Lebanon's New Hezbollah Government | Opinion

After a year of political bickering among Lebanon's sectarian chieftains, Hezbollah determined that the time had come for a new government to arise. By now, it should be clear to all observers that the terror group runs the Lebanese political order. And through this government, Hezbollah will now lead Lebanon's engagement with the outside world. Hezbollah's decisions on the make-up of the new government have telegraphed the basic contours of the group's plan.

It was a direct intervention by Hezbollah's emissary, the head of the directorate of general security, Abbas Ibrahim, that precipitated the formation of the government. Hezbollah's prodding ended a year-long spat between, on the one hand, two Sunni prime minister designates, Saad Hariri and Najib Mikati, and, on the other, Maronite president Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. The prolonged paralysis only highlighted both sides' insignificance, in contrast to Hezbollah's position as ultimate arbiter.

Hezbollah not only controls the new government, as it did for Lebanon's predecessor governments, but it and its immediate allies also hold two-thirds of the governing portfolios. The ministries Hezbollah decided to hold, either directly or through its Shiite ally Amal, are telling.

Even though Hariri and Mikati ended up squabbling with Aoun and Bassil over ministries for over a year, Hezbollah had secured the key positions it wanted in the government from the outset. A year ago, as Lebanese and outside actors entertained themselves with talk of an "independent" and "technocratic" government, Hezbollah laid down its terms, which included keeping the Ministry of Finance in the hands of a Shiite picked in concert with the group's closest ally, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. Berri named Youssef Khalil, former director of financial operations at the Central Bank of Lebanon. The Maronite president and the Sunni prime minister designee quickly consented.

External actors, such as France, also went along. Famously, French President Emmanuel Macron had launched an initiative last year to push for a new Lebanese government. But Macron always viewed Hezbollah as his primary interlocutor in Lebanon. After the explosion at the Beirut port in August 2020, Macron visited Lebanon and met with Hezbollah officials. According to the French press, Macron offered to partner with Hezbollah in Lebanon: "I want to work with you to change Lebanon," he reportedly told a Hezbollah member of parliament in Beirut. In addition to talking with Hezbollah, Macron also personally reached out to the group's Iranian patrons.

Superba oil tanker is seen docked near
Superba oil tanker is seen docked near the Dora reservoir, north of the capital Beirut, on September 14, 2021. JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images

Macron has apparently resolved that, because Hezbollah and, behind it, Iran are the dominant players in Lebanon, partnership with them is a prerequisite for advancing French interests—both geopolitical and commercial. In addition to its existing investment in offshore gas exploration in Lebanon, France has also been eyeing other ventures. In September 2020, during his visit to Beirut, Macron was accompanied by Rodolphe Saade, chairman and chief executive officer of the French container shipping giant CMA CGM Group. CMA CGM, a subsidiary of which has operated the Syrian port of Latakia's containers terminal since 2009, is vying to rebuild the Beirut port.

Against this backdrop, Hezbollah's choice of ministries in the new government is revealing. After holding the Ministry of Public Health in two successive governments, Hezbollah opted to let go of that portfolio for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, which oversees the port. What's more, the new minister, Ali Hamie, also holds French citizenship. In fact, certain Lebanese media circles have gone so far as to suggest that Hamie's nomination represents a point of intersection between France and Hezbollah.

French policy in the Levant is hardly at odds with U.S. policy. In fact, in July, in a highly unusual move, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon and her French counterpart jointly visited Saudi Arabia to urge the kingdom to reinvest in the Hezbollah-dominated order in Beirut. Similarly, the U.S. secretary of state and his French counterpart have tried to press the Saudis on the matter.

The U.S. posture is overdetermined both by its policy of realignment with Iran and by its Lebanon policy. The U.S. conceit in Lebanon is to prevent "state collapse" through investment in "strengthening state institutions," which Washington maintains will "counter Hezbollah's narrative." Exactly what this gibberish means is anyone's guess. What is clear, however, is that a policy of propping up a Hezbollah-run "state" is, by definition, a pro-Iran policy.

France's emerging partnership with Hezbollah belies the American pretense of distinguishing between Hezbollah and a distinct "Lebanese state." In its statement welcoming the announcement of the new government, the State Department, never once mentioned Hezbollah, despite the group's overt and decisive position in that government. The Biden administration nevertheless pledged to support the new government. In other words, everyone now recognizes that engagement with the "Lebanese government" means working with Hezbollah.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria and the geopolitics of the Levant.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.