Beirut: The Paris of the Middle East?

How Iran and Hezbollah are in the way.

Lebanon has not had a functioning government since May of 2018. The reason? Squabbling among the various sectarian groups over ministerial posts. In the meantime, Lebanon’s national debt has soared to $84 billion or 155 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The unemployment rate, too has risen to 36 percent. 

Frustrated by the prolonged political bickering of the politicians, public-sector agencies and businesses throughout Lebanon staged a strike last week expressing their anger over the economic downturn, which has been crippled by the eight months absence of a functional government. Beirut’s port was closed along with state institutions such as the National Social Security Fund, the electricity company, and the Rafic Hariri International Airport experienced hour long stoppages. The strike was called by the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, with the backing of the new cross-sectarian Sabaa Party.

Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker, called on (January 9, 2019) the Arab League economic summit scheduled to take place in Beirut at the end of the month, to be postponed due to Lebanon’s failure to agree on a new government. The Shiite-Muslim leader also asserted “the necessity of having Syria participate in such a summit.” The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership following the Assad regime crackdown and butchery of protesters against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

At the birth of modern Lebanon in 1943, the National Pact established a parliamentary allocation of seats based on a 1932 census, which gave Christians a 6-to-5 ratio. In 1990, the ratio changed to a 50/50 allocation of parliamentary seats. Nevertheless, according to the National Pact and established customs, the President of Lebanon is always a Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister is always a Sunni-Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament is always a Shiite-Muslim.

In the recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon on May 6, 2018, the Hezbollah dominated and pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance won a majority of 80 seats in the 128 seat parliament. This alliance includes the Free Patriotic Movement (nominally Christian) led by Gebran Bassil and also known as the Aounist party (named after Lebanon’s current president Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian). The party was the biggest vote getter, winning 29 seats. Nabih Berri’s Shiite party Amal won 17 seats. Hezbollah, the only armed militia with a political wing, led by Hassan Nasrallah, won 13 seats but it is dominating the alliance. Suleiman Frangieh, another Christian allied with Hezbollah, and the leader of the El Merada party, received 7 seats. The AZM party led by Najib Mikati (a Sunni Muslim) won 4 seats. The alliance received another 10 seats from independents.

The March 14 Alliance that previously dominated parliament shrank to 47 seats. Saad Hariri, a Sunni-Muslim and leader of the Future Movement, which received 20 seats, a drop of 40% of its strength from the previous elections, will still however be the Prime Minister according to the National Pact. The Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea (a Christian) doubled its strength and won 15 seats. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist party got 9 seats. The Kataeb party led by Sami Gemayel (a Maronite Christian) won 3 seats.

Joseph Hakim is a Lebanese expatriate, founder and president of the International Christian Union (ICU). According to Hakim, Amal and Hezbollah dictate everything that happens in Lebanese politics. Moreover, they will not accept any president or cabinet unless they are fully in control of the decision making. Hezbollah and its allies forced an agreement in 2008, which guaranteed them a third of all cabinet seats. This has provided them with veto power. Hence, no cabinet can be formed and therefore no government can function. At this point, Hezbollah does not trust either President Aoun or Foreign Minister Bassil, both Christians, who are allied with them. Hakim added that “Hezbollah, the Shiite militia cum political party, is especially responsible for the widespread corruption in Lebanon.” “Hezbollah,” Hakim added, “controls the ports and airports. They control the drug trafficking in and out of Lebanon.” Hezbollah is receiving its funding from Iran, as well as military support. It is therefore the dominant military force in the country. Hezbollah is making sure that Lebanon will be dependent on them for survival.

Hakim asserted that, “Lebanon cannot afford a lengthy period without a functioning government. Lebanon is facing a deteriorating economy, and relies on outside sources to cover its deficits. The World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have pledged $11 billion in soft loans and grants for Lebanon. However, without forming a government, Lebanon is unable to legislate reform or stop the corruption plaguing the country, which is conditional on receiving the loans and grants.”

As it currently appears, the power play over the cabinet seats will continue well into 2019, according to Hakim. The country’s economy will likely collapse before a functioning government can be formed. Hakim warned that should Iran and Hezbollah’s machinations continue, the World Bank and the European Reconstruction and Development Bank must reconsider the notion of providing Lebanon with the $11 billion package. “The U.S.,” Hakim added, “should consider imposing sanctions on Lebanon, if Hezbollah and its allies are part of the government. This is the only way to put Lebanon back on track toward a functioning democracy.”

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported (September 6, 2018) that, “Hezbollah has been gaining strength in Lebanon in recent years and is virtually in control of the Lebanese army,” a senior Israeli commander said. He noted that, “Israel will not distinguish between the (Hezbollah) militia and the country’s forces during the next military confrontation.”

In the meantime, The Daily Star of Lebanon reported on January 10, 2019 that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday in Cairo that, “Hezbollah is a major presence in Lebanon, but the U.S. will not accept this as the status quo.” Hezbollah has been designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization on October 8, 1997.

The primary obstacles to the formation of a functioning government in Lebanon are the demand by six Sunni MP’s allied with Hezbollah, to a seat in the cabinet, as well as the distribution of portfolios. Saad Hariri, supported by the West, has hitherto rejected their demand. Regardless of how and when the squabbling over the cabinet formation is resolved, Beirut will not return to its former status as the Paris of the Middle East, and the financial capital of the Arab Middle East, as long as Iran and Hezbollah dominate Lebanon.

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Photo by upyernoz