March 14 can claim a major — and unexpected — victory at the polls, but they’ll have to pay close attention to Lebanon’s real balance of power if they want to avoid miscalculation and overreach. The pathology of sectarianism and Hezbollah’s entrenched military power place far more serious constraints on the prospect for changing Lebanon than electoral politics do.
The results of the June 7 ballot are just one of many factors that determine what Saad Hariri’s coalition can and cannot achieve — maybe even one of the smaller factors. The biggest, on the contrary, is the old rule of force: Hezbollah’s militia.
If the Party of God perceives a threat to the autonomy of its militia, it will do anything, including a military takeover of Beirut, to neutralize the perceived threat. Hezbollah did so in May 2008, and has made clear it would do so again, regardless of the political fallout or cost to the resistance’s legitimacy among Lebanese. It’s also worth keeping in mind that about 850,000 Lebanese voted for Hezbollah and its allies, significantly more than the 720,000 who voted for March 14. Only sectarian gerrymandering translates that popular vote into a parliamentary majority for Saad Hariri’s coalition.
Votes do matter, but brute power matters more. Hezbollah won’t shirk from a confrontation, and it doesn’t have to worry about losing popularity and legitimacy so long as it commands the nearly undivided loyalty of the Lebanese Shiites in the Bekaa Valley, southern Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs. The principle factor that could reduce Hezbollah’s power is Iran. For decades, the Islamic Republic has given Hezbollah a generous operating budget and a steady flow of military training and material, allowing the Party of God to build its own state and act independently of the normal constraints on a Lebanese political party. If Iran cut a grand bargain with the United States (or if Syria, which controls the flow of weapons to Hezbollah, makes a deal with Israel), Hezbollah could suddenly find itself defanged, or at the very least, boxed in.
By a similar token, Hariri and his allies draw considerable power from their links to outside powers — in particular the United States and Saudi Arabia. Neither of March 14’s patrons has demonstrated anything like Iran’s staying power and commitment to its client, in terms of military aid or consistent political cover. In Washington’s case, the sponsorship is particularly shaky; most Lebanese are convinced that anytime Lebanon’s interests conflict with Israel’s, there’s no question that Washington will side with Tel Aviv.
Whatever government emerges from the elections, it’s hard to imagine any substantial effort to disarm Hezbollah, although calls to do so will come from some quarters. The cries for “change and reform” notwithstanding, Lebanon’s political classes of all stripes have far too much vested in a system of patronage and corruption, and it will likely survive unscathed. Finally, it’s nearly impossible to imagine Lebanon’s arcane political system being revamped, with its guarantees of certain powers for certain sects regardless of their actual share of Lebanon’s population. Hence a shrinking Christian minority will wield more government power than a Muslim population twice its size, and the Shiites — Lebanon’s largest group by far — will still be relegated, at least in name, to the most marginal government posts.
The March 14 forces can claim a victory at the polls but they’d be hard pressed to claim a mandate. They won the support of the Sunni, the Druze and around half of the Christians, largely by convincing voters that the other side was worse — not by mobilizing support for a set of political goals. That lack of momentum makes it hard for March 14 to do more than govern in the middle, in pursuit of incremental change, as it has since 2005. Any attempt to radically reshape Lebanese politics, for example by disarming Hezbollah and seeking a peace treaty with Israel, would meet an intransigent and powerful Hezbollah, which at least in the short term will retain the power to bring the Lebanese state to its knees by force, if it so chooses.
When the dust settles, everyone will talk about a “new phase.” Hezbollah politicians already were speaking quietly, before the elections, about a conciliatory approach. Ali Fayyad, just elected to parliament after 14 years at the helm of Hezbollah’s think tank, said his party now had to hunker down and work out the details of its political platform, eschewing confrontation.
“Politics has its own logic,” he said sitting on the porch of his home in Taibe. “When we were a small militant resistance group, we had other issues. We are now the biggest political party and player, with strategic effects in half the region. We will never achieve political reform by civil war or by hegemony.”
Rest assured though that until something radical and unexpected shifts in the regional dynamic, Lebanon will see small changes rather than big ones, and as usual, they’ll be decided by a small group of men sitting around a table — and not at the ballot box.
Thanassis Cambanis is a journalist writing a book about Hezbollah