Elections, Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14, Syria

“What if Hizbullah Wins?”

lebanon-syria-iranThis is a question that one hears frequently these days in Beirut. If you haven’t heard it yet, be assured that in a couple of months, it will be all anybody is talking about.

Why? Because there is a legitimate possibility, some would say probability, that the Lebanese opposition will become the majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Leading the opposition is Hizbullah, who will finally emerge from the wilderness to bestride the narrow world of Lebanese politics like a Colossus, fulfilling Khomeini’s vision on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Or at least, this is the spooky doomsday scenario that many in March 14th (and in Bkirkeh) are trying to paint. They suggest that, at best, a win for the opposition will compromise Lebanon’s economic lifeline to America, Europe, and the wealthy Gulf states; at worst, it will create a Hamas/Fatah-style schism, dragging the country into yet another fratricidal conflagration.

Strangely enough, I actually enjoy having no idea about what is going to happen in the so-called fateful elections of June 7th. Call me quaint, but isn’t this the whole point of a democratic contest (even if Lebanon’s electoral laws all but preclude such a thing as a true democratic contest)? Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s take the thrill out and play the “what if” game. What if Hizbullah “wins”? What would change, for all practical purposes? How would Lebanon’s diplomatic relations and strategic position be affected?

First of all, it should be clear that a “win” means two things: (1) a parliamentary majority for the March 8th alliance; (2) the maintenance of that alliance and the successful formation of a national unity government (with all the challenges that this implies in the context of Lebanon’s consociational framework). Hizbullah and its ally AMAL are already more or less guaranteed a monopoly of the parliament’s Shiite seats. This alone, however, is not enough to give them a majority, which is where Michel Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement come in. With a strong showing in districts like Jbeil, Keserwan, Baabda, Jezzine, and especially Zahle and Achrafieh, the FPM could put the March 8th alliance over the top, earning it a slim majority (probably no more than the 56% that March 14th holds in the current parliament).

If March 8th wins 65 seats or more, it will be able to choose the prime minister, although it is not clear to what degree March 14th will be able to indirectly influence the choice, given that it represents a majority of Lebanese Sunnis (for whom the PM serves as a kind of de facto president). The choice of PM will set the tone for everything that follows. If an old-guard figure like Omar Karami is chosen, this may encourage the Future Movement and its allies to adopt a recalcitrant stance vis-à-vis the new government, claiming it as a return to the days when Syria controlled Lebanon. They may choose to boycott the new cabinet (as Walid Jumblatt has already threatened to do), making it difficult for the new PM to form a national unity government. In doing so, March 14th would be taking a page from Hizbullah’s playbook, duplicating the 2006 strategy of withdrawing ministers as a way of emptying the resulting cabinet of legitimacy, in order to win the right to a blocking veto.

The problem with this strategy, however, is that Hizbullah has already made it clear that they will give a veto to March 14th should they become the opposition. To make use of this veto, March 14th would have to join the government and work under a March 8th PM. In the event of a choice like Karami or Salim al-Hoss, chances are good that the fight over cabinet seats will be a long and ugly one. If a compromise candidate were chosen (someone close to both March 14th and Syria, like Najib Miqati), a less combative ethos might prevail.

One hates to rehearse the old commonplace about Lebanese politics being orchestrated by outside powers, but it is difficult to see how the choice of Lebanon’s next prime minister will not be significantly affected by the state of relations between Syria, Iran, and the United States. If Syria has gotten some traction with the Obama administration, it may be willing to do some confidence building by looking kindly on the choice of a Miqati or a Safadi as PM in Lebanon. If relations remain tepid, however, the most likely candidate is probably going to be Karami.

So what happens after the cabinet is formed? How will the United States and Europe deal with a government “led” by Hizbullah? Will they withdraw their ambassadors, put their diplomatic relations and economic assistance on hold, and set up a trade embargo? In other words, will they treat Lebanon like Hamas and Syria? Given that George W. Bush is gone, the answer is: probably not. Much more likely is the establishment of a slightly awkward condominium, whereby the U.S. has no contact with Hizbullah’s ministers, relying on dependable intermediaries like Nabih Berri, Fawzi Salloukh, and the new PM to do business.

