Lebanon is in a poor way. By January 2020 its currency had lost over 50 percent in purchasing power against the US dollar, and the country was ablaze as furious protesters took to the streets to condemn the stagnant economy, unemployment, corruption in the public sector, and inadequate basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation.
As Lebanon descended into near chaos, prime minister Saad Hariri resigned. That was the point when, to vociferous public dissatisfaction, it was announced that his proposed replacement was to be a former minister of education, Hassan Diab. The public viewed this potential appointment as simply the discredited ruling elite clinging to power.
With near riots taking place outside the parliament building, on 22 January 2020 Diab presented parliament with a plan aimed at rescuing Lebanon from its economic and financial crisis. He promised to fight corruption and introduce reforms in the judicial, financial and administrative fields. There are 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament. Just 84 parliamentarians were present when the vote in support of Diab was passed by 63 of them. Those in favor were Hezbollah members and their allies. The party of the previous prime minister, Saad Hariri, and his allies voted against.
It was no part of Diab’s plan that Lebanon would default on its national debt. However, just one month later, this was precisely what Diab announced to the nation in a television address. For the first time in its history Lebanon was unable to meet its financial obligations. He said that the continuing economic crisis had led the country’s foreign currency reserves to hit critical levels.
Lebanon’s debt ratio, standing at more than 150 percent of GDP, is one of the highest in the world. It had been deteriorating for years, with the country recording nil economic growth and high unemployment. Across the country, prices have at least doubled since March 2020, leaving basic goods outside the reach of more than half the population.
So May 20 saw prime minister Diab writing in the Washington Post pleading for aid from the US and its affluent allies. Lebanon, he said, was on the brink of an “unimaginable food crisis”
“Many Lebanese,” he wrote,” have already stopped buying meat, fruits and vegetables, and may soon find it difficult to afford even bread… by the end of the year more than half of Lebanese households may not be able to afford to purchase food.” He promised to introduce subsidies for basic foodstuffs and to direct the central bank to defend the crippled Lebanese lira,
It is unlikely that these promises will placate the Lebanese public. They have heard it all before. The most probable outcome will be continuing fierce mass opposition to the administration.
In the twenty years since Israel withdrew from the security zone it had created along the Lebanese border Hezbollah, a rapacious predator, has been consuming the political, military and administrative organs of the once proud state, until only the outer shell of an independent sovereign country remains. Slowly it has become clear that Hezbollah, a body deemed a terrorist organization by large parts of the world including the Arab League, has done more than create a “state within a state” inside Lebanon. Many now believe that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are in effect indistinguishable.
This new reality impacts particularly in the military field. Officially Lebanon possesses its own military force – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) – under the overall command of the president, Michael Aoun. But alongside the LAF, and reportedly larger and far better equipped by Iran, are the Hezbollah fighting forces. As in Lebanon’s political and domestic spheres, Hezbollah has infiltrated the Lebanese army and gained, if not complete control, then considerable influence over it. President Aoun has said he regards Hezbollah’s military capabilities as not merely complementary, but essential, to the LAF. No wonder there are voices in Washington demanding an end to the financial aid poured into the LAF.
Where can Lebanon look to for help out of its multi-faceted crisis? Western governments will be reluctant to open their purses to support a Hezbollah-dominated administration. The US is considering cutting off its military aid to a Lebanese army in cahoots with Hezbollah, and thus with Iran. However much reformers and activists such as the Liquaa Teshrin group within Lebanon seek to throw off their Hezbollah shackles, the terrorist organization seems to be too fully embedded within the country and its institutions to be prized out. The outlook for Lebanon seems far from rosy.
The problem is of long-standing . After nine years without a general election, Lebanon went to the polls in May 2018. The election resulted in the Hezbollah-led political alliance win just over half of the parliamentary seats.
A major factor in Hezbollah’s popularity in Lebanon, especially among the Shi’ite population, was the vast network of social services, funded by Iran, that it operated, providing healthcare, education, finance, welfare, and communications. In fact Hezbollah had virtually taken over the state’s function in many areas, and the bodies providing the social provision disseminated Hezbollah’s ideology.
Following the 2018 election, it took nine months to form a government which had to reflect the dominant political position attained by Hezbollah and its allies. Unfortunately the new administration was utterly incapable of remedying Lebanon’s endemic problems. Finally it was an inept government announcement imposing new taxes on gasoline, tobacco and access to social media that ignited mass popular protest. There was so much dissatisfaction in the country that the first protests in October 2019 quickly morphed into nationwide near-revolution.
The latest opinion polls show that Hezbollah’s popularity has plummeted among some 60 percent of the nation, but that it remains very high among the Shia Muslims who form some 30 percent of he population. Iran will fight tooth and nail to sustain the dominant position that its puppet, Hezbollah, has gained within Lebanon. When, if ever, will Lebanon be able to throw off the incubus that has fastened itself onto the nation, and regain its sovereignty?