June 29, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 219

The Strangler Fig: How Does Lebanon End?

June 29, 2020 | By Alberto M. Fernandez*
Lebanon | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 219

I spent much of my diplomatic career in what is called Public Diplomacy, which involves the cultural and media functions of U.S. embassies and the Department of State. In 32 years and 10 overseas assignments, I saw all sorts of peculiar media events under all sorts of regimes. But I don't recall ever seeing something as weird as what a Lebanese judge, Muhammad Mazih, ruled on June 27: The judge banned all Lebanese media outlets from interviewing U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy C. Shea. This was a reaction to the Ambassador's pushback against comments by Lebanese terrorist leader Hassan Nasrallah blaming the U.S. for Lebanon's economic collapse. Setting aside the practical aspects of such a ruling, it is a bizarre one, as Lebanon supposedly seeks help from the American-dominated International Monetary Fund and has received hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. taxpayer. An embarrassed Lebanese government apologized to the U.S. Embassy and claimed that the judicial ruling can be safely ignored.

But, of course, this clumsy decision makes perfect sense if seen through the lens of Iranian and Hizbullah actions through the years in the region. One aspect of this subversion is in the field of media, and the independent media and opposition political space in Lebanon is rapidly shrinking as a result of deliberate action by Lebanese authorities. As Lebanese citizens rapidly become hungrier, poorer, and more dissatisfied (with 25% in extreme poverty and 50% and rising in poverty), the imperative to control critical or independent discourse only increases.

Hizbullah's (and its allies') relationship with Lebanon increasingly resembles the natural phenomenon of the Florida Strangler Fig (ficus aurea), a tropical vine that entangles itself around a tree, supports it and is supported by it, and slowly supplants it; even after the host is dead, the parasite still survives.

Despite false promises by Hizbullah and its political satellites regarding a potential Chinese windfall, things are unlikely to change for the better in the near future in Lebanon. Recent propaganda stunts from the terrorist group have tried to distract from the immediate crisis and offer false hope, focusing on fantastic "Eastern options" for financial support, threatening war with Israel, and playing the sectarian card. In its attempts at deflection, Hizbullah has been joined by its partners in crime in Lebanon's ruling elite. More compassion and empathy for the suffering of Lebanon's people seem to be on display from foreigners than from the country's current rulers.

But how will this crisis end? One would assume that deep economic reform, including elements such as public sector, fiscal, and banking reform, along the lines outlined by experts such as Henri Chaoul, would have been a priority. But there is no interest and seemingly little urgency among ruling elites regarding the transparency, responsibility, and accountability needed to overcome Lebanon's "hangover 30 years in the making."

Another logical way out of such a dilemma is seemingly not open to the Lebanese people. In a state with free elections and political alternatives, those in power – who have so mishandled the situation for years – would be replaced by those out of power. That is not easily going to happen. While Lebanon's lively protest movement is a hopeful sign, it has none of the suffocating control over institutions held by the elites, nor the deadly force of Hizbullah. It is hard to conceive of how it can take over. Those in power may be hoping that any pressure for reform will dissipate once Beirut's international airport opens, and that most dissent can be exported.

Despite the unfolding human tragedy we see so graphically portrayed in the media, Lebanon still "works" for those who count: for the elites, it is still a turnip to be squeezed of whatever diminishing resources can still be extracted in the service of a bloated cronyism, and for Hizbullah it is a platform, a safe haven, and a regional launchpad. Hizbullah did not create the current crisis, but its straightjacket rule cannot allow the system to undertake the painful course correction that is so desperately needed.

Economic reform should have been, relatively, easier than political reform. The obvious and preferred path of peaceful political and economic reform seems very unlikely. What about other, more riskier paths, such as partition, or military rule, or a collapse into anarchy?

Dreams of partition in Lebanon, particularly among Lebanese Christians, have a long and fractious history. This is to be seen in the explosive and controversial idea – cantonization – dividing the country into sectarian-based political cantons, akin to the area controlled by the Lebanese Forces (LF) militia roughly from 1975 to 1989. Ironically, it was the current Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, who helped bury that canton in internecine fighting from 1989 to 1990. Another canton idea grounded in history was the area included in the Mutasarrifate of Mount Lebanon (1861-1914), which encompassed most of current-day Lebanon's Christian and Druze population.

But the situation today is very different from Lebanon in the 1980s or in the 19th century. Today in Lebanon there is no militia except the battle-hardened and heavily armed one that is Hizbullah. That group and its sectarian allies would never willingly allow portions of the country to formally slip out of its control. Some might say that a collapsing Lebanon could see the Lebanese Army (LAF) split along sectarian lines with Christian units providing security in majority Christian areas (likely an area similar to the old LF canton from East Beirut to Madfoun). But the Lebanese Army would likely be no match for Hizbullah, and the idea that it is somehow immune or above the country's many pathologies seems naive.

And Christians face another problem: their political allegiances today are even more split than they were in the bloody years of the Lebanese Civil War. Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement is a firm ally of Hizbullah, as are those Christians clustered around Syria's traditional Maronite ally in the Frangieh clan of Northern Lebanon. Lebanon's Druze are today more united than its Christians, but are an even smaller community. They cannot stand alone. And focusing on Lebanon's Christians and Druze ignores the reality that there are many Lebanese Sunni and even Shia Muslims chafing under the hegemony of Hizbullah.

Federalism or partition is not a viable long-term solution, as the real division in Lebanon today is between those – Christians and Muslims – wanting a humanistic, just, and enlightened future, and those – Christians and Muslims – who are subservient, either by conviction, greed, or fear, to the whims of Iran's men in Lebanon and to the continuation of a corrupt political status quo that is incapable of change.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.



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