Ironically, this arrangement will suit Hizbullah just fine, giving the party an excuse to remain behind the curtain and to leave the politicking to Berri and Aoun. In effect, therefore, something like the arrangement reached in 2005 between Hizbullah, Hariri, and Jumblatt will obtain again (whereby the Hizb stays out of economic affairs in exchange for March 14th staying out of resistance affairs), except now the arrangement will be between Hizbullah and Aoun. Given how precarious this agreement proved to be in 2005-09, it’s not clear how solid it will be this time around.

While the FPM gladly yoked its aspirations to Hizbullah’s wagon after 2006, most Aounists I know remain uneasy about Hizbullah’s weapons. They may talk publicly about the necessity of a credible “national defense”  in the face of Israeli aggression, but privately they remain deeply suspicious of Syria and Iran and strongly opposed to the use of Lebanon as a battleground in the conflict with Israel. Aoun was able to sell his alliance with the Hizb to his supporters by pitching it as a containment strategy. Another security incident like the 2006 border operation would give Aoun’s Christian opponents all the ammunition they need to call his strategy into question.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Israel. One regular commentator on this blog likes to say that a Hizbullah parliamentary victory would be in Israel’s interests because it would “clarify things”, meaning that Israel would finally have an address for Hizbullah. The “state-within-the-state” would simply become “the state”, and Israel would not miss the opportunity to remind the Lebanese public of the consequences of voting for the wrong party, just as it has tried to do with Hamas.

However, it seems more likely that neither Israel nor the United States would have much of an interest in pursuing the aggressively isolationist or military option, as this strategy would yield few tangible gains while playing directly into the hands of the “resistance axis”, as we have seen over the past three years. Given that Obama has already signalled to Nabih Berri that he is looking forward to “working together” over the next four years, the smart money says that the U.S. will seek to keep Hizbullah on the tightrope by dealing with its allies and offering carrots to its sponsors, while holding out the tacit threat of making things difficult for Lebanon should Hizbullah step out of bounds.

At the end of the day, a Hizbullah victory potentially represents an important step toward the eventual demilitarization and nationalization of the party, as it could provide an avenue for the gradual political enfranchisement of Lebanese Shiites. If a Syrian-Israeli peace deal is struck within the next few years, Hizbullah will be able to integrate the Resistance into the Lebanese Armed Forces, having passed the baton of its local capital from its military to its political wing.

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26 thoughts on ““What if Hizbullah Wins?”

  1. What do you mean by “national unity governement” in paragraphs 4 & 5?

    Posted by Mj | February 11, 2009, 9:30 am
  2. Thanks for this, Qifa. I really appreciate your sensitive analysis and eloquent writing. Keep up the good work.

    Posted by BR | February 11, 2009, 10:21 am
  3. Mj,

    Good question. Since the political divide is currently defined in sectarian terms (Shiite/Christian vs. Sunni/Christian/Druze), in the post-Syrian post-Doha era, a “national unity government” basically means a cabinet with all of the sects represented.

    If Future/PSP boycott the cabinet, the new PM could theoretically appoint non-M14 Sunni & Druze ministers, but this would be a step that even Siniora did not take when Hizbullah and Amal withdrew their ministers in 2006. Because Future has come to be “the Sunni party”, just like Hizbullah and Amal are “theShiite parties”, leaving them out is tantamout to leaving out the entire sect, which violates the principle of balanced representation in the Cabinet.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 11, 2009, 10:22 am
  4. Teslam, BR, and welcome.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 11, 2009, 10:26 am
  5. “At the end of the day, a Hizbullah victory potentially represents an important step toward the eventual demilitarization and nationalization of the party, as it could provide an avenue for the gradual political enfranchisement of Lebanese Shiites. If a Syrian-Israeli peace deal is struck within the next few years, Hizbullah will be able to integrate the Resistance into the Lebanese Armed Forces, having passed the baton of its local capital from its military to its political wing.”

