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The Evolving Patterns of Lebanese Politics in Post-Syria Lebanon

Fouad Ilias

1. Disparate Partners in an Odd Couple

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1.1 Hizballah: Shia Empowerment, Resistance and Political Integration

1The marginalized Shia communities of Lebanon began their mobilization along communitarian lines during the 1970s. Before that, political mobilization did not occur on a sectarian basis. Shia used to make up much of the rank and file of leftist parties such as the Lebanese Communist Party or the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (Deeb 2006). However, political mobilization under the banner of Shiism began when several scholars returned from religious seminars and studies in the holy cities of Najaf (Iraq) and Qom (Iran). Influential ulemas such as Musa Sadr, Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddine and Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah had a lasting impact on the politicization of their community. Among the various organizations influenced by the Islamist scholars, political activity was restricted to Amal, an Arabic acronym for “Lebanese Resistance Detachments” (afwaj al-muqawama al-lubnaniya). Amal was formed by Musa Sadr at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975-1976 (Qassem 2008, 25-34). Two major events propelled Shia activists to step up their political involvement and further distance themselves from leftist parties: the Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. The former boosted the scope of action for political mobilization whereas the latter provided the ideological basis and technical abilities that would later shape Hizballah.

  • 5 Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary theory advocates the creation of an Islamic state (therefore coup (...)

2The Party of God was the result of the fusion of various Shia Islamic groups formed during the Lebanese Civil War to fight against the Israeli forces who invaded the country in 1982. These included fighters from “Amal Islamic” (an offshoot of the Shia Party and Militia Amal) and the “Islamic Committees” who decided to adopt the wilayat al faqih (or “the Jurisdiction of the Jurist-Theologian”) as an organizational mode.5The groups obtained the approval of Ayatollah Khomeini (as the wali al faqih, the Jurist-Theologian). These entities would dissolve to officially form Hizballah in 1985 with ideological and logistical help from Iran and Syria (Charara and Domont 2004, 98-101). In this context, Goodarzi refers to a common decision made by the Syrians and Iranians in 1982 to empower the Shia community in Lebanon as a shield against the hegemonic policies of the Israelis (2006: 76-77).

  • 6 The official date of its creation is 16 February 1985.

3Since 1985,6 Hizballah’s actions against Israeli forces rose sharply in parallel to its social policies. The movement began building social institutions to support its constituency. Various schools, hospitals and charity institutions were created to help the population cope with the occupation and its consequences while the movement endeavored to keep out of the several destructive civil war phases that plagued the country.

4At the end of the 1980s, changes at the international level had a direct impact on Lebanon. The end of the Iraq-Iran War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the massive international build-up against Iraq that followed its invasion of Kuwait prompted a rapprochement between Damascus and Washington. The subsequent green light given to Syria by the Americans resulted in the end of the civil war in Lebanon when Syrian troops besieged General Michel Aoun and his followers and forced Aoun into exile in France in 1990. The main obstacle to the implementation of the “Pax Syriana” (according to the Ta’if Agreements (see Annex 2) signed a year before) was removed.

5The Agreements signed by the Lebanese warlords did not address any of the crucial issues that had led to the civil war, nor did they encompass any political, economical or social reform. Rather, they institutionalized sectarianism and left in place the very same people who led the internecine conflicts during the 15 year civil war.  At that time, an internal debate raged among decision makers within Hizballah about their participation in the political system. This period coincided with the end of Iran’s policy of exportation of its Islamic revolution, which encouraged Hizballah to focus on its national priorities and adopt a nationalist stance and rhetoric, which resulted in its decision to join the political process (Deeb 2006). Although the movement expressed deep concerns about the Ta’if Agreements, it favored civil peace, state reconstruction and viewed the post-war period as a way to get support for its resistance project not only from the different segments of Lebanese society, but also from the state. Hizballah decided not to challenge Ta’if, but to accommodate it. It was believed that the only way to cure the troubles affecting Lebanon was to gradually reform the state from within and not through the establishment of an Islamic Republic. This new direction adopted by the Islamist party entailed reaching out to other communities in Lebanon (Charara and Domont 2004, 130-135).  Its formal entry into politics dates back to 1992 when it participated in the first parliamentary elections held after 18 years and achieved surprising success.

