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Lebanon's Crossroads: Collaborative Reform with Hezbollah

Bakar Mohamed | Middle East and North Africa Fellow

Image Credit: Danieloncarevic (left) and Joel Carillet (right) via Getty Images

My trip back to Lebanon taught me one thing: the people are not ready to give up Hezbollah. ‘Hezbollah is our only defence against Israel’, many would proclaim… But it’s a tale of two stories.


As an intern at a reformist political party in Beirut, I walked the streets speaking to people about what Lebanon needs to develop economically and politically. For some, the answer was simple: dissolve Hezbollah. But for others, the stark opposite was true. Hezbollah was the only thing keeping Lebanon afloat.


With Lebanon’s constant downward trend, politically and economically, many reformists are advocating for the dissolution of the military bloc, Hezbollah. Despite the reformists gaining traction in the last elections, they are chasing an illusion. Hezbollah is not going anywhere, at least for now. Reformists must work WITH Hezbollah to foster change rather than advocate for its dissolution.


A History


Hezbollah is a militant group that formed in the early 1980s in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Since then, it has amassed widespread political and military strength in the country and forged a political party in 1992. Not only is Hezbollah sponsored by Iran, it also has several sources of funding including drugs and diamond trade, smuggling, disguised charity organisations, and remittances. Hezbollah wields a strong hand in Lebanon and is a force to be reckoned with.


The Reformation Bloc in Lebanon


Hezbollah has always faced opposition in Lebanon. Following the 2019 revolution, a bloc emerged to contest the Lebanese political system known as The Reformist Bloc (RB). This Bloc is calling for a shift in Lebanon’s sectarian political institutions. However, at the core of their demands is the dissolution of Hezbollah.


Central to the failure of Lebanon, the RB argues, is the existence of a separate military force in Lebanon. They believe the decentralisation of power in Lebanon is a threat to its sovereignty and nationhood, particularly due to the foreign interest Hezbollah serves, that of Iran. Additionally, Hezbollah exists as a political party, currently dominating the larger coalition in parliament called the March 8 alliance. The joint military and political prowess they hold gives them the freedom to act as they please without accountability.


For example, Hezbollah continues to clash with Israel on Lebanon’s borders, acting on their own volition, despite the Lebanese government criticising any involvement. Ergo, the RB highlight Hezbollah as a non-state actor that operates independently of the government's position, posing a threat to the sovereignty of Lebanon. Without Hezbollah’s dissolution, the RB argue, Lebanon will not progress or reach stability.


But a realist’s lens, one which emphasises practicality and self-interest, sees Hezbollah’s dissolution as unlikely due to their existential necessity for many Lebanese people and the power they yield. Therefore, a more practical approach to reform demands an analysis of WHY Hezbollah exists. I argue their existence is for two reasons: to resist Israel and to advance Iranian interests.


A Reaction to Israel


Israel is Hezbollah’s raison d’etre. Hezbollah’s manifesto clearly stresses its struggle against Israel in existential terms. Despite Hezbollah being a Shia faction (a branch of Islam), they have amassed support from a wide range of Lebanese citizens due to the acknowledgement of securing the borders against Israel.


Hezbollah as an Extension of the Iranian State


Hezbollah emerged a few years after the revolution by the Islamic Republic of Iran (IR). During this time, the IR sought to export their version of Islam, Shiism, around the Middle East and internationally, countering Saudi Arabia’s spread of Sunni Islam. Consequently, the rise of Hezbollah was welcomed by the Iranian regime and was heavily sponsored, averaging 100-200 million dollars of funding a year. Additionally, the IR used Hezbollah for several operations internationally, including the AMIA bombing in Argentina and the Bulgarian bus bombing in 2012.


An Alternative view: The Realist Vision


The Reformist Bloc in Lebanon needs to concede the existence of Hezbollah for progress to occur. Hezbollah is not going anywhere. So the question for Lebanese reformists ought to be: ‘How do we walk towards reformation of Lebanon’s institutions WITH Hezbollah?’ Many view this as a dichotomy but it’s acknowledging the reality of Hezbollah’s existence, at least for now. If not revolution against Hezbollah, how does working alongside them look? Again, one needs to consider WHY they exist and take the following approach:


  1. Parliamentary opposition: as is currently taking place, parliamentary opposition and alliance formations is an important step to lessen Hezbollah’s political influence. In the last elections, Hezbollah lost its majority indicating a lessening political influence. However, it is important to note Hezbollah’s weaning political influence is not interlinked with their military bloc. Hezbollah continues to exert strong force around Lebanon’s borders, particularly with their projections against Israel.

  2. Encourage further Saudi-Iran negotiations: If we recognise Hezbollah as an extension of Iran’s cold war mentality, it leads us to conclude that lessening Saudi-Iran tensions will reduce Iran’s projection of power in the Middle East, ergo a lessened investment into Hezbollah.

  3. Securing the Israeli border: Hezbollah will always be viewed as a necessity and receive popular support from the Lebanese people, as long as the Israeli threat lingers. Consequently, the Lebanese state needs to develop security on its Southern border with Israel to signal the unneeded military protection. This, in turn, will lessen support for Hezbollah’s military by the Lebanese people.


A realist approach, one that recognises the influence of Hezbollah’s power, needs to be adopted when trying to resolve the problems of Lebanon’s political space. Whilst many acknowledge the influence of Hezbollah’s military and political blocs on Lebanon’s paralysed institutions, the reformation movement in Lebanon needs to accept their existence. Then, the RB ought to investigate why they exist and work to eliminate the necessity for their presence. As argued above, this involves mitigating tensions between Israel and Lebanon, as well as fostering a reduction in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.


Bakar Mohamad is the Middle East & North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. Alongside his Master of International relations, Bakar is a content creator on Middle Eastern affairs and has a particular interest in Lebanon.


He recently completed an internship with a political party in Lebanon and is working on developing ties between local Lebanese and the diaspora for study and work exchanges. Bakar has also participated in a New Colombo Plan exchange in South Korea and a Western Sydney University sustainability program in Taiwan.

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