Hizballah in Lebanon: Down but Hardly Out

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Ramzi Haidar/ AFP / Getty

Following their victory in the general elections, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, left, and Education Minister Bahiya Hariri attend a celebration rally at the latter's villa in Majdelyoun, in the hills east of the southern port city of Sidon, on June 8, 2009

The temptation to make too much of Hizballah's failure to unseat Lebanon's Western-backed government in Sunday's election is obvious. For past three years, the Shi'ite Islamist movement has been on a roll, withstanding an Israeli invasion, then paralyzing the U.S.-backed government, eventually humiliating its militias in a street confrontation, in the process winning veto power over Cabinet decisions. Many had feared that the election would see the Iran-backed movement lead an opposition coalition to victory. Instead, voters on Sunday affirmed the status quo, prompting some observers to claim that the region's political tide had turned against Iran and its "rejectionist" allies.

One Israeli official claimed that "Hizballah was punished for the [2006] war," while New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman announced, "President Barack Obama defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran" in Lebanon's vote. Yet these are somewhat far-fetched claims for an election that was decided by Christian swing voters — and that affirmed the raw sectarianism of Lebanese politics. (See pictures of last year's street showdown between Hizballah and pro-government forces.)

Sectarianism is the organizing principle of Lebanese democracy, because the constitution allocates a fixed number of seats in Parliament to each religious group — on the basis of a formula derived from the population statistics in 1936. (The slicing of the political pie no longer matches the demographic reality: Christians, for example, are allocated half the seats in Parliament but probably comprise little more than a third of the population; Shi'ites are allocated 20% of the seats, but their share of the population is closer to double that proportion.)

In Sunday's vote, as expected, Shi'ite Muslims overwhelmingly backed Hizballah, while Sunni Muslims overwhelmingly supported the Saudi-backed Sunni Party that leads the ruling coalition. The high turnout of Sunni voters, however, was not a response to Obama's outreach, as some have claimed, but rather reflected a desire to avenge the defeat of Sunni militias by Hizballah militants in the streets of Beirut last spring.

The election was a referendum less on Obama than on Michel Aoun, the former general and leader of Lebanon's largest Christian bloc. Hizballah's prospects of winning the election rested largely on the ability of its Christian ally Aoun to win enough seats to give the opposition coalition a majority. Since the last election, in 2005, Christian voters had been split between the mainline pro-Western parties and the followers of Aoun, who had calculated that his community's best interests — and his own — lay in throwing in their lot with the rising tide of Shi'a Islam. Aoun's own party still finished with the largest single bloc of Christian seats, but his allies in the community did badly. Many Christians remain culturally wary of the turban-and-chador set and have not forgiven Hizballah for using force on fellow Lebanese last spring. Days before the election, the patriarch of Lebanon's main Christian sect called on Christians to unite against encroaching Iranian influence.

Although he had a limited impact on the outcome of Lebanon's election, Obama could still reap benefits from it. For one thing, the Administration avoids the embarrassment of having to cut aid to the most democratic country in the Arab world, as it would likely have done if the voters had chosen the opposition. The result also removes one of Israel's reasons for changing the subject from Obama's demand that it freeze settlements. In the days before the poll, an Israeli official had warned that Israel would consider Lebanon a "terror state" if Hizballah won. Since the vote, Israeli officials have said they may return control of the occupied border town of Ghajar to the Lebanese as a sign of goodwill to the ruling coalition.

To imagine the election as signaling the demise of Hizballah, however, would be a mistake. While accepting the results of the poll, the opposition pointed out that it had, in fact, received the majority of the actual votes cast. And Hizballah still maintains one of the world's most formidable guerrilla forces, which it has no intention of disarming.

The Lebanese government is unlikely, in fact, to make any real effort to curb Hizballah's military power, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution requiring its disarmament. The two sides will probably reach a compromise that allows the opposition to veto major Cabinet decisions as long as it has the approval of the country's President, Michael Sulieman, widely regarded as a genuinely neutral figure. That may be less than Hizballah wanted when it took to the barricades three years ago, but almost everyone in Lebanon wants to move on. More important, so do Iran and Syria and the U.S., and as long as the Middle East's major power players are inclined toward dialogue, all should remain quiet on the Lebanese front.

Watch TIME's video "Trekking Lebanon's Mountain Trail."