6 Throughout the 1990s and at several levels, Hizballah boosted its electoral appeal and managed to win many hearts and minds thanks to its social role and the services it provided through the efficient network of its institutions (Norton 2007, 98-104). However, it refused to directly take part in the government (although it still had parliamentary representation) and avoided the sneaky political maneuvering that characterizes the Lebanese political sphere. It managed to depict itself as an honest political movement opposing the policies of those that were in power (the same ones calling the shots during the civil war that ravaged the country) while maintaining its armed resistance activities against the Israeli army and its Lebanese proxies in the south of the country. Hence, while focusing on strengthening its grip on the Shia constituency, Hizballah gained popularity among the other communities as the legitimate resistance against the Israeli presence. This popularity culminated in 2000 when the resistance operations against the Israeli occupation resulted in the withdrawal of the Israeli forces and their auxiliaries on 24 May.

7 While highly welcomed by the international community and perceived as a victory inside Lebanon (as well as in the Arab world), the end of the Israeli occupation presented a challenge in terms of legitimacy for the Islamist movement. Hizballah lost the biggest justification for keeping its arsenal and “resistance factory.” The movement insisted that it was the only entity able to protect the country while the regular armed forces were still ineffective. It was argued that active resistance would deter the Israelis. However, various voices inside Lebanon and (mainly) outside the Shia community called for the disarmament of the movement and its transformation into a political party. This trend grew considerably over the years as many parties and political leaders feared that the movement’s arsenal might be used internally to push for a certain agenda, such as turning Lebanon into an Islamic Republic following the Iranian model, or simply taking over the state and imposing a hegemonic vision of Lebanon that corresponds to the interests of the Islamist movement. Hizballah adopted a wait-and-see posture, trying to figure out its new position in a rapidly changing regional and international context of growing pressure (ICG 2003, 7-8). The withdrawal of its ally’s troops in 2005 signaled the end of its cover. The war in 2006 further polarized Lebanon about the issue of Hezbollah’s weaponry. While Hizballah supporters and sympathizers tend to consider its armaments as Lebanon’s sole shield against Israel’s destruction of the country, its opponents point out that it was precisely its weaponry that prompted the Jewish State to respond militarily.  

1.2 “Al Aouniyé”7: Syrian Peace, Exile and Rebirth

  • 7 “Al Aouniyé” (in Arabic) means the Aounist and designates Michel Aoun’s supporters as a movement, u (...)

8As previously noted, the end of the Lebanese Civil War was the result of a complex set of international and regional changes. At the end of its war with Iran, Iraq was eager to reinforce its position in Lebanon by challenging its main rival, Syria. Iraq therefore sent substantive and multiform backing to General Michel Aoun and the Lebanese Forces, against their mutual opponent at that time, Syria (Charara and Domont 2004, 131). However, this policy made no headway in Washington as the US was moving closer to an understanding with Damascus (in 1988). Syria obtained the upper hand in Lebanon in exchange for joining the alliance against Iraq. As a result, the military resistance led by Aoun in 1989-1990 against the Saudi-Syrian plans for a cease-fire and Syrian domination over Lebanon ended when Syrian troops stormed Aoun’s stronghold in Eastern Beirut on 13 October 1990, putting an end to 15 years of civil war (Charara and Domont 2004, 131). Expelled from Lebanon, Aoun nevertheless managed to present himself as a hero opposing the occupation and domination of Lebanon. Throughout his career as the Army Commander or as legal Prime Minister, Aoun’s uncompromising political moves and bold rhetoric appeared to many as proof of his statesmanship (Wimmen 2007).

  • 8 Interview with three FPM members before the speech of Simon Abirania (member of the Foreign Relatio (...)

