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The Evolving Patterns of Lebanese Politics in Post-Syria Lebanon

Fouad Ilias


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  • 1 The two camps are named according to the dates of two huge demonstrations organized by each camp (o (...)

1The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon in 2005 and the massive popular mobilization that followed resulted in the departure of the Syrian troops that had occupied Lebanon for almost 30 years. The “post-Syria era” witnessed (and is still witnessing) the severe polarization of the Lebanese political arena into two major camps, the March 8th Alliance and the March 14th  Alliance respectively.1 The former is roughly depicted as “pro-Syrian” and “anti-Western,” while the latter is depicted as “anti-Syrian” and “pro-Western.” Hizballah (or the Party of God), the Lebanese Islamic Resistance, is the leading force in the March 8th Coalition. Its favorable rhetoric regarding Syria’s position and its manifest pledge to face “Western imperialism” is perceived as confirmation that it belongs to the Syro-Iranian axis. Moreover, Hizballah is perceived as being incompatible with the democratic processes that Lebanon was meant to follow.

2Shortly after the withdrawal of Syrian troops, a Christian political actor, the former Lebanese General Michel Aoun, returned to Lebanon from his exile in Paris. Aoun had opposed the establishment of Syrian hegemony over its tiny neighbor at the end of the Lebanese Civil War by launching a “liberation war” in 1989 against Syrian forces stationed in the country. Defeated, he was expelled from Lebanon. While his supporters kept a low profile waiting for his return, they kept networking and mobilizing. His involvement in Lebanese politics as an anti-Syrian actor leading the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led many, including Aoun himself, to expect an alliance with the March 14th Movement, but events dictated otherwise. Fearful of a potential rival (especially among Christian tycoons), the March 14th Alliance leaders refused to integrate the FPM into their ranks, prompting it to switch its alliance to Hizballah and the March 8th Movement within the framework of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) concluded at the beginning of 2006 (see Annex 1). This entente, first conceived as political tactical maneuvering,  evolved into a solid alliance that was further strengthened during the July War in 2006 thanks to the support given to the Islamic Resistance by the FPM “both at the bottom and at the top” (ICG 2008, 10). Later, joint demonstrations and strikes were organized to oppose government policies, which further emboldened the two movements.

  • 2 F. Traboulsi (2007) provides a useful explanation of Lebanon’s political system and sectarianism. U (...)

3The “Byzantine” political system in Lebanon, meant to mediate the political representation of the 18 Lebanese communities, regularly witnesses the appearance of very uncommon alliances between groups who often display unexpected tendencies to downplay previous rhetoric and switch their allegiance to external powers that are eager to regulate a game according to their own interests.2 The Ta’if agreements signed at the end of the civil war had left the country with a fragile peace and a Syrian godfather as an invasive arbiter. The agreements outline different collaboration mechanisms through joint accords between Syrian and Lebanese institutions in very diverse fields, linking Lebanon’s fate to Syria’s (see Annex 2, part four). This allowed Syria to regulate power relations and organize the so-called “Second Republic” (Meier 2008, 174). Allegiance to Damascus was a pre-condition for any high ranking or sensitive position to be held in the country.

  • 3  Hizballah was the only party in Lebanon and the world to enjoy the kind of backing it had, which c (...)

4Syria’s departure left Lebanon’s political arena split between two camps struggling for power and control over state institutions and the tensions could have spiraled out of control. The lack of a common national project allows for the flourishing of very controversial views regarding the country’s position in the Levant. In such a context, the rapprochement between Hizballah and the FPM appeared (and still appears) to many as just another feature of the Lebanese political system. The two movements became closer to one another as they shared common interests at a time when both were isolated and threatened politically. The FPM could not join the anti-Syrian alliance to pursue its declared political agenda of state reform, pushing for more sovereignty and transparency and of getting rid of “residual Syrian influence” within state institutions (especially security apparatuses). On the other side, Hizballah had lost a major supporter with the withdrawal of Syrian troops. The “physical” (or territorial) link had been abolished and therefore political continuity between Damascus and Hizballah strongholds was gone. The Lebanese state was out of Syria’s grip and hence no longer in a position to acquiesce to Syrian demands.3 Moreover, a large fraction of Lebanese public opinion was now eager to address the issue of Hezbollah’s armaments and position in the country.

