Lebanon last week joined an exclusive club of countries — the others being Dominica, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, South Sudan and Venezuela — who lost their UN voting rights for being at least two years in arrears with their contributions.
This is a mortifying humiliation for a nation that historically took pride in its conspicuous UN role, punching above its weight as an activist state on humanitarian and human rights issues, not least the Palestinian cause.
With the Lebanese pound hitting a record low of 50,000 to the US dollar, even if Lebanese diplomats were minded to honour their international commitments, they would perhaps have to turn up at UN offices with wheelbarrows full of near-worthless cash.
Parliament has failed in 11 consecutive attempts to elect a president. With half of MPs committed to blocking Hezbollah-sponsored candidates, and Hezbollah resolved to veto anyone who doesn’t meet their criteria, those MPs engaged in a sit-in could be there for a long time. Last week Hassan Nasrallah declared: “We want a brave president who is willing to make sacrifices.” What he means, of course, is that Hezbollah require a president willing to take orders from Nasrallah.
There is a knock-on effect for senior national roles, such as the soon-to-be vacant positions of head of the army and of the central bank, which cannot be filled without the election of a president. The failure to cobble together a government also looks set to continue, until the parliament concedes to Hezbollah’s demands.
A new World Bank report signals not only that Lebanon ranks “among the most severe crises globally since the mid-19th century,” but also that “an unprecedented institutional vacuum will further delay any agreement on crisis resolution and critical reform ratification.” The Lebanese government and the IMF have nominally agreed on a $3 billion program, but this is a tiny fraction of financial sector losses that exceed $70 billion, and excludes any recovery plan for society’s most vulnerable.
I was deeply grieved last week at the loss of a close friend, Ghassan Ibrahim, a talented architect and interior designer who distributed much of his fortune to those less fortunate. Ghassan effectively died in his sleep of a broken heart, having lost most of his money in the banking crisis, leaving him unable to pay his employees. Lebanon has become a nation of Ghassans – proud citizens compelled to make impossible decisions, financially unable to meet their most basic obligations through no fault of their own.
Hezbollah has exploited the collapse of Lebanon’s institutions to expand parallel institutions of its own, based on self-serving fatwas rather than anything remotely legal. The charity status of the Qard Al-Hassan financial institution exempts it from the tight regulation of other financial establishments, allowing it to be virtually the only institution that reliably allows dollar cash payments.
With its considerable income from Iran, narcotics and other illegal sources, Hezbollah has exploited widespread impoverishment and chaos to acquire land, properties and businesses — including vast tracts of territory in regions far outside Hezbollah-land, a provocation that risks triggering conflict with these communities.
Hezbollah’s attitude is that if it can’t acquire what it wants on its own terms, it will block everything indefinitely. Nasrallah and the ayatollahs aspire to complete domination of Lebanon, although on the current trajectory there will be nothing left to dominate except piles of rubble and bones — particularly if they inadvertently trigger war with Israel.
Hezbollah is weakened, in part because Tehran has been weakened, with large demonstrations continuing across Iran, the collapse of negotiations on the nuclear issue, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government in Israel signaling its readiness for confrontation. However, I still encounter muddled thinking toward Iran among Western diplomats; they recognize the threat that Tehran poses, but are squeamish about doing anything about it, even backing away from declaring the Republican Guards a terrorist entity.
Hezbollah can remain as a pre-eminent political and paramilitary force only if it retains the backing of its Shiite support base, and this relationship has been challenged as never before. Wading into the Syrian carnage not only created thousands of “martyrs” and wounded veterans, but also meant Hezbollah diluting its ranks with less ideologically committed recruits. Many of these foot soldiers were disgusted by the corruption of superiors who had become massively enriched through their involvement in cross-border smuggling. They too have seen salaries slashed as Hezbollah has been compelled to impose austerity measures, meaning that the organization is far less able to buy loyalty than in the past.
Beyond this, Shiite citizens are sick of Hezbollah’s lies and broken promises. They no longer buy into the rhetoric that Hezbollah exists to liberate them from Israeli aggression; the organization is liberating them only from their own nation and its sovereign status. As long as Hezbollah prioritizes the interests of Iran over Lebanon, and its actions perpetuate the political and economic meltdown, the group will continue hemorrhaging support from Shiite and other demographics.
Hezbollah has exploited the collapse of Lebanon’s institutions to expand parallel institutions of its own.
The apparent strength of Tehran’s regional proxies is in fact weakness. In Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and inside Iran itself, the Islamic Republic’s agents can deploy naked force, corruption and blackmail to dominate the political arena — but at the cost of any support they originally enjoyed.
The rapturous welcome that Shiite citizens in Basra gave to Gulf Arabs attending the Arabian Gulf Cup was one example of the longing of citizens in Iranian satellite states to break Tehran’s grip and re-embrace their Arab identity. Video footage shows emotional Basrawis singing and crying at the sight of significant numbers of Khaleejis arriving in their city for the first time in decades.
In all these nations, such dynamics are already playing themselves out, meaning that Hezbollah, the Hashdin Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen are living on borrowed time. A time is coming when Khomeinist theology must crawl back down the dark hole from which it emerged.
Four years into its financial and political meltdown, it’s a miracle that Lebanon can function at any level, although day-by-day society continues to fragment. But the real miracle will come when Lebanon finally succeeds in liberating itself from Hezbollah, and this insufferable nightmare comes to an end.