    Sitting on the fence is a pretty dangerous place to be in the middle east, since if things go wrong, you are right out there in the open.

    Posted by R | February 11, 2009, 11:38 am
  6. QN,

    I find it hard to believe that the US congress, (these are the guys with the money, not Obama) will give any economic aid to a country led by a terrorist organization. You tend to forget the role of congress in giving money.

    Obama will have a huge fight on his hands if he wants to leave the US ambassador after a Hizballah win. He may win the fight, but he may also lose or decide not to fight this fight. I also can’t see the US sending stuff to the Lebanese Army while Hizballah is in power.

    If I were March 14, I would call Hizballah’s bluff and not join the government for at least one year so as to not give Hizballah any cover. Let’s see how well they do.

    For Israel, there could be nothing better than a Hizballah win. It will ensure no attack on Israel for a long time.

    Posted by AIG | February 11, 2009, 12:32 pm
  7. The alliance and the fact that the talking heads of the new cabinet will mostly not be Hizballah will I think be enough of a fig leaf for the US and Europe to not react the way they did against a Hamas victory.

    I think the more interesting aspects of an opposition victory will be internal not external. Since its birth the country has been led by feudal lords; Their mismanagement of the country and its economy, their patronage and their corruption is on par with the worst anyone has ever run a country.

    What will be the social consequences if Hizballah (and Aoun) try and bring their well known distaste for corruption to the Lebanese civil service? Will they try to find out what happened to the $40billion missing of the $44 billion lent to Lebanon?

    Two points I have to differ on are that I don’t think demilitrization is on the cards if there is a Syrian-Israeli deal. And Hizballah cannot integrate into the army. Its military wing either is or isn’t. Its methodology, tactics and strategy are alien to a structured formal environment of an army.

    The second point, “like Hizbullah and Amal are “theShiite parties””…. Amal?

    Posted by mo | February 11, 2009, 12:40 pm
  8. AIG

    I disagree on two points and agree on two.

    1. The US Congress approved $400 million dollars of military aid to Lebanon last year, after the Doha Accord. In other words, they gave economic aid to a government that was “harboring” Hizbullah, and in which Hizbullah had a powerful blocking veto. When Syria ruled Lebanon, the U.S. gave it economic aid even though Hizbullah was launching rockets at Israel every couple of years.

    If March 8th wins the election, Hizbullah will likely have no more seats than Michel Aoun’s party. In fact, they’ll probably have less. In 2005, Amal, Hizbullah, and the FPM won 14 seats apiece, and judging from news reports over the past week concerning Nabih Berri’s electoral strategy, it seems very likely that Hizbullah will win contest fewer seats than Amal, and the FPM will need to win about 20 seats to give them a majority.

    So when you say “a country led by a terrorist organization”, you are guilty of the same naive reading as the people I mention in my post, who ask the question: “What if Hizbullah Wins?” Hizbullah will be part of the ruling party, but the FPM and Amal will be its public face. Aoun has good relations with the U.S. Congress, as does Berri. I don’t see economic aid being cut off, but we’ll know soon enough.

    2. As for the ambassador, I doubt she will be withdrawn. It would be a silly gesture, and what would be the endgame? Popular protests to bring down a democratically elected government? Wishful thinking.

    3. With regard to M14, they may boycott, but it would be a lousy move in my opinion. They will look like sore losers and spoilers. Again, we’ll see.

    4. As for Israel, you’re probably right.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 11, 2009, 1:11 pm
  9. Mo said:

    I don’t think demilitrization is on the cards if there is a Syrian-Israeli deal. And Hizballah cannot integrate into the army. Its military wing either is or isn’t. Its methodology, tactics and strategy are alien to a structured formal environment of an army.

    Mo, I agree with you on internal consequences being (potentially) more interesting, but with regard to Syria-Israel, let’s face it: if there is no demilitarization, there is no deal. As for integrating into the army, why not? What is so alien to the environment of an army. They have chain of command, they have training procedures, and all the rest of it. They could be an elite unit within the LAF.

