Hezbollah’s Latest Conquest: Lebanon’s Cabinet

Lebanon vote
Fireworks in central Beirut on October 31, 2016 to celebrate the election of president Michel Aoun, a former general whose candidacy was backed by Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah. Marwan Tahtah/AFP/Getty

In late December, Lebanon’s parliament swore in a new cabinet dominated by Hezbollah and its partners in the pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance. For the Shiite group, this was a political victory even greater than the selection of its ally, former general Michel Aoun, for the presidency two months earlier. Lebanon is unusual in that its cabinet is by law the country’s executive authority, more powerful than the president, prime minister or parliament. Holding the cabinet will tighten Hezbollah’s grip on Beirut, as its pro-Western opposition in the March 14 Alliance continues to dissolve.

Hezbollah kept Lebanon without a president for two years. It paralyzed the government until its adversaries caved and, on Halloween day, Parliament—which elects the president—voted Aoun into office. However, when the former general tapped Saad Hariri, the head of the March 14 Alliance, as prime minister, Hezbollah feared its hard-fought gains were at risk. Luckily for the “Party of God,” its March 8 allies subsequently maneuvered to neutralize the premier’s influence in cabinet talks in order to select pro-Hezbollah candidates for those posts.

How was this allowed to happen? The short answer is Hariri’s weakness. Hariri has long been fearful that political paralysis was eroding the Lebanese republic’s legitimacy. For years, he therefore granted one concession after the next to Hezbollah and its allies in a desperate bid to keep the group from eroding the country’s democratic institutions. By contrast, Hezbollah knows that such an erosion would only serve its goal of replacing the republic with a theocratic, limited democracy on the Iranian model.

Throughout 2015, the March 14 Alliance had lined up behind presidential candidate Samir Geagea of the Christian-dominated Lebanese Forces party, whom Hezbollah opposed. But Hariri’s desperation to break the presidential deadlock led him to break ranks with his partners and endorse a third candidate instead. Hezbollah still wouldn’t budge—it was determined to get Aoun—and Geagea then responded to Hariri’s betrayal by himself aligning with Hezbollah’s preferred candidate. Hariri, isolated by his own miscalculation, finally conceded and endorsed the former general, paving his way to the presidential palace.

In the process, however, Hariri left the March 14 Alliance in shambles. Each of its political parties was now pursuing its own interests, no longer united by the ideals of the Cedar Revolution—the non-violent popular protest that ended the 35-year Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 2005. Only the Kataeb Party—a center-right Maronite Christian party—remained committed to March 14.

Fast forward to today and Hariri is alone. At the same time, the March 8 Alliance put aside its internal differences and presented a relatively united bloc in cabinet talks, enabling it to force the prime minister into one concession after the next.

The result saw the cabinet expand from 24 to 30 seats to accommodate pro-Iranian and Syrian parties. In this enlarged cabinet, the March 8 share increased from eight to 17 seats, with its hardliners seizing the most important ministries. Among others, Gebran Bassil, whose pro-Iranian positions precipitated a crisis between Lebanon and the Gulf States a year ago, retained his post as foreign minister.

The new justice minister, Salim Jreissati, is a Lebanese judge known as a staunch opponent of the international tribunal’s investigation of the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, Saad’s father. The new minister also served on the defense team of a handful of Hezbollah members whom the tribunal accused of murdering the former premier. The Defense Ministry went to another close ally of Hezbollah, who in his previous positions has consistently sided with the organization’s interests.

Some of the Shiite group’s biggest supporters now hold portfolios controlling the issues most important to Hariri: a pro-Saudi foreign policy orientation, the investigation of his father’s assassination, and the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal remaining outside the state’s authority. By contrast, his March 14 allies in the Lebanese Forces and his own Future Party, which now only have 11 cabinet positions, received less important ministries at Hezbollah’s insistence. The Kataeb Party chose to remain outside of the government entirely in protest over its pro-Hezbollah orientation.

The cabinet’s composition will have dire consequences for Lebanon. As the country’s constitutional executive power, the Cabinet sets government policy “in all fields” and controls the armed forces. It is given power to propose and execute laws, regulate “all of the government’s branches, including the civil, military and security administrations and institutions,” and dissolve parliament at the president’s request. By a two-thirds majority, it can also propose amending the constitution, change electoral laws, declare war or a state of emergency, and decide foreign policy.

On October 31, Aoun gave a pro-Iranian inaugural address in which he said Lebanon would pursue a foreign policy independent of the Arab League’s consensus. As Hariri was putting the final touches on his cabinet in December, Aoun said its actions would be guided by that speech, a fact soon made apparent in the cabinet’s policy statement—a constitutionally required guiding document for the agenda it intends to pursue.

The statement promised a new national defense strategy which, if guided by Aoun’s positions from before becoming president, could include Hezbollah in a central role. An indication that this might be the case is the statement’s inclusion of a “Resistance Clause,” which vowed that the state would “spare no effort or resistance in the struggle against the Israeli enemy.” But then, in a concession legitimizing Hezbollah and its armed activities, it affirmed the right of “citizens” – as opposed to even the state itself—“to resist the Israeli occupation, respond to its aggressions, and return the occupied lands.” The occupied lands which the statement is referring to are the Lebanese portions of Ghajar, the hills of Kfarchouba, and the Shebaa Farms. However, the U.N. considers the Farms, a tiny plot of land, to be Syrian and not part of Lebanon.

A more subtle concession to Hezbollah was the promise of reforming the parliamentary election law. Hezbollah and its allies have been championing a proportional representation law that would grant them more than half of the country’s 128 parliamentary seats. By controlling Parliament, the so-called Party of God could use the legislative body to legalize its existence as a military force and its retention of a vast weapons arsenal outside of the state’s authority—helping it to pave the way for the election of another president sympathetic to the group when Aoun’s term expires.

As the Lebanese government recovers from its paralysis, Hezbollah is seizing the state’s institutions one by one. First it cemented the presidency, and then the cabinet—now its eyes are set on Parliament. At the same time, the March 14 Alliance’s constituent parties continue to accede to Hezbollah’s demands, speeding along the alliance’s de facto dissolution, and with it any credible opposition to the group shaping the country on its own terms. Slowly but surely, the Party of God is clearing its own path towards full control of Lebanon’s government.

David Daoud is an Arabic-Language research analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies with a focus on Lebanon and Hezbollah.