Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative party
Two stories emerged from Lebanon’s election (held on May 15th): the loss of a pro-Hezbollah majority in parliament, and the emergence of a new group of younger politicians who want to shake up Lebanon’s post-civil war politics – an activity so badly organised that ‘dysfunction’ no longer serves to describe the inability of the state to maintain the country’s security, enforce the law, provide basic services, or even accountability for major disasters such as the port explosion of 2020.
Dating from the ‘National Pact’ of 1943, Lebanon’s was one of the earliest attempts to reconcile the majoritarian spirit of democracy with a religiously divided public, and a politics that channels religious identity into sectarian competition.
The country’s three main sects are Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims; the President must be Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni and the Speaker of Parliament Shia. Though this reflected the distribution of population and power in the 1940s, by the 1970s Shias had became more numerous and were demanding a greater share of power.
This set off the civil war of the late 1970s and 80s in which Israel and Syria intervened, with Iran-backed (Shia) Hezbollah eventually fighting an insurgency that forced the Israelis out in 2000. Syrian garrisons stayed for five more years, until revulsion at the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the Prime Minister, made their continued presence untenable, in a peaceful uprising dubbed the ‘Cedar Revolution.’
Hariri was a property developer who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia and secured huge Saudi financing for Lebanon’s reconstruction after the Taif Accord ended the civil war in 1989.
Taif required all militias to give up their weapons. All except Hezbollah mostly complied – with Hezbollah keeping its arsenal in theory to fight Israel but, in reality, to project Iranian power and support Assad’s embattled regime. Israel, for its part, continues to strike Hezbollah targets in Iran and Syria, though both Israel and Hezbollah try to avoid matters tipping over into a repeat of their inconclusive 2006 war.
Ever since Hariri’s assassination, Lebanese politics has divided on pro- and anti-Hezbollah lines, with different Sunni and Christian factions jockeying for position, and neither side enjoying a decisive victory.
Most recently, Hezbollah, with its allies in Michel Aoun’s Christian ‘Free Patriotic Movement’, was able to command a parliamentary majority but couldn’t run the country’s institutions. Buffeted by the fall-out from Syria’s civil war (up to a fifth of the population are Syrian refugees), the pandemic, and unable to address these problems because of political gridlock, Lebanon’s economy is a shadow of its former self.
In 2020 a huge, though accidental, explosion of ammonium nitrate (a fertiliser notorious for use as an explosive) laid waste to Beirut’s port, killing 232 people and causing billions of pounds of damage. Though no culprit has been officially identified, one does not need to be conspiracy theorist to draw inferences from the facts that Aoun blocked attempts to set up an international investigation, and Hezbollah supporters undertook violent protests against the local investigation in 2021.
This was the background against which this year’s parliamentary elections took place, the first test of public opinion since what is sometimes called Lebanon’s ‘October Revolution’ – the public protests against both pro- and anti-Hezbollah sides of the political establishments, which took place in 2019 but had the wind taken out of its sails by the pandemic.
Many of the protest movement organisers set up new parties to contest this year’s poll, under an electoral system unfriendly to new formations. It aims for religious balance by assigning seats in each multi-member district to specific sects, so new parties need to field not only the right people, but the right people with the right religion in the right places. The established parties operate deep clientelist patronage networks, and vote buying is rife, further limiting breakthroughs.
Nevertheless, these new independents won 13 out of 128 seats. Though hardly enough to hold the balance of power, and likely to be excluded from coalition negotiations, their election at least gives hope that after the chaos and corruption of the last decade, some limited change and political accountability might at last be possible in Lebanon.