Lebanon’s Weak Government

As Israeli air strikes decimate Lebanon, the elected government in Beirut is weak, divided, and seems powerless to control Hezbollah, whose attack on an Israeli convoy July 12 started the conflict.

July 20, 2006

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Lebanon’s government has been in turmoil since February 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive car bombing in Beirut. His death, widely blamed on Syria, prompted massive street protests and enough international pressure to push Syria out of its smaller neighbor after nearly thirty years of occupation. Despite legislative elections—deemed free and fair—that brought in a new parliament last summer, Lebanon’s government is still weak, divided, and nearly powerless to control or constrain the strongest faction in the country, Hezbollah.

What is the current state of the Lebanese government?

The government is deeply divided, reflecting the country’s fractious population. Many of Lebanon’s leaders—including the president and the speaker of parliament—are seen as puppets of Damascus, and the parliament is split between an anti-Syria coalition and a pro-Syria alliance. After a national dialogue between political leaders failed in the spring, the country’s leadership just stopped working, says Joshua M. Landis, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on the region. The failure of the national dialogue "froze this terrible split in Lebanese politics and made sure [the government] was divided and weak," he says. The government is "largely composed of technocrats who were sharpening pencils," says Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Murphy says the Lebanese leaders are "unnerved by the challenge of the Israelis and depressed by the amount of damage to the infrastructure and the country’s image as a summer tourism destination." Thus far, the economic damage to Lebanon caused by the Israeli offensive is estimated at nearly $2 billion.

"The Western idea that Syria was expelled lock, stock, and barrel was wrong," he says. "Syria is still the dominant foreign element in Lebanon."

Can the government control Hezbollah?

No. "It can’t force Hezbollah to do anything," says CFR Fellow Steven Cook. Hezbollah’s militia, estimated at some 3,000 full-time fighters based in Lebanon’s southeast, is as strong as the Lebanese army, and the government has made no effort to take the group’s weapons. Hezbollah resists control by the government, and considers itself a representative of the Shiite majority in Lebanon, experts say—even though there has been no census since the 1930s and the exact numbers of each religious group remain unknown. This situation "has created a deep-seated legitimacy problem in Lebanon," Landis says.

Cook says the way the political system is set up—with parliamentary representation divided between sects—encourages Lebanese to vote for their sectarian interests. "The basic motivation of well-meaning Lebanese politicians is to avoid cracks and fissures that would push it back to civil war," he says. The Christian-Sunni alliance holds the majority in Parliament, and during the national dialogue one of its leaders, Saad Hariri, reportedly turned down a deal that would have placed a new president in power and increased Hezbollah’s influence in the government. That snub may have helped inspire "Hezbollah [to] go off the reservation and attack Israel, because it feels it’s been marginalized [politically]," Landis says.

How much power do the president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker have?

President Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian whose term was extended in 2004 in a controversial, Syrian-backed constitutional amendment, will now serve until 2007. The president is supposed to control national security and foreign policy, but experts say he’s nearly ineffectual. "Lahoud owes his position to the Syrians," Murphy says. "He’s not seen as a forceful or particularly capable leader, or as a figure with any personal following. He has Syria’s blessing, period." Cook agrees. "Lahoud has been sidelined," he says. "He’s making some symbolic moves to show solidarity with the Lebanese in this time of crisis, but that’s about it."

Under a system dating to the end of French colonial rule in 1943, the country’s top leadership posts are set aside for certain religious groups: the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament must be a Shiite Muslim. These provisions are especially problematic now, experts say. "You’ve got this wounded president, he can scuttle a few things, but he can’t really act," Landis says. "And that’s a problem, because he’s the commander-in-chief."

"You’ve got this wounded president, he can scuttle a few things, but he can’t really act," Landis says. "And that’s a problem, because he’s the commander-in-chief."

Fouad Siniora, the prime minister, is seen as a technocrat who is good at building consensus on domestic issues but is relatively powerless on the international stage. "Siniora is seen as trying to carry on the role of [murdered former prime minister] Rafik Hariri, but he has no party or political base," Murphy says. "He’s a respected economic specialist, but he’s not a political figure, and never was."

Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, the leader of the Amal party, controls what is discussed on the floor of the parliament. "He can shut off debate. And he’s in with Hezbollah and Syria," Landis says.

How much power does parliament have?

Not much, experts say. "It’s a mirror of society, and it’s rare that parliament can move decisively on any issue," Murphy says. The 128 members of parliament are elected to four-year terms. In last year’s parliamentary elections, the first since the Syrian withdrawal, seats in the parliament were divided between three main parties:

  • Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Tide) coalition, seventy-two seats. An anti-Syria opposition coalition led by Saad Hariri, a young businessman and son of the former prime minister. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, joined forces with Walid Jumblatt— head of the minority Druze community and leader of the al-Taqadummi al-Ishtiraki, or Progressive Socialist Party—and several notable Christian politicians to create the coalition. Hariri and his group have strong backing from the United States, experts say.
  • Amal Party/Hezbollah, thirty-five seats. Hezbollah, the armed Shiite militia backed by Iran, has wide political support in Lebanon’s Shiite south, where it is credited with ending the Israeli occupation. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, formed a coalition with the Amal Party, a Shiite group led by Nabih Berri, a former military officer considered one of Syria’s main collaborators in Lebanon. The Amal/Hezbollah group is now the main Shiite party in Lebanon.
  • Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), twenty-one seats. FPM leader Michel Aoun is a Maronite Christian, former military commander of the Lebanese army, and former prime minister who spent fourteen years in exile. He returned to Lebanon in 2005, and his party made a strong showing in last year’s election, polling strongly among Christians. The election results, along with Aoun’s longtime reputation as a staunch opponent of Syria, have made Aoun the most influential Maronite leader in the country. He is often spoken of as a potential president.

How much power does Hezbollah have?

The party, with its links to Syria and its allies in the Amal party and the presidency, is one of the country’s most powerful political forces. "Hezbollah’s power over the government comes from the fact that they’re a stronger armed force than the Lebanese army," Cook says. In addition, the group has "sufficient power to block anything the government wants to do," Landis says. For example, Hezbollah politicians have stymied efforts by Siniora to refinance Lebanon’s crippling national debt, estimated at around $40 billion. The refinancing would have been done with U.S. backing, which Hezbollah reportedly blocked because it wants to be recognized as a legitimate part of Lebanon’s government; the United States, however, views Hezbollah as a terrorist group and refuses to recognize it.

"Hezbollah’s power over the government comes from the fact that they’re a stronger armed force than the Lebanese army," Cook says.

How much power does the army have?

Very little, experts say. Lahoud is ostensibly the head of the 60,000-member armed forces, but there’s no guarantee that the soldiers, who are mostly Shiite and poor, will follow his orders. "Lahoud controls the army—so, effectively, nobody does," Landis says. "The Lebanese army won’t go out and get killed to kill Lebanese." Lahoud ordered the police to shut down anti-Syria demonstrations in Beirut earlier this year, and the police blatantly disregarded his orders, Landis says. "The police and army disobey him because they know he’s Syria’s man," he says.

The Lebanese army is too weak to disarm Hezbollah, which experts say is just as well armed and much better organized. "They’re united, and they have respected leaders," Landis says. "Hezbollah members will make sacrifices for their leaders." Murphy says Hezbollah fighters are proud to be part of its "cult of death," which idealizes martyrs who die for the cause. Other Lebanese soldiers do not have the same devotion, experts say.

Cook says the parliament fears a return to the devastating civil war that ravaged the country from 1975-1990. "You can’t tell the Shiites in the army to shoot Hezbollah, and if you tell any other group to do it, that’s civil war," he says.

How much leverage do Lebanese leaders have in any negotiations to end the crisis?

"The government will welcome a ceasefire being imposed, but they don’t see themselves as able to bring it about," Murphy says. "They see themselves as weak relative to Syria" and Israel. In the end, the Lebanese government won’t make the final decisions; international efforts will have to focus on the real decision makers. These include Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, who may be the most popular leader in the country, and perhaps Nabih Berri or Michel Aoun. "We’ll have to see what can be done to wean Syrian influence away from Tehran," Murphy says. "Ultimately, you’ll have to talk to Nasrallah," Landis says. "Or, if not him in person, someone he listens to, like [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad or Iran."

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