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Video: The Election in Lebanon – Does it Matter?

Hussein Abdul-Hussein

Hezbollah (the Iranian-funded Shi’ite “Party of God”) and its Amal movement allies lost their majority in Lebanon’s May 15 parliamentary elections. One consequence, says Hussain Abdul Hussain, is that Hezbollah—the country’s strongest political and military group—has stalled parliament’s selection of a new Lebanese president and approval of a new cabinet.

Hussain, speaking on a Jewish Policy Center webinar June 1, said Hezbollah needs a government in Beirut, not as a ruling authority but as a legitimizing cover for its own activities. And when that role isn’t plausible, then “as a scapegoat.”

Last month’s voting was the first since the 2019 collapse of the Lebanese economy—gross domestic product reportedly has shriveled by as much as 40 percent in recent years—sparked large protests and since the 2020 Beirut port explosion that killed more than 250 people and damaged much of the capital. Results suggest a weakening grip by “the corrupt oligarchy” protected by “the arms of the [Hezbollah] militia,” Hussain said.

Something similar has been happening in Iraq, where Iran also had been exporting its own government system, according to Hussain. In Iran, “they elect a parliament and president every few years” but “the president and army are weaker than the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei],” observed Hussain, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. and former managing editor of the Beirut Daily Star.

In Lebanon, he said, Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, dominate the Lebanese army and the country’s president, Michel Aoun, a former head of the military and Maronite Christian allied with the Shi’ite movement. But in last month’s election, candidates and parties stressing “sovereignty” over “resistance” gained seats.

Several years ago, the patriarch of Lebanon’s still-sizeable Maronite Christian minority “started demanding ‘regional neutrality,’” like that the country enjoyed between 1948 and 1969, when it was forced by other Arab states to host the Palestine Liberation Organization. Many Lebanese now see those as “the golden years” when they prospered and avoided conflicts with Israel, Hussain said.

“Sovereignty is the code word … an antidote to Hezbollah’s code word— ‘resistance’” against Israel, which implicitly justifies the movement’s large arsenal and militia, he explained. “Now a bloc of 60 seats out of 128 [in parliament] agrees with the patriarch.”

In exporting its government model, Iran sees Lebanon “as a missile base to threaten Israel,” Hussain said. “That is the only raison d’etre for Hezbollah at this point.”

Since “Hezbollah does not get money from [an increasingly impoverished] Lebanon but from Iran” further “removing sanctions on Iran is a bad idea,” he added. Tehran “needs much more money than released so far” when the United States unfroze Japanese and South Korean funds owed the Iranians, Hussain said.

May’s election results may have shaken Hezbollah’s outer circles, Hussain speculated, but probably not the movement’s inner core. The latter, he said, “is still intact” with plenty of funds and “new technology … for guided missiles to use against Israel.” And “it’s getting explosive drones.”

Many Lebanese live and work in the United Arab Emirates, which have made peace with Israel. “They understand that peace is an economic multiplier,” perhaps especially for a country whose self-serving, multi-faction oligarchy “kept borrowing and hiking interest rates” from 1991 to the 2019 collapse and which, dominated by Hezbollah, cannot attract foreign investors. But until U.S. Lebanon policy changes from “crisis management” to encouraging pro-democracy forces, that’s not something Lebanese are liable to be vocal about, Hussain said.