Post-war Lebanese politics

Posted in Broader Middle East | 08-Sep-06

Power of prayer … an Israeli soldier at an artillery position in northern Israel pauses to pray.
Power of prayer … an Israeli soldier at an artillery position in northern Israel pauses to pray.

The recent month-long confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah has broken the deadlock characterising Lebanese domestic politics since the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 and the subsequent departure of Syrian troops from the country. But it has also complicated them. On the one hand, it has sharpened political and sectarian divisions, while on the other it has increased external intervention, making internal Lebanese dialogue even more problematic.

The anti-Syrian camp and Sunni-Shi’a tensions

Attitudes towards Syria still constitute the basic political dividing line in Lebanon. Leading the anti-Syrian camp is the ‘March 14 Alliance’, which has 72 seats in the 128-seat parliament and is the principal force calling for the disarmament of Hizbullah. Although the alliance has held despite differences between its members and its loss of initiative over the past year, it is now merely reacting to a fluid situation, as is seen by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s political balancing act. Siniora, who belongs to the Future Movement – led by Hariri’s son, Saad, and which holds 36 of the alliance’s parliamentary seats – has been described as an ‘Israeli pawn’ by Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. Nonetheless, he surprised observers with his steadiness and diplomatic agility during the war; his decision in the closing stages of the war to deploy 15,000 Lebanese troops to South Lebanon helped clinch US–French negotiations over the UN ceasefire resolution and deftly sidestepped Hizbullah objections.

Yet the limits of Siniora’s influence and control have since become apparent. On 18 August, following days of negotiations, the Lebanese cabinet approved an agreement with Hizbullah under which its members in southern Lebanon would not disarm, but rather would simply refrain from bearing arms in public, although this violates UNSCR 1701. Siniora cannot maintain his balancing act indefinitely, given the continuing Israeli air and sea blockade of Lebanon and efforts to interdict Hizbullah supply lines over the land border with Syria; Hizbullah’s opposition to disarmament and to the deployment of a ‘robust’ international peacekeeping force; and US hostility to Syria, which in response has rejected deployment of UN personnel along its border with Lebanon.

The result is growing sectarian tension between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shi’a Muslim communities. A prolonged political impasse could force Siniora into resigning, or at least leave him sidelined. This would signal the marginalisation of Hariri’s Future Movement which, despite being Sunni-based, reflects a relatively non-sectarian outlook focused on economic revitalisation and empowering the government of a unified Lebanon. Such a development could trigger a decisive shift among the country’s Sunnis towards more overtly sectarian polarisation and mobilisation, magnifying a trend already underway since the Hariri assassination.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is a "Partner of Worldsecuritynetwork" and periodically contributes its analyses to the…
The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is a "Partner of Worldsecuritynetwork" and periodically contributes its analyses to the WSN Newsletter.
The most worrying prospect is the rise of militant Sunni fundamentalist movements. This is already evident in the northern city of Tripoli, long a bastion of armed Sunni movements. Although these have historically been anti-Syrian, Syrian intelligence is believed to be indirectly sponsoring them in order to foment sectarian strife and weaken the government. Local groups are forming in other cities under the guise of ‘neighbourhood defence’, implicitly against the Shi’a. However, this mobilisation does not serve Siniora in countering Hizbullah’s clout, as Sunni fundamentalists are strongly opposed to US policy in the region and to peace with Israel.

Christians at cross-purposes

Observing these trends with growing anxiety are Lebanon’s Christians, above all its formerly dominant Maronites. Despite a measure of private relief at the deepening Sunni–Shi’a rift, there is unvoiced fear of a Muslim takeover of the country. This is far-fetched, but is fed by the incipient rise of Sunni fundamentalism as well as by Hizbullah’s apparent ability to stand up to Israeli might; although there is no evidence that Hizbullah has reversed its longstanding pledge that it will not seek to impose its version of an Islamic state on multi-confessional Lebanon, its willingness to veto government policy over the disarmament issue and its demonstrated military prowess underline the political disarray and military decline of the Christians.

Yet there is little prospect of the badly-fragmented Christians presenting a unified front, let alone a military challenge. This seems especially true of the members of the March 14 Alliance. The Lebanese Forces, who are most outspoken among the Christian parties in demanding Hizbullah’s disarmament, are a spent force militarily and unable to attract the Christian mainstream, as is shown by their modest six seats in parliament. The Phalange Party and the National Liberals, once the dominant political and military forces of the Maronite community, now only hold another six parliamentary seats.

