Hezbollah Wins in Lebanon – Sort Of

While the world has spent the past week rejoicing or fretting over the Trump administration’s scrapping of the Iranian nuclear deal, Iran quietly racked up a win that hardly anyone outside the region even noticed. In Lebanon, Hezbollah and its allies won more than half the seats in parliament in the first election held in nine years. As Hezbollah is effectively the Lebanese branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its victory could very well portend a catastrophe.

“Hezbollah=Lebanon,” says Israeli security cabinet member Naftali Bennett. “The State of Israel will not distinguish between the sovereign state of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.” Bennett is a right-wing religious-nationalist politician, so such a statement should be expected. His view is echoed, however, by the mild-mannered centrist historian and Knesset Member Michael Oren. “Should Hezbollah fire on Israel, we need to threaten that we will declare war on Lebanon,” he writes.

And since the Israelis just exchanged fire with Iranian forces in Syria from the Golan Heights, the possibility that yet another shooting war will erupt across the Lebanese-Israeli border is a little bit higher than it was as recently as a week ago.

Even so, let’s take a deep breath. The political coalition Hezbollah belongs to won more than half the seats in Lebanon’s parliament but Hezbollah itself only has 12 seats. That 12 out of 128, less than 10 percent of the total. By that measure, Hezbollah is a fringe movement, hardly more popular standing alone than the Green Party in the United States.

Hezbollah’s victory simply can’t be chalked up to a groundswell of support for another war of violent “resistance,” nor for the Party of God’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih, or rule by Islamist jurists. No, the coalition Hezbollah belongs to won because Christian voters put it over the top. And Lebanon’s Christians are, from Israel’s point of view, the least threatening people in the entire country. The reason they did this, when you strip away all of the mind-numbingly parochial details, is because, like most Westerners nowadays, they fear and loathe Sunni Arab jihadists like ISIS more than they fear and loathe Iranian-backed Shia militias like Hezbollah.

Only a third or so of Lebanon’s population is Shia. Another rough third is Sunni and the final third Christian. Yet Lebanon’s constitution guarantees that fully 50 percent of its seats in parliament go to Christians. (They made up half the population when the country achieved independence from France after World War II and managed to cement their proportion of parliamentary power in perpetuity.) Sunni and Shia Muslims split the other half of the seats in parliament. Since Sunni and Shia Muslims virtually always vote for their own sectarian parties, Hezbollah’s electoral ceiling in Lebanon should be around 25 percent at the most. And since the majority of Lebanese Shias are politically secular, Hezbollah’s actual electoral ceiling is less than half of that. So Hezbollah winning less than 10 percent of the seats is exactly what we should expect.  

Lebanon has more political parties than even most experts can keep track of without consulting a cheat sheet, and they clump together into two more or less stable coalitions. The Sunni parties are united and the Shia parties are united but the Christian parties are split, with a minority of the Christians standing with the Sunnis and a majority with the Shias.

The Sunni-led bloc, anchored by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, is pro-Western, pro-Arab and more or less liberal and democratic. The Shia-led bloc anchored by Hezbollah and Amal is pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian and more or less authoritarian. (I saw “more or less authoritarian” because while Hezbollah is thoroughly authoritarian, Hezbollah’s chief political ally Amal has more in common with Tammany Hall’s crooked ward heelers than with revolutionary fist-pumping theocrats of the Party of God.)

Hezbollah and its allies would be absolutely nowhere electorally in Lebanon if all the Christian and Sunni parties united against them. Why then does Lebanon’s now-largest Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Michel Aoun, stand with Hezbollah? At a glance, it hardly even makes any sense. The FPM’s ideology is a fusion of Lebanese nationalism, democratic socialism, and liberalism, all of which are anathema to Hezbollah.

Every party in Lebanon, though, positions itself regionally as well as domestically, and FPM voters are far more afraid of the Arab world’s overwhelming Sunni majority than its Shia minority. They believe the Shia minority—who are a majority only in Iran and Iraq—are currently at the peak of their power, that they cannot conceivably become any more of a threat than they already are. The Sunnis, though, could theoretically unite into a force as unstoppable as a Borg cube. Sunni jihadists like Al Qaeda and ISIS are also vastly more violent and deranged that their Shia counterparts. So from the FPM’s point of view, Iran and Hezbollah are the lesser of evils. And since a paltry 10 percent of Lebanon’s population shares Hezbollah’s draconian values, an Iranian-style theocracy of perpetual war where booze is banned and women have to cover themselves on the street will never materialize unless Iran itself invades and occupies the whole country.

It’s an understandable way of looking at things up to a point, but it’s fatally flawed. Nevermind Al Qaeda and ISIS—Lebanon’s Sunnis are the Christians’ natural allies. They are among the most liberal Arabs in the entire world, with the vast majority having no use whatsoever for Sunni jihadism. Sunni jihadism is more popular in France than it is in Lebanon. According to the Pew Research Center, support for ISIS in Lebanon stands at zero percent.

The problem, from the FPM’s point of view, is that Lebanon’s Sunni parties are resolutely pro-Saudi. Future Movement Leader Saad Hariri himself was born in Saudi Arabia and holds dual Saudi-Lebanese citizenship. For years he even sported a Saudi-style goatee, though his beard now looks more like a Westerner’s. You can hang out in Beirut with FPM supporters all day, as I have, and recite the long list of Iranian crimes in the region, and they’ll answer, every time, “but what about the Saudis?”

These people, in short, are picking their poison. Tehran’s, for them anyway, goes down a little more easily than Riyadh’s.

The FPM is pro-Syrian (and by that I mean pro-Assad), and again, they’re picking their poison. FPM leader Michel Aoun himself fought Syria’s invasion of Lebanon to the bitter end during the civil war and paid for it by being exiled to France for more than a decade. And his supporters were part of the March 14 movement that non-violently ousted the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 2005. Virtually nobody in Lebanon aside from the miniscule Syrian Social Nationalist Party with its spinning swastika flag overlaps ideologically with the Arab Socialist Baath Party regime in Damascus. Aoun and the FPM are pro-Assad today only because Assad’s forces no longer occupy Lebanon and only because they’re afraid of the alternative in Syria if Assad falls and Sunni jihadists conquer Damascus.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General hailed the election result as “a great moral and political victory for the resistance choice that protects the country.” This is nonsense on stilts and on steroids. Hezbollah’s victory places all of Lebanon in extreme danger if Hezbollah sparks another war.

Lebanon’s political alignment changes constantly, kaleidoscopically and sometimes violently. Everyone who cares even a whit about the place ought to hope it changes again before the next war with Israel starts.

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