The political fluctuations in Lebanon are often reported through meteorological metaphors. This is partially due to the fact that we have as much control over politics as we do over the weather. If the media is to be believed these days, rough storms are heading our way. Allegations of impending coups from one side are reciprocated by allegations about secret conspiracies with the west and Israel from the other. The truth, as usual, is much less dramatic.
It is easy to get carried away with the shrill tone of political reporting and rhetoric, but it’s often forgotten that this is usually part of the political jostling before anticipated settlements. The big headline for this period is the precise nature of the political arrangement that will ensue from Syria’s return as the main ‘player’ on the Lebanese scene. Saad Hariri’s exoneration of Syria and his statement about the political accusations that implicated it in the assassination of his father has created the ground conditions for Syria’s renewed patronage over Lebanon, but the shape of this stewardship is yet to be worked out.
Hariri and Hezbollah are effectively engaged in a power struggle to ensure the most advantageous positions within this arrangement. But this is not an open ended struggle; it’s more of an attempt at judging what will be possible under this new paradigm. All the talk of coups and conspiracies is part of the usual background noise that precedes such resolutions.
It’s worth remembering Hassan Nasrallah’s statement on the eve of Burj Abi Haidar clashes in which he declared that Hezbollah can overthrow the government in the parliament and does not need to agitate on the street in order to achieve this objective. The one thing that prevents Hezbollah and its allies from seizing power is Syrian influence. The blunt question to ask is if Hezbollah really believed in all the allegations about their opponents’ collusion with Israel, then why is it letting them run the country?
Let’s remember that the previous arrangement that ended the civil war and dictated how the country was run for a decade and a half was also orchestrated through a Saudi-Syrian agreement, albeit with a much larger role for the US at the time. The arrangement that ensued from the Taif Agreement created a division of labour between Hezbollah and Hariri the father, famously known as the development/resistance formula. In other words, Hariri was charged with development and reconstruction while Hezbollah handled the resistance against Israel.
Part of the explanation for the tension we are witnessing today is that this formula is not easy to resurrect for various reasons. For starters, the strict division of labour is not adequate any longer. Hezbollah has been increasingly more active in reconstruction and development since 2006, and it has had several achievements on that front. (Helped with the flow of Qatari and Iranian funds.) Hariri’s intelligence apparatus meanwhile has had various successes in discovering Israeli spy rings and arresting high-profile agents. Their roles have become increasingly overlapping.
This is partially more relevant in the case of Hezbollah because Hariri’s spy catcher apparatus is not an integral part of his political project. Hezbollah’s role in fighting Israel on the other hand cannot be expressed as aggressively as it used to be anymore. The 2006 war is still seen as a victory by the Party but, as Nasrallah remarked afterwards, the cost was quite high. Despite the talk of war that we constantly hear from both sides, it’s unlikely that Hezbollah or Israel see any strategic gains in any major confrontations anymore.
Hezbollah’s recently opened Museum of Resistance in Mleeta illustrates the nature of this new phase in Hezbollah’s existence. It is an indication that Hezbollah is now ready to see military resistance as part of its history. This does not mean that Hezbollah will lay down its weapons, but that any confrontations with Israel in the future are likely to be limited in nature. You don’t build a $4 million project and plan a large touristic development around it if you’re expecting to be engaged in a war.
The recent frequent critiques of Solidere are another indication of the changing nature of this division of labour between Hezbollah and Hariri. During the period of Syrian hegemony, criticism of Hariri’s monopoly over development was never translated into any meaningful action or alternative plan. In fact, the law that brought Solidere into being wouldn’t have been approved without the consent of all the major parliamentary blocks at the time. It’s very hypocritical today to deny responsibility for the decisions taken in the 90s by any of the political blocks that were in parliament then. Such criticism today is more of a declaration of intentions that, in the coming period, Hariri’s monopoly on development will be challenged.
Will Hariri be willing to concede? We will have to wait and see. But two things are for sure. First, the current escalation is only part of the tactical jostling and its effects will be contained in time in preparation for the next political period. Second, the division of labour between Hariri and Hezbollah will be reproduced in a new format, one that we haven’t quite grasped yet. We, as always, remain as spectators in all of this.