Conversely the leading contender for Maronite leadership, former army commander Michel Aoun, is allied with Hizbullah, and thus effectively with Syria. This is ironic, as during his brief and contested tenure as Lebanon’s president in 1988–90 he led a bitter ‘war of liberation’ against the Syrian army before being ousted and exiled. Yet since his return last year he has counted on this unexpected alliance to make a second bid for the presidency. His Free Patriotic Movement holds 21 seats in parliament, which elects the president, and the combined Shi’a list 35. Aoun’s stance has been costly – former president and Phalange leader Amin Gemayel has gained stature at his expense and several of his main supporters have broken away – but he presents the alliance with Hizbullah as a means of pre-empting the feared Muslim takeover. In return, Hizbullah is shoring up his position by channelling war relief to Christians in south Lebanon through his local supporters.

The other main Maronite figure, President Emile Lahoud, has been a lightning rod for anti-Syrian sentiment since September 2004, when his tenure was extended for three years thanks to a constitutional amendment of questionable legality engineered by Syria. Despite being regarded as a Syrian stooge and lame-duck president by the March 14 Alliance, which suspects him of complicity in the Hariri assassination, he remains an important player. Presidential powers were reduced under the 1989 Taif Agreement, but he retains considerable ability to block, if not control, the government and has repeatedly been at loggerheads with Siniora. Lahoud also has some influence in the army, aided by the fact that Minister of Defence Elias Murr is his son-in-law.

Hizbullah between triumph and contrition

Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, pictured during a 27 August television interview in which he spoke about misjudging the consequences…
Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, pictured during a 27 August television interview in which he spoke about misjudging the consequences of the abduction of two Israeli soldiers in July.
The division, indecision and anxiety of the Christians are a reverse picture of the mood among Lebanon’s Shi’a in general, and within Hizbullah in particular. The sense of unity fostered by anti-Israeli ideology and the religious practice of emulating a senior jurisprudent (marja‘ taqlid) – who, in the case of Hizbullah and its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, is Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – is now cemented in the perception promoted by the party that it achieved victory in the recent war. However, although Hizbullah seeks in this way to extend its ideological hegemony among the Shi’a, it has faced open criticism from some respected Shi’a clerics in the south. The admission by Nasrallah and his deputy Naim Qasim a fortnight after the war that they had misjudged Israel’s likely response to the abduction of its two soldiers on 12 July – and would not have ordered it had they known – implicitly acknowledges public unhappiness.

Much depends for Hizbullah on whether most Shi’a feel their community has gained or lost more in political clout within Lebanese politics and government. Over the past year, Lebanon’s long down-trodden Shi’a have felt they are finally coming into their own – as in Iraq – and the recent war encourages the belief that they hold the power to determine the political course of the country. This leads in turn to contradictory trends. On the one hand, Hizbullah’s need to protect its advantages and lever concessions means that it will seek to remain a member of the government. On the other hand, its determination to retain its veto power over government policy, resist disarmament and minimise the role of UN peacekeepers means that it will not integrate fully into the government. The result is that Hizbullah increasingly thinks, acts, and looks like an autonomous administration within Shi’a population centres – aided by Iranian financial support and underpinned by religious charisma and hierarchy – while retaining the privileges and advantages of government membership.

The implications for Shi’a politics are substantial. Incipient ‘cantonisation’ reverses the policy of full integration into the Lebanese political system and government bureaucracy advocated since the mid-1970s by the other major Shi’a party, Amal, through which it acquired cabinet posts, created and controlled the Council for the Reconstruction of South Lebanon, and secured election of its leader Nabih Berri as Speaker of the House. This ensured access to state funding and hiring and turned Amal into a vehicle for patronage and corruption, but failed to secure political and material assets for the Shi’a commensurate with their proportion of Lebanon’s population. It also lent credibility to Hizbullah’s strategy of constructing an alternative ‘resistance society’ – funded partly by Iranian aid, but also by Hizbullah’s own income-generating ventures and tithe-raising – through the extensive networks of cheap and dependable social services and business foundations it has developed.