    And as for Amal… yes, like it or not, they represent Shiites. Hizbullah may be the Rolls-Royce, but Amal is still ticking along.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 11, 2009, 1:25 pm
  10. “if there is no demilitarization, there is no deal”

    I am not so sure. For one thing, I think the Israelis are well aware that Syria does not have THAT kind of influence over Hizballah. The best Israel will get from Syria is a promise to no longer aid.

    In regards to the Army, yes the structure is similar but there are important reasons they should stay out. Firstly, Hizballah vets every single person in their structure. One of the lynchpins of Hizballah’s military success is the ability to guard information. An army naturally means that people not vetted by the Resistance have acces to this information. Secondly, if only Hizballah can fight and the rest of the Army is still hamstrung by poor equipment, then any confrontation will become vs the army and not Hizballah which will mean hundreds of regular soldiers dying for no reason other than the enemy being able to legitimately target them because Hizballah is part of them.

    As for Amal, yes a few shia still support them but I think to equate that with representing is an over-reach.

    Posted by mo | February 11, 2009, 1:40 pm
  11. QN

    Is Doha post-Syrian? Will post-elections be post-Doha? Why do I have the impression that everything is in the air -all those ifs…- depending on the regional developments? What happens next with Israel?
    What “(potentially) more interesting internal consequences” could possibly get ‘the incorruptibles’ in a government shared with FM (or Amal, for that matter)?

    Posted by Mj | February 11, 2009, 2:12 pm
  12. Hi QN

    To the best of my knowlegde the Shite sect was the poorest most oppressed sect in Lebanon. One of The Hizb goals was to empower their sect.
    Were they succeessful? Is the average shite Joe situation better than ,say, 30 years ago?

    Posted by Idit | February 11, 2009, 2:18 pm
  13. Mj,

    Potentially interesting internal consequences refers to the effect the “incorruptibles” may or may not have on Lebanon’s political machinery. I’m curious to find out how the Hizb and the FPM are going to shake things up, or if they end up being just as corruptive as everyone else.


    That is true. As for whether the Hizb was successful, I think there is no doubt that the Shi`a are in a much stronger situation today, politically, than they were 30 years ago. Economically, socially, etc.? I don’t know, I’m not an economist or a sociologist. But the very presence of a strong, organized, disciplined political party at their vanguard makes them a force to be reckoned with. The question is: will they be willing to parlay their military position into greater political rights (via appropriate reforms of the democratic system)?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 11, 2009, 2:35 pm
  14. I think the most clear thing is that Hizbullah will not take a huge part in any new government (assuming March 8 wins). So, given this assumption, what will change with the March 8 majority? I can’t say that I expect much to change overall. The difference, i think, will be on the margins.

    For example, there will be an increase in social spending, the “question” of the resistance will be off the table entirely, relations with Syria will continue to improve, Jumblatt’s big mouth will be shut down, I would expect a greater move toward meritocracy and away from zaim rule (though, not much).

    But most importantly, i would expect that a more proportional democratic system would be attempted. i mean, I would expect that the changes we would see would be more structural than in any particular policy. and this will make the government unstable, as aoun will not be particularly happy, and M14 will not want to be involved either…

    The USA gives billions to Israel, and they are run by a terrorist organization. But also, i think you dont understand how the foreign aid money is budgeted. some is budgeted by congress, some is budgeted to the white house for future distribution at the president’s discretion. and the president often has the ability to give other types of incentives, outside of congressional approval…

    Posted by Joe M. | February 11, 2009, 9:47 pm
  15. Idit,

    That’s Michael being Michael. 🙂


    You may be right about M14 staying out of the government should M8 win. Here is Hariri:

    Hariri: I Won’t Take Part in New Government if March 8 Wins Elections
    Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri declared that he would not take part in a new government if the Hizbullah-led March 8 Forces won upcoming general elections.
    “I will not take part in the new rule if March 8 won the parliamentary election … because I do not want to strengthen the principle of veto power which is being exercised in the present government,” Hariri said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat published Thursday.

