Lebanon’s steep slope

Mohamed Al-Qazzaz, Thursday 17 Aug 2023

Lebanon has experienced a string of security issues: clashes in the Ain El-Helwa Palestinian Refugee Camp, a truck loaded with Hizbullah weapons overturned in the village of Kahaleh, and the assassination of a leader of the Lebanese Forces in Ain Ebel, as well as Gulf states urging their nationals to leave the country.

Lebanon s steep slope
Lebanese soldiers stand guard next to an overturned truck, carrying weapons for Hizbullah in the Christian town of Kahaleh (photo: AP)


While nothing direct or explicit links these incidents, they all contribute to a picture of heightened instability, further highlighting the need to elect a new president – a post that has been vacant for nearly 10 months.

According to Hoda Rizk, professor of political sociology at the Lebanese University, the Kahaleh incident took place right after skirmishes between Hizbullah and Israel due to the latter placing cement barriers on the Lebanese rather than the Israeli side of the border. By erecting a tent on the border to make a clear statement, albeit unarmed, Hizbullah appeared to be leveraging the ongoing crisis within the Israeli government.

The Ain El-Helwa Camp incident too aligns with a Palestinian Authority Fatah leader’s visit to Lebanese officials, which may challenge Hizbullah’s stance in support of Palestinian national unity. Rizk says that Fatah, though less influential domestically, holds sway over the camp’s dynamics. This message, directed at Hizbullah, implies external influence despite successful Hizbullah-led negotiations between Fatah and Hamas.

While Hizbullah adheres to Iran’s anti-Israel stance, a position supported by Michel Aoun’s Christian team, the Lebanese Forces support normalisation with Israel. The assassination in Ain Ebel has exposed this tension. The Taif Agreement ended the Civil War but did not uproot its causes; it rather transformed the nature of the conflict, with the same hostilities maintained through different means.

Since prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri’s tenure (1992-2005), Lebanon has grappled with issues complicated by the absence of a Christian faction: Aoun and his associates were abroad, some in exile, while the Lebanese Forces faced imprisonment. After their return following the assassination of Al-Hariri in 2005, a Christian-Muslim equilibrium reemerged, but core disputes lingered on.

Differences include Arab-Arab and Arab-Iranian schisms, with substantial factions backing Hizbullah aligned with Palestine rejecting normalisation and another sizable group, including Christian forces, supporting the US, Saudi and select Arab countries for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and endorsing normalisation. These conflicts transcend cultural divisions; they are deeply political.

Critics contend with Hizbullah aligning with Iran’s agenda, historically echoing critiques of nationalist forces, leftists and others that challenge pro-American sentiments. Political stances persistently target anti-Americanism and particular Arab entities. This pattern mirrors the past when similar criticisms targeted the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Arab nationalism.

The above context clarifies how recent incidents underscore the fragility of coexistence. In truth, the alignment between ally, foe and Lebanese strategy is a complex matter. Persistent challenges prompt continuous efforts towards resolution, often through calls for negotiations. This engagement suggests a broader regional desire to restore stability, and Washington has emphasised its support for that orientation.

From 2019 to the present, the US has sought to integrate Lebanon into its overarching project, including normalisation and disarmament. This constitutes Lebanon’s core struggle, parallel to its economic woes, as the country navigates this multifaceted battle.

Rizk added that these events shed light on the Kahaleh vicinity—a seemingly modest village that holds pivotal importance due to its strategic link with the international route connecting Syria and Jordan. Since the 1950s, Kahaleh inhabitants have consistently displayed an aversion first to Arab nationalism, subsequently to leftist ideologies, and ultimately to the political underpinnings of Hizbullah. Their affiliations align with those of the Phalanges and Lebanese Forces, and they exhibit an openness to normalisation with Israel without reservations.

The truck was overturned in an area very unsympathetic to Hizbullah, and the Lebanese Army stepped in, acting on the ministerial statement’s mandate of safeguarding the resistance: a concerted effort has since been made to prevent escalation. While the youth initially sought to defuse the situation, the time-frame provided was arguably excessive, potentially enabling certain leaders to foment discord. This became evident in subsequent responses from the Phalanges and Lebanese forces.

Independent MP and media studies expert Mark Daou, from northern Lebanon’s Byblos region, stresses that this is a troubling trend. He asserts that the ongoing events reflect the diminishing role of a state incapable of fulfilling its essential duty to safeguard citizens on the security, economic, health and educational fronts. This accumulation of issues, deepening over time, stems from a conspicuous lack of effective remedies.

Daou stressed the pivotal factors needed to rectify the situation. Firstly, the election of a president stands as a linchpin for restoring normalcy. Secondly, the implementation of the International Monetary Fund’s recovery plan — endorsed by successive governments — represents a tangible path forward.

The weakening Lebanese state opens the door to the nation morphing into a regional focal point, marred by unregulated arms proliferation. In this milieu, Hizbullah’s influence swells as state influence recedes. Daou suggests that Hizbullah’s underlying motive might involve weakening the state to divert discourse directly towards itself, bypassing official institutions. The Lebanese opposition is attuned to such shifts and has prevented the Hizbullah candidate from being elected to a position from which he might exert influence across the political, security, foreign policy, and economic fronts, benefiting from control of critical points such as official ports, the airport, and land borders with Syria where smuggling is widespread.

But the incidents in Ain El-Helwa, Kahaleh and elsewhere ultimately reflect the disintegration of the state. They are rooted in the obstructed decision-making capacity of official bodies, notably parliament. A notable case in point is Hizbullah’s abstention from all 12 sessions convened to elect a president of the republic.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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