After days of mass protests, the government in Lebanon has agreed on a series of reforms aimed at solving the country’s economic crisis. Without Hezbollah’s support through the majority of ministers it controls in the government, this would not have been possible.
Indeed, on October 19, the militant group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah called on the tens of thousands of protesters not to demand the resignation of the government, saying it would be a waste of time for the country to wait months before a new government is formed.
But the real reason behind his call to save the government is that after almost two decades, Hezbollah’s efforts to become a king-maker in Lebanon and establish a veto power over the government have finally succeeded. Now, it has no desire to risk its gains, especially at a time when Iran is too weak economically to help Hezbollah financially in the labyrinth of Lebanon’s sectarian politics, where often money is needed to buy votes and the alliance of various strongmen.
Shiites are a minority in Lebanon and even if Hezbollah secured every Shiite vote, it could not have a majority in parliament or the cabinet. Therefore, it has rely on alliances with people who can deliver votes from other communities, based on sectarian politics.
As a matter of fact, Iran’s economic weakness might have played a part in bringing Lebanon’s financial crisis to a boil. By most estimates, Iran funnels hundreds of million dollars to Hezbollah annually. Most of this money ends up paying salaries to an array of people working for the Shiite group and financing construction projects, schools and other services. Naturally, the money enters the local economy and helps mask deep-rooted problems the Lebanese sectarian and corrupt model of government has imposed on the country’s economy.
Due to U.S. sanctions, Iran is not able any longer to lavishly bankroll Hezbollah and the organization has visible shortage of money, to the extent of resorting to collection boxes to raise funds.
The protests in Lebanon are quite remarkable as ordinary people, fed up with corruption and mismanagement by rich patriarchal politicians have crossed religious-sectarian lines and are rebelling against the whole political leadership representing various Christian and Muslim denominations.
Traditionally, people backed their sectarian leaders to protect their region’s or sect’s interests, get jobs, government contracts and not lag behind in the perpetual game of power balance between sects.
But too much corruption and mismanagement have finally brought the government to a point where Lebanon cannot borrow money from international lenders anymore, unless it reforms its finances.
A mostly educated cosmopolitan population, many speaking two or three languages, the Lebanese have united to demand good governance, beyond sectarian politics.
This is dangerous for Hezbollah that has used the sectarian nature of Lebanon to forge a powerful electoral block of Shiites and part of the Christian community. If the sectarian walls weaken and a popular movement emerges uniting disaffected citizens and younger people in an election, Hezbollah might see its delicately woven alliances becoming ineffective.
But as the once purely guerilla force has gained the lion’s share in the country’s politics, it can also be held partly accountable now for failures of governance. It needs to save the current government, join patriarchal politicians and claim reforms are underway to quell the grassroots movement threatening the status quo.