    He said March 14 electoral lists would be made public on March 14 on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the Independence Uprising.

    Hariri called on the Lebanese to “choose” the Lebanon they want.

    He also stressed the need to respond to the Saudi initiative for Arab reconciliation “because supreme Arab interests are above all.”

    On the international court to try suspects involved in the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Hariri said he expects “justice not vengeance” out of the tribunal.

    In other news, I watched a webcast of a mini-conference held at the Aspen Institute last December, with a number of M14 MP’s (Nayla Mouawad, Antoine Zahra, Ghenwa Jalloul) and also Ghassan Mokheiber, an MP with the Change & Reform Bloc. He said something interesting, namely that the C&R Bloc (including Aoun’s party) doesn’t consider itself part of March 8. He said that they consider themselves apart from both M14 and M8.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 12, 2009, 7:40 am
  16. QN,
    I hope Hariri keeps his promise but he and Saudi have to many economy interests in Lebanon to keep unattended or under the influence of an opposition only government. He can’t afford FPM annulling the Solidere purchases in downtown for example. So his threat is not really credible, but I hope I am wrong.

    Posted by AIG | February 12, 2009, 11:48 am
  17. Joe M.,

    What you and I think does not matter much. What matters is what the US Congress thinks. And they think Hizballah is a terrorist organization and that Israel is the only democracy in the middle east and an important ally of the US. The president has very little discretionary money to spend on foreign aid. That is also based on Congress giving him discretion. Unfortunately for you, in the American system it is the Congress, the representative of the tax payers, that decides how money is spent.

    A hizballah or FPM led Lebanon is going to have a very hard time in the Congress. Just remember that Bush was initially against the Syrian Accountability Act but was forced into a corner by the Congress.

    Obama is not a superman. Just see what he had to do with the stimulus to get 3 republican votes in the Senate. When it comes to issues AIPAC cares about, the Congress will run the show, not Obama. Israel can count on well over 60 votes to support it in the Senate, maybe close to 90. These Senators will listen carefully to the reasons why it does not make sense for the US to fund a Hizballah or FPM led Lebanon. And if history is a good reference, Lebanon is going to have a lot of problems if the opposition wins.

    Posted by AIG | February 12, 2009, 11:59 am
  18. QN:

    I read yesterday that the government is passing a law to allow citizens to remove their sect and religious affiliation from their ID cards.

    1. Is this true and what have you heard.

    2. This is a bloody good step albeit small to deconfessionalize.

    Your thoughts?

    Posted by Enlightened | February 12, 2009, 10:24 pm
  19. Enlightened,

    Where did you read that? If that’s true, most Lebanese (including myself) will definitely remove it from their ID card. The concerned ministry would have its hands full before the elections.

    Posted by Nidal | February 12, 2009, 10:53 pm
  20. I agree, a good step.

    Read more here.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 13, 2009, 1:48 am
  21. The howiyeh does not mention religion on it. I got mine in 1998 and it made no mention. The Ikhraj Ed may still, but who still carries that flimsy piece of paper??

    Regardless of who wins the elections, I hope they keep Baroud around. He’s been a champ for civil rights and by far the most effective MoI that we’ve had in Leb. Another important reform that he pushed through is getting the word ‘bastard’ dropped from the ID cards of children born to unknown fathers.

    Posted by Johnny | February 13, 2009, 4:08 am
  22. Hey there, first of all, a link to your blog has been added to LebanonAggregator.com and second, analysis nicely written, enjoyed reading it. Makes sense in many places.

    Posted by Liliane | February 15, 2009, 1:05 pm
  23. Hi Liliane,

    Thanks for adding my blog to the aggregator.

    Now maybe someone other than my mother will read it. 🙂

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 16, 2009, 4:43 am


  1. Pingback: Hizbullah: It Feels So Good to Be So Bad… « Qifa Nabki - March 9, 2009

  2. Pingback: Hizbullah can’t win, if winning means….. « Middle East News and Comment - March 9, 2009

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