Berri regained some standing during the war by aligning himself with Hizbullah and mediating on its behalf with foreign diplomats, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but his gains are likely to be short-lived. The electoral pact that won 35 parliamentary seats for the two parties in 2005 will hold for now, but Hizbullah’s ascendancy, which threatens to eclipse Amal decisively, and their basic differences of outlook and strategy mean the alliance will come under increasing strain, though it is not certain that Berri will abandon Syria and throw in his lot with Siniora as a means both of protecting Amal’s privileges and of politically as much as militarily disarming Hizbullah.

The impending presidential crisis

While the contest between Hizbullah and Amal for the soul of the Shi’a will unfold gradually, Hizbullah and Siniora are already engaged in a more mundane struggle for Shi’a minds. Hizbullah was quick to commence clear-up and repair operations and to disburse compensation for war damage to Lebanese families (totalling an estimated $180 million, the source of which is assumed to be Iran), but after an initial delay Siniora has launched a parallel government reconstruction and compensation effort and secured pledges of Arab and international aid amounting to some $2.5 billion. This, at least, is a peaceful rivalry. Furthermore, Hizbullah appears interested to avoid an open break with the government and is unlikely to challenge the UN-mandated arms embargo that Siniora endorses, possibly because it is aware of its limits – or that of Syria and Iran – in challenging UNSCR 1701.

"Substantive discussions with Israel, Syria and Lebanon about the Shabaa Farms and the Golan Heights should start."
"Substantive discussions with Israel, Syria and Lebanon about the Shabaa Farms and the Golan Heights should start."
Conversely, Hizbullah will prove far more resistant to any attempt by Siniora to put the disarmament issue back on the domestic political agenda, especially if the prime minister and the March 14 Alliance are unable or unwilling to discuss far-reaching reform of the Lebanese political system. Here, Hizbullah is in a position to demand a high price, whether in political gains for the Shi’a community, or in the integration of its military wing in the Lebanese Army. Either might be a price other parties are not willing to pay. The UN force could opt to support the Lebanese Army in a bid to disarm Hizbullah, but this would be a high-risk strategy: the army might not take the strain; its commander Michel Suleiman is hedging his bets and would be reluctant to test the loyalty of the rank-and-file; and US plans for increasing the army’s cohesion through retraining will take several years and are not assured of success. Forceful intervention might also trigger sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’a citizens – as could an Israeli assassination of Nasrallah – and create the climate in which the assassination of Siniora or other political figures is conceivable.

These considerations could lead to renewed deadlock in Lebanese politics and relative paralysis in government, were it not that presidential elections are due in September 2007. The struggle to determine Lahoud’s successor will certainly heighten tensions between the March 14 and Aoun–Hizbullah alliances – the latter probably still backed by Berri’s Amal – and see forceful political intervention and covert action by a Syrian regime anxious, above all, to deflect the international investigation into the Hariri assassination. The further risk is that the UN force might find itself a target as Hizbullah, or Sunni militants, probe its resolve or threaten a resumption of ‘resistance’ against Israel as a means of gaining leverage in the domestic contest.

The UN mission risks being caught in a Catch-22 situation: it cannot afford to engage directly in disarming Hizbullah, but cannot leave Lebanon so long as disarmament has not taken place, because this would make it only a matter of time before fighting between Hizbullah and Israel resumed. An alternative exit strategy would be to initiate a diplomatic process that addresses the wider political problems and engages the principal actors: this means at least commencing substantive, if exploratory, discussions with Israel, Syria, and Lebanon about the Shabaa Farms and the Golan Heights. With a sharp political battle looming in Lebanon over the presidential election, in which Syria will unavoidably intervene both politically and covertly, the EU and the US have limited time in which to make the effort.

This article "Post-war Lebanese politics - The perils of breaking the deadlock" is taken from the latest issue of Strategic Comments and appears by permission of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which retains the copyright. Strategic Comments, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, provides fact-based analysis on issues of strategic significance. It responds to breaking developments in international affairs and anticipates policy questions that are likely to loom large in the calculations of governments, analysts and businesses. Ten issues, each containing five 1,700-word illustrated articles, are published each year. If you would like to subscribe to Strategic Comments, please email James Hackett at or click here

The International Institute for Strategic Studies, founded in 1958, is a London-based independent think-tank providing information and analysis relevant to the prospects, course, and consequences of conflict. It publishes The Military Balance, the annual reckoning of each country's military resources, Strategic Survey, an annual review of world affairs, the Adelphi Papers, scholarly essays relevant to policy-makers, and Survival, a quarterly on international affairs. If you are interested in learning more about the institute and its publications, or in joining the IISS, visit the website at