Sam Menassa

Hezbollah: From ‘Statelet’ to ‘State Outside the State’ 

A conversation with a senior figure who has occupied several high-ranking positions pushed me to write this article. Our discussion revolved around political powers that have become part of the system despite operating outside of it.

Lebanon has undergone several major crises since its establishment. All of them were precipitated by mobilizations against the legitimacy of the state. The first of these crises erupted with the 1958 clashes between the Nasserists advocating Arab unity and President Camille Chamoun, after the latter refused to sever diplomatic ties with the Western countries that attacked Egypt during the Suez Crisis and aligned with the countries of the Baghdad Pact, which Nasser saw as a threat to the Arab world. An armed Islamic rebellion broke out, the first insurgency against state legitimacy. Chamoun sought American assistance, paving the way for Fouad Chehab to ascend to the presidency.

The second major juncture came in the aftermath of the crushing 1967 defeat to Israel, which gave rise to the Palestinian resistance. In 1969, Lebanon signed the Cairo Agreement, which allowed the influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Lebanese political life to grow, with the clear backing of Sunnis and leftists. The country witnessed armed conflicts with the Palestinians, governmental crises, and mass demonstrations.

This gave rise to what was then known as the "Fakahani State" — a Palestinian state within Lebanon, introducing the "state within a state" fiasco that Lebanon would continue to suffer from for a long time, though those in charge of it would change.

The third juncture was a result of the expansion of the Palestinians’ influence. The civil war broke out in 1975, dividing the country in two: one half was controlled by Christian parties and militias, which developed its own military and administration, and the other was controlled by the PLO and the leftist and Islamic parties and forces allied under the umbrella of the Lebanese National Movement.

While the seeds of the "statehood within a state" had been sowed following the Cairo Agreement, they were cemented through this conflict with the rise of Bashir Gemayel, who eliminated the other Christian factions under the pretext of unifying the Christian front. What happened at the time was essentially the first attempt to break away from or overthrow the Lebanese political system.

However, Gemayel soon changed course and backed the regime, demanding the liberation of all 10,452 square kilometers, or the entirety of Lebanon. He ran for the presidency, and parliament elected him after the Israeli invasion of 1982.

The fourth juncture was the coup General Michel Aoun launched after being appointed prime minister by the country’s outgoing president at the time, Amin Gemayel. Aoun launched an insurgency against the regime and dissolved the parliament, becoming a popular figure who rallied people around his ambitious slogans, though his strategy and objectives were obscure. He then continued his fight against the political system by opposing the Taif Agreement and refusing to hand power over to the president whom parliament had elected, Rene Mouawad.

Aoun was then defeated after Syria and the US came to an agreement - Syrian forces entered Christian-controlled regions, eventually taking over the Ministry of Defense and the Presidential Palace. The Syrian regime then used the Taif Accord to legitimize its hegemony and control over the country, which did not end until 2005.

Bashir Gemayel and Aoun were the first two figures to make genuine attempts to break with the system; the former walked back on this stance, and the latter was thwarted by an international and regional consensus and Syria being put in charge of Lebanon.

We are currently at the fifth juncture. It is the most dangerous of them all, as the actor seeking to break with the system is both local and foreign. Its narrative is that it was born of a marginalized and deprived Lebanese community, but it was actually created by Iran, which established Hezbollah to execute Iran’s expansionist project in the region, what Iran calls "exporting the revolution". Thus, it is a Lebanese party seeking to fulfill the aspirations of a non-Lebanese actor that contradict the aspirations of most Lebanese people.

Hezbollah entered political life through the parliamentary elections of 1992, in which it won 12 seats. It then reinforced its political position by taking part in every Lebanese government formed since 2005, after having rejected the Taif Accord framework. At the same time, however, it developed mechanisms that allowed it to remain within and without the political system at the same time. Thus, Hezbollah has always refused to do anything to reform Lebanon’s weak and ineffective system of governance, as this regime facilitated its hegemony.

To be fair, the country’s other political parties were also not serious about political reform either. However, there is a fundamental distinction between them and Hezbollah. The latter exploits the regime for ideological reasons, while others exploit it to further narrow personal interests.

Hezbollah broadened the role of its illegitimate arms, from liberation to protection and defense, turning its arsenal into a permanent, never-ending feature of the state.

It came to control all of Lebanon’s state institutions (the presidency, parliament, and government) through a series of coups that succeeded thanks to its amassing military power under the pretext of "protecting and defending the country,” its success in pushing the narrative of its "Lebanization", its unique representation of a core component of the country, its exploitation of sectarian consocialism and the elimination of President Rafik Hariri, who was trying to create a Christian-Sunni counterbalance to the party, and its subsequent success in obtaining Christian cover through its understanding with the Free Patriotic Movement.

The institutions it couldn't totally dominate, like the judiciary, the security apparatuses, and the army, were undermined or marginalized. It has come to be called a "statelet within a state".

Hezbollah's greatest success in breaking with the Lebanese political system is that it has made society more sectarian: Christians have retreated into their shell, with calls for a break the regime, through "federalism" or partition growing louder. The Sunnis have gone from being aligned with the state to becoming a sect. Meanwhile, the Shiites have been taken hostage outside the borders and been made into a component of Iranian Wilayat al-Faqih regime.

In 2011, Hezbollah threw what had remained of the state's official foreign policy against the wall, disregarding the national interest. It intervened in regional conflicts and bolstered its foreign intelligence activities across the globe, exacerbating the state's disintegration and failure.

The party exploited the recent financial and economic crisis to establish parallel economic, financial, social, and health networks with greater capacities and better administration than those of the state. All of this turned it from "statelet within a state" to a "state outside the state" that is part of the system and besieges it to keep it weak but operates outside of it.

The foundations of the regime system are the hardest knot to tie. They favor the dominant party, and the others do not have the capacity to resist from outside the system, because of Hezbollah’s ties to regional axes and its military superiority to both the legitimate and illegitimate armed forces available to the other Lebanese parties.

The only, but challenging, solution is finding a way out that allows all political actors to reach common grounds about Lebanon’s identity, and its regional and international role. After that, questions of the political system would become technical, a "midsummer night's dream," so to speak.