Sam Menassa

The Charges Against Salameh, Hezbollah’s Drills, And the State’s Performance

The Jeddah Declaration issued after the 32nd Arab League Summit last week coincided with the 23rd anniversary of Lebanon’s liberation from Israeli occupation on May 25th. In Articles Five and Six of its statement, the Declaration stressed the Arab League’s solidarity with Lebanon, urging all Lebanese parties to elect a new president through dialogue and implement the reforms needed to allow Lebanon to overcome its crisis.

Article Six reiterated the demand that foreign actors stop interfering in the domestic affairs of Arab countries, and its unequivocal repudiation of foreign support for armed groups and militias that are not accountable to state institutions.

In parallel, Hezbollah conducted training exercises, in which live ammunition was used, in the Jezzine region of southern Lebanon. Local and foreign media were invited to report on the ceremony of intimidation, demonstrating to everyone, be they close by or far away, that the party does not feel that the repudiation of armed groups and militias applies to it.

This position was not adopted recently. Indeed, it is part and parcel of the party’s modus operandi. Nonetheless, the timing and manner of these drills render them a crude response to the decisions of the Summit. It also ties into Iran’s policy of maintaining plausible deniability vis-a-vis the actions of its foreign proxies. In fact, the Iranian ambassador to Beirut affirmed this when he said that “the principle of respecting the sovereignty of states applies to only Iran and Saudi Arabia,” as if to say that Iran and Hezbollah have no links!

Moreover, last week’s celebrations seemed to announce, 23 years later, that the country had, in fact, been liberated from any manifestation of state sovereignty. It announced that the state cannot assume its responsibilities. There is an abundance of evidence of this effect. The most recent manifestation of this state failure was the joint position taken by Lebanon’s government, officials, politicians, and judiciary regarding the French and German arrest warrants issued against the Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, who has been accused of money laundering, embezzlement, and tax evasion.

This response means that Lebanon has been turned into a hub for outlaws and fugitives. The “madness” of the government’s evasion of its responsibilities and its internal quarrels over who is responsible perpetuates a cycle that has revolved around itself hundreds of times in recent years. Lebanon is now less a state than a geographical space dominated by conflicting communities and factions.

The problem does not end with Riad Salameh and Carlos Ghosn, who is wanted in France and Japan. Rather, it stretches to encompass those sentenced by the International Tribunal for their role in assassinating Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and his companions, as well as the failure to properly investigate the crimes committed against politicians and media figures (most recently Luqman Slim) between 2005 and 2022. The prolonged paralysis of the investigation into the Beirut blast, as well as the judiciary as a whole, and many other problems, all reflect the failures of the Lebanese state.

Nonetheless, the case of the central bank governor does more to undermine the reputation and credibility of the country and the state than any other. Indeed, he occupies a crucial position, especially at a time when Lebanon is struggling to address an unprecedented financial and economic crisis. His effortless evasion of accountability demonstrates just how implicated low officials and politicians are in corruption cases of all kinds. Indeed, regardless of the spin being put on the matter, we do not know why Salameh has not resigned or been dismissed, or arrested.

The root of Lebanon’s ills is its capacity to coexist with and adapt to any circumstances, regardless of how scandalous or bizarre they may be - in politics, the economy, or in terms of security. This is true for every level, from officials and politicians to ordinary citizens. Hezbollah openly undermined the decisions of the Arab Summit and defied everyone. The government, which becomes entrusted with the responsibilities of the president until one is elected, lacks the capacity to undertake the bare minimum of these tasks.

The government is rippled by its composition on the one hand, and the impediments imposed by Christian factions that cannot bear to see the presidential seat vacant while the country is run by the Sunni prime minister and his ministers on the other. Indeed, throughout his six-year term, President Michel Aoun and his team sought to undermine the prime minister’s authority. The presidential vacancy and the opposition’s (if the term applies) failure to agree on a candidate to pit against Marada Movement chief Suleiman Franjieh, perpetuate this vicious circle.

As old and newly emerging crises synergize, the Lebanese remain preoccupied and invested in the upcoming tourist season and the number of visitors coming to these parts. Indeed, it is as though this small, crumbling nation has turned into a cafe, a nightclub, and a hotel inside Hezbollah’s state, “despite everything” and through a “love for life.”

The response to the arrest warrant issued against Riad Salameh and Hezbollah’s drills, as well as everything the state and the country’s political factions have done since the Arab Summit in Jeddah and the tide of reconciliation began rising in the region, demonstrates that these positive changes do not apply to Lebanon. Lebanon is not left out because foreign actors have neglected it or are indifferent to its fate. It is due to a lack of awareness among Lebanese, both officials and citizens, of the implications of this state of affairs. They will become apparent over the next few days; the most prominent of them are:

- The fortification of Hezbollah’s position as an unaccountable military force that parallels the Lebanese army. The stipulations regarding militias would not encompass the party, whose position as a Lebanese resistance movement would be reinforced.

- Entrenching the need for Hezbollah’s approval for the election of a president of the republic. In fact, the party has obnoxiously affirmed, through Amal chief and Parliamentary Speaker Berri, that there is no Plan B for Franjieh, the Shiite duo’s candidate for this Maronite position.

- It has become clear that foreign actions, be they Arab, European, or American, will impose neither a president nor reforms. Instead, they are allowing the local balance of power to determine the course of the political process and its outcomes. The foreign actors are only concerned with ensuring stability and avoiding further decline and fragmentation, while also seeking to address problems to the greatest extent possible by patching things up. This starts with the election of a president, which enhances the chances Shiite duo’s candidate.

The only ticking time bomb that remains is the threat of military confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel. It could be triggered by Israeli domestic affairs, Iran’s nuclear program or mere provocations slipping into a military campaign that turns the aggressive rhetorical back and forths between Iran and Israel into actions.