on May 7, 2008 when Hizbollah and its allies sent fighters to occupy key parts of Beirut after the government tried to undercut the party’s control over the airport and telecommunications sector. Any new political/social contract will likely spell the end of the Hizbollah-Free Patriotic Movement alliance that has crippled Lebanon for years under President Michel Aoun.

The resignation of the Diab government presents both an opportunity and a challenge for Lebanon. The current impasse is untenable and the political elite will have to make key compromises to rescue what is left of the country.

The coming weeks will determine if Lebanon’s ruling class have the will to adopt a new political/social contract that replaces a sectarian infrastructure that has led to this dark moment in the country’s history. Last week’s explosion has pushed for a trajectory where only a consensus among the ruling elite can save the country. The international community will lend help for now but it will demand that a new deal is reached among the Lebanese.

Hizbollah’s agenda, by its own admission, has put the interests of Iran above that of Lebanon. That is the sad reality that the country faces today. But the time for reckoning has come and the party must choose carefully. It cannot but back a new deal that would chart a fresh course for Lebanon away from narrow sectarian interests. Failing to do that would lead to chaos and civil strife. Lebanon today is at a crucial crossroad!

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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