Ardem Patapoutian, a US biologist of Lebanese-Armenian heritage, was this week jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine with David Julius. They were honored for discovering how our bodies feel heat and touch. Molecular biologist Patapoutian is a reminder of the enormous potential Lebanese have when in a positive environment, such as the US. At a time when Lebanon is descending into a never-ending abyss of misery, this can be read as either a sign of hope or of constant doom. In fact, can the Lebanese only thrive outside of their own land? Why can’t Lebanon be a platform for its own people’s happiness and success?
The new Lebanese government headed by Najib Mikati does not have the time to answer these questions. Instead, it is working hard at finding short-term solutions to the current shortages in energy and supplies, while also trying to mend relations with Arab countries. However, most countries now consider Lebanon to be a humanitarian file, meaning any help will be in the spirit of a palliative solution, or “Band-Aid,” with more support to nongovernmental organizations than the government if possible. This was quite clear in France’s rebooted approach for Lebanon, which had the support of Europe as well as the US. It is also difficult to imagine any real change in relations with Arab countries without an executive power capable of delivering on its commitments. And this is not happening any time soon.
As expected, the real focus for political forces in the country is next year’s parliamentary elections. They are all already gearing up and focusing on how to position themselves. So the current government will probably leave the difficult reforms to its successor following the results of these elections. One might already ask how long it will take to form a post-election government regardless of the results. If another 13-month standoff takes place, then by October 2022, when President Michel Aoun’s term ends, Lebanon might find itself without both a prime minister and a president.
My view is that Lebanon needs a referendum on a new constitution, but this is wishful thinking. And so the main agenda for the coming elections is how to solve the domestic deadlocks and crises knowing that this cannot be done without international aid or support. It will, therefore, be a question of geopolitical repositioning for all leading candidates to adapt to changes in the region. The energy crisis and Egypt’s decision to export gas to Lebanon through Syria, which necessitated international approval, is an early sign of that change, as well as that Damascus is regaining international credibility.
The main geopolitical influence on these elections seems to be the coming nuclear negotiations and the US administration’s updated approach toward Iran — an approach that has become more in sync with the European one. There is little chance, considering the expected return of negotiations with Iran, that any actions will be taken to weaken Hezbollah. The declarations of Hezbollah’s leaders against US interference in the Lebanese elections through NGOs are purely populist, as they see the winds blowing in their favor, especially after the US retreat in Afghanistan. In the same way, the US administration will not give support to or try to change the current balance of power within Lebanon. Lebanon is what it is, and it will deal with it this way.
This is a stark reminder that, since May 7, 2008, Lebanese political forces have surrendered to Hezbollah’s will. Indeed, since Hezbollah and its allies invaded the streets of Beirut and clarified who had the real power, Lebanese politicians have chosen to consider the organization to be a regional or international problem that should be solved with the Iranian file. They stopped considering it a Lebanese problem. In all fairness, this invasion came after too many assassinations and intimidations for a peaceful opposition to continue.
In recent years, this has led to clear declarations from politicians such as: “Hezbollah is not our problem.” In fact, this is wrong. Hezbollah is Lebanon’s problem before being the region’s. Who is completely isolated? Who does not have electricity? Who does not have medicine? Who does not have clean water? Who does not have security? Lebanon. So Hezbollah is Lebanon’s problem and no one else’s. The rest of the countries in the region are busy investing in a better future for their children.
In fact, even before 2008, the Lebanese politicians opposed to Hezbollah always placed their bets on a regional turnaround that would get rid of the Iranian proxy for them. They had the belief that the international community would come to their rescue with an entire armada or that a deal with Iran would disarm Hezbollah. This too was wishful thinking. And so, as the politicians were waiting for international change, Hezbollah was anchoring itself and taking over the entire country, making its rule inevitable. This means the general opposition’s thinking that Hezbollah is worried about the outcome of the coming elections is completely misplaced. Hezbollah knows its crowd and constituents and how to preserve its interests. It also knows it can use violence with impunity thanks to the current regional transformations.
There is little chance, considering the expected return of negotiations with Iran, that any actions will be taken to weaken the group.
Khaled Abou Zahr
In a bizarre twist, the UK is going through the same supply chain problems as Lebanon — although to a much lesser extent. This proves that, once we abandon our neighborhood, isolation is the price we pay. The UK will shortly solve these temporary issues and reconnect to the world according to the will of its own people. In Lebanon, it will be a different story. Lebanon might reconnect to its neighborhood, but it will be a different Lebanon and I am not sure the Europeans realize it or even care. One should ask, if the current trends are not reversed, what will Lebanon be like in 10 years? Or even in five?
So the real question is how do the Lebanese change the balance of power on the ground when Hezbollah yields this military power? How should the Lebanese navigate the current regional changes to guarantee the country’s independence? In short, the Lebanese need to find ways to obstruct Hezbollah’s takeover without counting on international intervention. It is a difficult equation, yet the Lebanese have proven to be resourceful and can achieve it.