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The Evolving Patterns of Lebanese Politics in Post-Syria Lebanon

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Fouad Ilias

Conclusion and Discussion

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1The picture that emerges from the analysis of the perceptions of Hizballah among FPM members is one of a complex net of interactions between ever evolving variables. These range from people’s personal backgrounds and shared experiences, strategies of reach-out by the group itself, to the role of institutionalization and charismatic leaders. Geographical and spatial differences also matter very much. Mixed regions or “interfaces” are of great interest since differences and similarities are fully revealed when it is possible for groups to meet. In addition, major events and their ability to dramatically shake former rules and orders contribute heavily to impacting intergroup perceptions. The July War played an important role in allowing people to mix and exchange, however the possibility (or the green light) to do so was a political decision to back Hizballah’s actions and welcome refugees in a context of sharp territorialization of identities and political affiliations. Accordingly, the war became a test for the popularity of the newborn relationship. As a consequence, many pointed out the fact that the war as well as the massive common strikes and sit-ins have somehow socially rooted the relationship.

2Leadership has a substantial impact on the members of a constituency and people feel reassured when their political leaders are on good terms. The signing of the MoU clearly blurred former lines of division and reduced tensions in many regions. The fact that the people themselves were demanding a rapprochement shows that if prior positive perceptions of the agency of the other exist among the base, the practical impact on day-to-day life will somehow have to be validated by the top. Hence, in this context, Hizballah took precise steps directed at the FPM leadership as well as at its constituency to expand it legitimacy. The choice to reach out translated into an evolving number of well framed policies aimed at reassuring the FPM as a whole. Hizballah joined in to boost the demands formulated by the FPM concerning election law reform and facilitated the election of a Christian president (although after deadly clashes in Beirut). Changes in  the  discourse allowed the Party of God to adopt a common rhetoric with its ally to denounce the state and its corruption and nepotism but also to adapt its style and make it more acceptable for the Christian constituency.

3If the role of charismatic leadership is preponderant in addressing the relation with the other in the context of communitarian political representation, this fact is heightened and goes hand in hand with a low level of institutionalization, though it should be nuanced since charismatic leadership can survive even if professionalism and formalization of procedures are to be found within a party. Aoun and Hizballah managed to turn a political understanding into a popular entente. Whether the horizontal understanding between very different constituencies will be able to survive beyond the charisma of personalities at the top and their influence on hearts and minds remains an open question. Turning “Al-Aouniyé” into institutions and a systemized vector of ideas and commune action may surely help.

4Regarding the political meaning of the alliance and its position in the country, the recent elections have only served to illustrate how divided Lebanon is and how much regional and international players strive to magnify these divisions. The political arena in the post-Syria era is still witnessing the attempts of the two organizations that were outside of the post civil war political system to now be included. However, the state and its institutions are unable to mediate this inclusion. Hence, talking about Hizballah, Sofia Sa’adeh puts it clearly by arguing that since the Lebanese system is based on power sharing between sects, every time an ascendant sect wants to improve its share in the political system according to its status, the country ends up in strife (Norton 2007, 155). Similarly, Favier sees the Conference Dialogue held at the beginning of 2006 between political elites as proof of the state’s weaknesses and its inability to provide solutions through institutions, which causes leaders to seek alternative ways outside the state (if not outside the country through foreign backers) to tackle conflicting issues (Favier 2006, 16-17). At the end of the 1980s, permissive conditions on the national, regional and international level allowed Syria to present itself as the only player able to put an end to the Lebanese crisis. The solution was the perpetuation of the system through the reification of the logic sustaining the national pact of 1943 that was based on a power sharing agreement between the main dominant sectarian leaders. Since this suffered from a lack of legitimacy, the equilibrium had to be maintained by the patronage of Syria (Meier 2008, 175). Therefore, no challenges to Damascus’ authority were tolerated, which prompted the ousting of Aoun’s troubling figure since he was opposed to the Pax Syriana. For its part, Hizballah chose not to challenge but to accommodate Syrian hegemony. In effect, the Party of God was (and still is) itself a central element of Syria’s regional policy, through which the movement derives multiform backing. The condition was Hizballah keeping away from the political game, which it did. In fact, Damascus had created a system unable to run on its own in the event of its precipitous withdrawal (Gambill 2007).

5After 9/11, but especially after Syria’s staunch refusal to support the US invasion of Iraq, the special configuration allowing Syria to maintain the upper hand in Lebanon began to erode. Mounting pressure resulted more and more in the use of international norms to persuade Syria to adjust its policies to the new stance displayed by the international community. Lebanon became a way to circumvent Syria’s influence and force its regime to accept American plans for a new Middle East. The adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 clearly set the tone about US views on Lebanon. Calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops, as well as the disarmament of Hizballah, were even echoed among Lebanon’s political elites that had started shifting their allegiances. The death of Rafiq Hariri precipitated the withdrawal of Syrian troops and put an end to the previous configuration with Syria as the main arbitrator of Lebanese politics. This in turn prompted other regional and international players such as the US, France, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others to strengthen their influence in the country. As a result, Lebanon increasingly continued to mirror the rivalries between foreign players, leading to the polarization of Lebanese politics into the March 14th and March 8th Movements (Meier 2008, 194-195).

6From then on, the different crises such as the resignation of Shia ministers in late 2006 and the sit-ins organized to block government actions in 2007 magnified Lebanon’s divisions. It also revealed the extent to which the political system based on the Ta’if Agreements had become obsolete as a solution to the deadlocks between the country’s sects. The impasse was such that it prompted players to resort to brute force to impose their will, which led to the events of May 2008 when Hizballah militias and its allies took over West Beirut. As a consequence, the March 8th Movement enforced its demands through the signing of the Doha Agreement, notably a blocking third in the cabinet and the reform of the electoral law of 2000. This resulted in a relative détente thanks to the minimal power sharing put in place.

7The events of May 2008 are among the most important developments in post-Syria Lebanon. They have set the rules concerning the political weight of the so-called opposition, with the Hizballah-FPM alliance at its core and the need for its inclusion in the political arena. Therefore, Doha 2008 represents one step toward the formulation of another power sharing system that follows Ta’if. In this context, the elections of June 2009 are reminiscent of the old logic still in place. The results of these elections did not alter the deadlock between the two political blocs and to this day the protagonists are still at odds concerning the modalities of the opposition’s participation in the cabinet.

8The conflicting views over Lebanon’s position in the Levant and the orientation to follow stem from a lack of consensus on its socio-political design and therefore its identity. Whether the country is heading toward the formulation of a national project that would define Lebanon as a whole and achieve the integration of its communities remains an open question. This would require permissive regional (and international) conditions, especially in the relationship linking Lebanon to Syria. The agreement on a national project would pave the way for reform of the state and its institutions and reduce the pervasive effect of partisan politics. Furthermore, it would lead to the definition of a national defense strategy that would include Hizballah’s concerns and tackle the issue of its weapons. However, any reform-related move should take into account the potential hostility  of strong traditional and communitarian leaders whose interests lie in perpetuating the status quo and maintaining a segmented society. In this context, broadening the popular understanding between the two constituencies of the FPM and Hizballah to the other segments of the Lebanese society may prove challenging but would be a welcome development.

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