Downtrodden Lebanese citizens have a right to be proud. Despite all odds – principally, an entrenched establishment and a criminal militia in charge – Lebanese citizens were able to elect some real reformers (including one actual demonstrator) and to defeat some notorious regime dinosaurs in the May 15 parliamentary elections.
About 10% of Lebanon's incoming parliament (13 out of 128) are new faces who at least are talking about reform and change. The pro-Hizbullah Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of President Aoun lost considerable ground in terms of popularity, and is no longer the largest Christian party in parliament, although the decline was only from 20 to 17 seats. Still, Hizbullah's main Christian proxy seems weakened.
Aside from the rise of the independent reformers, the other big winners were the anti-Hizbullah Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party (from 15 to 19 seats) and the venerable, now reformist, Kataeb party (five seats). Both the FPM and Hizbullah have made their deep unhappiness at the election results abundantly clear.
Advocates of a reform agenda have some clear priority issues, such as an investigation into the August 4 2020 Beirut port explosion, a stronger stance against the banking mafia and its supporters who wrecked the country's economy, and the incendiary question of Hizbullah's arms and impunity. While some progress on the first two items may be possible, the third item is an obvious redline for Hizbullah and its still-potent allies in the Lebanese government. One thing Hizbullah certainly will be in favor of is a new government getting access to Western cash, which is very much in its interests.
While I applaud the happiness of the reformist opposition at some gains, the fact remains that the establishment (and the LF is also part of the establishment even if anti-Hizbullah) still did very well. Lebanon's parliament will almost certainly have the same speaker, and a new president will only be chosen later this year, as a result of some sort of compromise with Hizbullah and its allies. And Hizbullah has been able to exert power in Lebanon before, and with a much weaker hand in Lebanon's legislature. If the elections moved Lebanon in the right direction, it was only an incremental move, far less than what the dire situation requires.
Real change in Lebanon still runs through Hizbullah and Iran. Only by a change – i.e. a great weakening – in the status of Iran's Lebanese satrap can Lebanon's establishment pay the full price for its folly and the substantive reform that Lebanon needs have a real chance of actually happening.
Hizbullah is not, of course, going to disarm itself nor is it going to release the stranglehold it has over almost all of Lebanon. If anything, it could be on the verge of relief, of strengthening, if the U.S. signs a nuclear deal with Iran in the coming months. Such a deal will fully open the financial spigots for Hizbullah and for Iran's other regional proxies.
The Biden administration has already provided Iran with some relief over the past year by refusing to implement punitive actions based on existing sanctions in some cases. Ironically, while ramping up (and boasting of) the efficacy of sanctions against Russia in 2022, the administration has actually weakened them in Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Conversely, any sort of weakening or impoverishment of the Iranian regime will weaken Hizbullah. The collapse of the current Iranian regime (an outcome that is unlikely but very much to be hoped for) would be a disaster for its many regional projects.
The West, especially France and the U.S., is often interested in Lebanon in terms of rhetoric and potential aid. But all too often, Western aid seems less about firming up real opposition to Hizbullah and more merely a conduit for maintaining the status quo and a state and bureaucracy – that more often than not still serve Hizbullah's interests and allow it to maintain itself as a parasite on the Lebanese body politic.
There is no contradiction in being happy with the electoral accomplishments of the Lebanese people this month while at the same time being deeply concerned that, in substance, very little has changed as a result of the elections. We have seen similar actions elsewhere, for example, the voting of the Iraqi people, the steadfastness of the Sudanese people standing up in the streets to tyranny – which, while inspiring and heroic, have not yet delivered the real change that these people desire.
Sadly, the most likely way that the Hizbullah power dimension will really change will be through war, and Hizbullah will only go to war against Israel within the context of a broader regional conflagration involving Israel and Iran in direct conflict that could be catastrophic for Lebanon. Iran's plan in such a war is to have all its proxies – in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria – serve as forward missile bases in order to try to overwhelm Israel's missile defense. The possibility of open war doesn't look imminent today, but that equation could change rapidly this year if Iran is truly on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power.
Wars are disasters, especially for small states. The allies of Iran that are likely to come to its aid are all in failed states, and many of them have already been at war for years. Lebanon has suffered greatly from economic crises brought on by a kleptocratic elite, and from Hizbullah's hegemony which uses that elite as convenient cutouts. It is truly sad that in the end Lebanon's only way out may be through the destructive fire of a general war – a dangerous outcome as murky as it is dreadful.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.