Uprising in Lebanon must focus on domestic reform, not on Hezbollah

Beirut - Lebanon

The uprising is not about Hezbollah’s dominant role in Lebanon, and it should not be; it is largely about corrupt domestic politics. But the attitude of Hezbollah- locally known as The Resistance- toward real reform may either help or derail the uprising.

In Lebanon, the October uprising has caught the government by surprise. No one before October 17 could have predicted that a highly demoralized and sectarian society could unite to confront an entrenched, corrupt political class. Without declared leadership or pre-planning, people rushed to the streets calling for immediate attention to spiraling national debt, a failing economy and an archaic sectarian system of power-sharing.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri got the message of the street and resigned within days. But the three political parties backing the regime (Hezbollah in alliance with Amal Movement and Free Patriotic Movement) are not comfortable with the demands of this popular uprising.

The government is not inclined to let the next prime minister be free to consult widely and think creatively. The regime is worried that an independent cabinet might change the political direction of the nation. The rulers argue that Lebanon’s stability is based on a balance of power among all religious communities. But experience has shown that “balance of power” is a euphemism for one side managing to co-opt some political groups and marginalizing others.

The uprising is implicitly challenging Hezbollah but not confronting it.  The Resistance has three cabinet ministers and a large membership in the parliament. Hezbollah’s arms are of concern to many in Lebanon, but society is divided on the complicated issues of defending the national borders and finding permanent solutions for the two million Syrian and Palestinian refugees, who constitute a third of the population.

At some point in the future, Hezbollah will have to decide if it is a political party or an armed force. It would be much easier for the Lebanese to stand behind the Resistance if its function is purely defending Lebanon against external threats, the prime reason for its existence. Hezbollah will never be fully accepted at home before it merges with the national armed forces, thus becoming no longer associated with a particular religious community or funded by a specific foreign country. It is unrealistic to expect the Lebanese to support indefinitely a movement that acts as a state within a state. Nonetheless, what justifies Hezbollah’s exceptional position today, are Lebanon’s porous borders, the unusual refugee situation, and the nation’s sectarian system. To appreciate the solid constituency, history, and politics of Hezbollah consider Simon Haddad’s analysis.

Under international sanctions, Hezbollah has reasons to be suspicious of external players intervening in the Lebanese crisis, to increase pressure on the Resistance. Supporters of Hezbollah argue that if the international community is concerned about the sovereignty of the Lebanese state and the security of Israel, the world should address fairly the Arab-Israeli conflict; and the US should reexamine its approach to the Middle East.

Back to the uprising, it is hard to tell if or when the government and the protestors will start a dialogue in order to better define the parameters of the crisis and its priorities. President Michel Aoun addressed the nation this week with a set of confusing messages. His speech inflamed the uprising. He said he understands the concerns of the protest but then asked the demonstrators to “go back home”. The president assured the public that he had “solved most of the problems” yet he was not “sure if all parties would accept his proposals”. He was definite about “stopping corruption” but he “could not stop” any politician from rejoining the cabinet. Aoun does not seem to realize that the uprising is an irreversible movement and that the protestors feel they have attained a historic opportunity to introduce real reform.

So far, the debate between ruler and ruled is indirect and misleading. The ruling regime wants to keep the new cabinet largely political and the protestors expect a cabinet without politicians. The demonstrators charge that all existing politicians in the country are corrupt, whereas the government considers the uprising to be led by dreamers.

To end this abstract debate, the uprising should organize and seek to participate in the formation of the new government. The process of forming the government is what matters, not how political or technocratic its membership is.

As far as cabinet formation, the demographics of the uprising are significant. The youth and women lead the protest. These two marginalized sectors have shown the possibility of unity over ideas and principles. They have demonstrated impressive discipline in keeping the protest peaceful and creative. Accordingly, should not women and youth be well represented in the future cabinet?

Hezbollah may need reassurance from the uprising. The uprising could declare uniformly that it is addressing good governance, not Hezbollah’s role in the defense of the country. Reciprocally, the regime should be willing to give the designated prime minister the freedom to form an efficient cabinet.

In addition to the cabinet composition as a hanging issue, there is the equally divisive matter of transition from the sectarian rule.  The Lebanese tend to agree that the current sectarian power-sharing system must be changed since it stands in the way of meritocracy. Where they disagree, however, is on the strategy of moving into a secular system. The uprising calls for an immediate shift to secular rule. In contrast, the regime seems to be reluctant to secularize in one step, since most political parties are backed by specific religious communities.

There is the talk on both sides of this conflict that a bicameral system of legislators if adopted, could preserve confessional representation. A higher representative body would guarantee some confessional balance- to assure the rights of minorities- and a secular house of parliament would put Lebanon in a democratic and safer position.

Lebanon’s crisis is grave but there are no signs, yet, of a full deadlock. There are also no signs of an imminent civil war. The real challenge is to keep the solidarity of the uprising intact as reforms are monitored in the weeks and months to come. The demonstrators should plan on returning to the street periodically to sustain pressure on a hardened political class.

The uprising is a significant step forward.