If the party opts for repression to silence the domestic scene, it might cause a social explosion and foreign condemnation that it would regret
In discussing the popular protests in Lebanon, many people have tended to focus on internal dynamics and public disgust with the political class. That is certainly legitimate, given that some of Lebanon’s politicians are the personification of incompetence and corruption, individuals who in any normal country would be in prison.
However, it might be that the biggest factor affecting developments in the country – and how the Lebanese address their ongoing economic collapse – is regional politics. Specifically, Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most dominant party, will seek to shape the politics of the country in line with its interpretation of events in the wider Middle East and their impact on its patron Iran.
The recent assassination of Qassem Suleimani was a watershed moment for Iran. The country’s leadership interpreted the move as an attempt by the US to challenge the Iranian regional agenda, and this will almost certainly have repercussions on Hezbollah’s behaviour in Lebanon in the coming phase.
For the party, the US challenge mandates two things: first, not allowing Lebanon’s protest movement to undermine a political system that has provided cover for Hezbollah; and second, reinforcing the party’s hold over the Lebanese system so as to hold the country hostage in any regional power struggle.
The first imperative pushed Hezbollah to subtly oppose the protest movement when it began last October. The party variously sought to cajole, intimidate and demobilise the protesters, before focusing its efforts on forming a government that would preserve the stakes of the major political parties that are aligned with it. It has now put together a government that will aim to neutralise and, possibly, suppress popular demonstrations.
More worrisome is what this would mean for Lebanon’s economic status. It is almost certain that the country will need some form of international assistance as its financial system falls apart. The process is already well advanced as Lebanon’s banking sector buys time while awaiting a rescue plan. Yet Hezbollah might consider intervention by the International Momentary Fund, or some other outside group of states, as an infringement on its margin of manoeuvre.
Donor countries will not help Lebanon unless it engages in serious economic reform. Such a process would be painful and essentially be imposed upon a reluctant political class, thereby weakening its credibility. This could represent a red line for Hezbollah, which would not only see the political class lose its control over economic decisions, but might also have to face conditions for assistance that are directed against it.
Yet saying “no” would not be that simple. If Lebanon goes bankrupt and banks close, the pain the Lebanese feel will reach new heights. In such a context the party cannot be seen as an obstacle to outside aid. It would face a dilemma of either obstructing foreign assistance, provoking popular rage or opening the door to outside help and influence that could undermine Hezbollah’s lock on the system.
That is why the party might have no option but to push for real reform to keep foreign funders away, even if this is improbable. Hezbollah and its allies have created a vast and systemic form of corruption that is difficult to alter. Even with the best of intentions, any push for reforms by the party could lead to tensions with its allies. Worse, if Hezbollah regards preservation of the system as vital today, why would it accept reforms that transform the system tomorrow?
The party is looking warily not only at the US. It is equally uneasy about Russia’s moves in the region. A few days after the US assassinated Suleimani, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin flew to Damascus to meet with President Bashar Al Assad of Syria. The very clear message in his visit, compounded by the fact that Mr Al Assad had to suffer the humiliation of going to a Russian command post to meet Mr Putin, was that the Syrian regime ultimately answers to Moscow, not Tehran.
Mr Putin’s actions carried an implicit statement that even if the US and Iran went to war, Russia would protect its stakes in the region. Coming in the wake of Russia’s decision on countless occasions not to fire its anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli planes bombing Iranian and pro-Iranian proxy forces in Syria, such an attitude cannot reassure Tehran. To the Iranians, Syria provides Hezbollah with strategic depth in any war with Israel but that is no longer necessarily true if Russia controls the country.
That is why, just as Mr Putin effectively made his position clear in Syria after the Suleimani killing, Hezbollah will be keen to affirm that Lebanon is Iran’s. And it will ignore as much as it can the national protest movement, hoping perhaps that a mixture of threats and patronage power will allow it to weather the crisis. That, however, might be an unrealistic expectation given that Lebanon’s economic disintegration will hit Hezbollah’s constituency, and its wider community, very hard as well.
At some point Hezbollah will find that its regional loyalties are clashing with urgent Lebanese priorities. If the party opts for repression to silence the domestic scene, it might cause a social explosion, and foreign condemnation, that Hezbollah would regret. Lebanon is not Iran. Resorting to violence could potentially bring with it a civil war that draws Hezbollah into a maelstrom from which it will not soon exit.
Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut