For as long as the current political system exists, it will not be possible to reverse Hezbollah’s sway over the Lebanese state. But it is not in Hezbollah’s own interest to seize power by force.
This paper has shown how Hezbollah has spread its influence throughout the Lebanese state, from the presidency of the republic to representative political institutions and the civil service, as well as Lebanon’s military and security institutions. This influence is due to a number of factors: Hezbollah’s benefiting from a reliable external patron – Iran – unlike other parties in Lebanon; Hezbollah’s capacity in terms of organization, funding, physical resources and numbers of followers, which dwarfs that of other Lebanese parties; Hezbollah’s own proactive orchestration and use of a comprehensive, long-term strategy; existing weaknesses in the Lebanese state, which Hezbollah has been able to exploit more systematically than have other political parties; and the presence of a political system based on elite pacts, which removes incentives for implementing measures to promote transparency and accountability. As such, while Hezbollah is a contributing factor to the weakness of the Lebanese state, it is also a product of the political system in Lebanon. For as long as the current political system in Lebanon continues to exist, it will not be possible to reverse Hezbollah’s sway over the Lebanese state.
Hezbollah’s increased influence raises the question of whether it will remain satisfied with its existing level of power, or instead seek to take over the state in a formal capacity. Hezbollah’s military capability is in some ways stronger than that of the Lebanese Armed Forces, while none of the other political actors in Lebanon has a militia that could rival Hezbollah. Over the past three decades, Hezbollah’s arsenal and fighter capacity has grown exponentially, with no domestic challenger in sight. In theory, Hezbollah could use its military capability to take over Lebanon and govern it by force. In practice, such a scenario would be wholly unacceptable to Lebanon’s non-Shia communities, and would pave the way for unrest. These communities are likely, in the event of a takeover by Hezbollah, to seek external patrons to send them arms and funds, which would spark another civil war in Lebanon. Clearly this outcome is not in Hezbollah’s interest.
Being in power through formal domination as a state actor would also subject Hezbollah to domestic scrutiny. While Lebanon’s elites escaped such scrutiny for decades, the situation has changed since the mass protests that began in October 2019. As state institutions’ weakness is more exposed, and as Lebanon edges closer to bankruptcy, citizens are increasingly pointing the finger at those controlling the state and holding them responsible for the country’s woes. Hezbollah is already one of the many political actors blamed by the protesters for corruption and mismanagement of the country. Were Hezbollah to be, or be seen as, the sole state authority, it would be faced with calls for delivering citizens’ needs in a state that has no real capacity to meet those needs. As Hezbollah operates through complete lack of transparency, it is also not in its interest to be subject to calls for accountability.
Were Hezbollah to be, or be seen as, the sole state authority, it would be faced with calls for delivering citizens’ needs in a state that has no real capacity to meet those needs.
Hezbollah is classed as a terrorist organization by many Western governments. Were it to seize power, Lebanon would be viewed by those countries as a pariah state and foreign aid from them would be cut off. As Lebanon’s economy is critically dependent on this external lifeline, it is not in Hezbollah’s interest for this flow of aid to stop, especially at a time when the severe economic impact of sanctions on Iran limits the extent to which it can support Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is publicly vocal in rejecting the possibility of Hezbollah taking over Lebanon, even under the pretext of ‘reform’. He regularly assures the Lebanese people that his party does not want to stoke sectarian tensions and ignite civil war in the country. In doing so, Nasrallah portrays Hezbollah as a group that is content with its share of power in Lebanon, and which respects the country’s elite pacts – framed more palatably as a ‘system of consensus’. In this framing, Hezbollah makes efforts to present itself as being free from greed and as post-sectarian.
In reality, despite having abandoned hardline Shia rhetoric for a period of time following its ‘Lebanonization’ in the 1990s, and despite pointing to the alliance with the FPM as evidence that it is not a sectarian organization, Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has told a different story, with Nasrallah openly championing the interests of the Shia in his public speeches. This further underlines that if Hezbollah were to take over the Lebanese state by force, it would not be able to sustain power because it would be seen as imposing one sect’s interests over those of the others.
By contrast, having hybrid status is ideal for Hezbollah. It can wield power in Lebanon without facing the prospect of civil war or international sanctions on the country. It can intimidate its opponents while using its exceptional status, as the only group other than the Lebanese Armed Forces supporting national defence, to retain the same weapons it uses to intimidate them. And it is the de facto authority in Lebanon without having to address the needs of the country’s citizens at large. Even when the 2009 legislative elections resulted in a parliament dominated by groups opposed to Hezbollah, the cabinet formed shortly after retained veto rights for Hezbollah, thus not reflecting voters’ wishes.
The sidelining of citizens’ needs is echoed in Lebanon’s security formula of ‘the army, the resistance and the people’, which keeps the state weak in relation to Hezbollah and does not articulate the rights of ‘the people’. The protests that began in Lebanon in October 2019 highlighted the Lebanese state’s neglect of its responsibilities towards its citizens. The protests came after a period of economic deterioration that Lebanese citizens ultimately recognized as the consequence of the existence of a political system that entrenches elite interests at the expense of the needs of ordinary people. People took to the streets to demand basic rights – public services, political rights and freedom of expression – only for their demands to be largely ignored by those in power. This reinforced the protesters’ understanding that Lebanese leaders were operating as if the Lebanese people did not exist as a key component of the Lebanese state.
This de facto ‘absence’ of Lebanon’s citizens is reflected in the state’s current security architecture. Including ‘the people’ in the security formula lends it an air of legitimacy by implying public acceptance of state policy. But since the formula was first adopted, in 2008, the record of the state as well as Hezbollah has illustrated that the inclusion of ‘the people’ is merely cosmetic. Ordinary citizens have neither a say in the use of this formula by the state, nor as regards Hezbollah’s actions (in Syria for example). Moreover, they have been unable to demand the reform of Lebanon’s security architecture, particularly because Hezbollah and its allies within the government are quick to accuse those who question the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s weapons of treason, as they argue that the weapons are needed for national security. Crucially, despite Hezbollah’s espousal of the rhetoric of reform, its ministers and parliamentarians have not sought to implement reforms in the state system, thus helping to maintain a status quo that benefits them.
The analysis presented in this paper of how Hezbollah holds sway over the Lebanese state has aimed to show that Western policies that attempt to reverse Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon by focusing on the curbing the activities of the organization itself (such as through sanctions) are not sufficient. Wholesale reform of the Lebanese state is a complicated and long-term endeavour that must be Lebanese-led, but any Western policy aimed at stabilizing Lebanon must support working towards this goal.