  • 4  The dismissal of a high ranking general close to the Party of God at the head of the security of B (...)

5The relationship envisioned in the framework of the Memorandum of Understanding (see Annex 1) is now more than three years old. It survived the devastating war in July-August 2006 that was meant to reset the balance among political forces on the northern border of Israel but also, as recognized by many observers, to reshape the political map of the Middle East. The relationship deepened when both movements took their struggle to oppose governmental policies to the streets and staged huge demonstrations and months-long sit-ins. In May 2008, Hizballah’s seizure of Western Beirut in response to what it considered the overstepping of boundaries4  violated its pledge to never use its weapons internally. However, this did not weaken its relationship with Aoun’s FPM. The understanding evolved into a solid alliance. In this context, it is interesting to note that the relationship established in post-Syria Lebanon united two movements that were absent from the political game under Syrian patronage, and it was precisely the departure of Syria that allowed for their rapprochement. This had crucial consequences since the political integration of the two movements is still unachieved. To establish their place in the political swamp, they will unavoidably upset the already fragile balance of power between the ruling bosses and communitarian leaders, rendering Ta’if obsolete.

6My point here is not to argue whether the relationship is tactical or opportunist and therefore destined to collapse according to the changing rules at the national, regional and international levels. Lebanon is too often studied and depicted at the political level according to its “confessional democracy,” its “ill-conceived” communitarian political representation and the subsequent inherent fate of cyclical violence. Rather, as the relationship between Hizballah and the FPM enters its fourth year, the purpose of this study is to focus on the perceptions of Hizballah among FPM members. How could it be that yesterday’s (perceived) enemies are today’s best friends? How do FPM supporters react to such a turnaround? Hizballah is generally well portrayed among FPM members although the two constituencies have very few elements in common. Different backgrounds, confessions, political views and cultural traits distinguish them. Moreover, in the post 9/11 world order and after Syria’s withdrawal and the communitarian burst that followed, a Christian-Muslim understanding sounds quite unusual. Why is the Party of God positively considered among FPM members? How and according to what criteria do the latter perceive Hizballah positively? How are these perceptions structured?

7To address these questions, I investigate the context in which these two movements became closer to each other (both the leaders and constituencies) after describing the conditions of their emergence and their inclusion in Lebanon’s complex political system. The Party of God sustains the alliance it has forged with the Christian movement to better face current and future political challenges and ensure its acceptance outside its constituency. I use mobilization concepts to describe the way Hizballah has reached out to the FPM’s constituency. According to the different steps Hizballah has undertaken to reach out to them, FPM members’ perceptions vary according to their very heterogeneous political background, political culture, location and many other features. To better portray these perceptions, I have borrowed a cluster of concepts related to inter-group perceptions developed in social psychology. During my six weeks of fieldwork in Beirut, I realized the magnitude with which the charisma of a leader can impact people’s perceptions and political positioning. The weight of Michel Aoun among his followers is such that some of his supporters are heavily influenced by his decisions. I have therefore adopted a conceptualization based on the notion of charismatic leadership to tackle this issue. Charismatic leadership is often linked to the level of institutionalization within movements. Indeed, because the FPM is only loosely institutionalized, one cannot talk of a genuine party in terms of organization, decision making and internal processes. Therefore, I will explore the link between charismatic leadership and institutionalization to discover its impact on perceptions.


1 The two camps are named according to the dates of two huge demonstrations organized by each camp (on the 8th and 14th of March respectively) as a popular show of force shortly after the killing of Prime Minister Hariri. The two demonstrations signalled the beginning of the political polarization in Lebanon.

2 F. Traboulsi (2007) provides a useful explanation of Lebanon’s political system and sectarianism. U. Makdissi (2008) provides a genuine and unusual analysis of the country’s sectarian political representation.

3  Hizballah was the only party in Lebanon and the world to enjoy the kind of backing it had, which came from three states: Lebanon (although under Syrian will), Syria and Iran (el Khazen 2003, 617-618).

4  The dismissal of a high ranking general close to the Party of God at the head of the security of Beirut’s airport, and the attempt by the March 14th ruling coalition to undermine the parallel communication networks Hizballah uses for military purposes.


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