9During Aoun’s exile in France, his followers kept a low profile to avoid repression. Nonetheless, 16,000 of them were arrested between 1990 and 2005. Belonging mainly to the Christian middle class, the “Aounists” kept networking and mobilizing. As a former Aounist (and now FPM member) describes it: “Here in Amshit, we never stopped; we used to meet at night to discuss sensitive matters or to relay messages coming from abroad. People were scared to openly express their disagreements and repression was hard.”8

10The movement restricted itself to student activism. Throughout the 1990s, campus protests were organized to oppose pro-Syrian government policies and Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs. The movement even renounced any form of institutionalization in Lebanon. Partly to avoid repression, but also out of fear that local leaders would emerge, gain autonomy and challenge Aoun’s leadership, the General did not push for more organized action and left the movement’s structure loose and in a quiescent shape (ICG 2008, 3).

  • 9  For example the Council of Lebanese American Organization, CLAO.

11Aoun continued his political activism and pleaded for Lebanese sovereignty from his exile in Paris and the Free Patriotic Movement was born there on 16 February 1996. After 2000, as Lebanese lobbies in the US9began establishing active channels with a receptive post 9/11 US administration, Aoun took the fight to the US congress where he gave his testimony on 17 September 2003 for the adoption of the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSA) (Domont and Aoun 2007, 69-74). This law paved the way for the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1559 on 2 September 2004 calling for the disarmament of all militias and the end of foreign interference in Lebanon, a clear reference to Syria as well as the privilege given to Hizballah to retain its weapons.

  • 10 10  Syria’s man at the head of Lebanon
  • 11  R. Labévière (2006) provides an analysis of the convergence of French and American interests and t (...)

12Unlike other Christian leaders who opted to cooperate with the Syrian rulers after the civil war, the exiled Aounists kept out of the political swamp in the country and were perceived as being the sole opponents of Ta’if and the Pax Syriana. Their militants in Lebanon stepped up their activities in parallel to the mounting international pressure exerted on Syria and its Lebanese allies after 2000 and particularly after 2003 and the invasion of Iraq, when it became clear that the US would intervene in Lebanon if it met any obstacles to its Middle Eastern strategy. The political turmoil that began in 2004 with the extension of President Lahoud’s10 term as a result of Syrian intervention is often cited as the start of further anti-Syrian activities in Lebanon, but also at the international level, when American and French interests began to coincide after years of tensions.11

13The tension peaked when Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was killed on 14 February 2005 and his assassination was blamed on Syria and its Lebanese affiliates in the security apparatus. After Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005, Aoun was welcomed by crowds of FPM members and sympathizers in Beirut on 7 May 2005. While the General kept battling the Syrian presence in Lebanon from his exile, a new rhetoric was adopted upon his return. “NapolAoun” adopted a populist discourse and directed his criticisms against the establishment and the corruption in the country. He began criticizing those who gained and kept their seats thanks to Syrian consent and denounced the political class which, according to him, symbolized “the symbiosis of the power of money, sectarianism and militia rule” (Domont and Aoun 2007, 49-50). His calls for reforms sounded menacing to his rivals and opponents.

14A month after Aoun’s return, the FPM bloc won 21 seats in the parliamentary elections and the movement received 44,000 membership requests, which presented a huge challenge of coordination for a movement considered to be a newcomer on the Lebanese political scene.


5 Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary theory advocates the creation of an Islamic state (therefore coupling it with the notion of territorialization inherent in the modern nation-state) ruled by sharia law and administrated by an expert in Islamic jurisprudence: a faqih.

6 The official date of its creation is 16 February 1985.

7 “Al Aouniyé” (in Arabic) means the Aounist and designates Michel Aoun’s supporters as a movement, usually before the creation of the FPM, although it is still used to denote it today.

8 Interview with three FPM members before the speech of Simon Abirania (member of the Foreign Relations Commission), Amshit (Byblos), local FPM office, 29 March 2009.

9  For example the Council of Lebanese American Organization, CLAO.

10 10  Syria’s man at the head of Lebanon

11  R. Labévière (2006) provides an analysis of the convergence of French and American interests and the subsequent shift in French diplomacy to match America’s in Lebanon.


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