In response to Lebanon's seemingly imminent transition into a failed state, this article introduces a new framework to explain the country's protracted crisis. In turn, we unpack what the past four years of international responses to Lebanon got wrong and make the case for a new assertive approach for Washington to take — one that empowers local stakeholders working to recapture the state and reform the country’s political economy.
Lebanon is entering a new phase of its nearly four-year-long crisis — the country is not only on the brink of collapse, but risks backsliding into autocracy and illiberalism. In recent months, Lebanon has been hit by a debilitating new wave of hyperinflation, the implosion of its judiciary over the local investigation into the Port of Beirut Blast, and a European investigation into the Central Bank. For the first time in its history, Lebanon is navigating these emergencies without a president or government. This is not business as usual, even for the crisis-ridden country.
But Lebanon’s crisis has not happened overnight or behind closed doors. Diplomats from the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt met in Paris in early February in what was planned to be a first step to help prevent Lebanon’s imminent collapse. As Lebanon veers towards failed-state status, the absence of any public communique or explicit agreements following the Paris summit reveals the depth of the fissures dividing the quintet and paralyzing international responses to Lebanon’s crisis over the past four years, as well as a deeper failure to get the problem right.
Designed to fail or coerced into collapse?
Hovering between seemingly opposite poles, the quintet has minimized engagement in Lebanon, opting instead for stopgap measures to mitigate the visible collapse of the state. On one side of the spectrum, France has largely characterized Lebanon’s crisis as a consequence of a deeply-flawed power-sharing system that allowed sectarian elites to divvy up the spoils of the state to the point of bankruptcy. Lebanon’s failure, therefore, is rooted in corruption and mismanagement, its leaders, and the country’s inability to, as French President Emmanuel Macron recently put it, “get rid” of them.
On the other side of the spectrum is the understanding that Lebanon was coerced into collapse by Hezbollah and its regional backer, Iran. Through political assassinations, forced paralysis, and a military takeover in 2008, Hezbollah filled the power void in Lebanon left by the Assad regime’s withdrawal in 2005. Central to that theory is that Hezbollah’s costly regional military interventions — from Syria to Yemen — and coercion of its opponents, paralyzed the government and cut the country off from its traditional Gulf economic lifeline. From 2003 to 2015, three Gulf countries made up more than three-quarters of new foreign direct investment projects in the country. Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal from Lebanon appears informed by this position — that Lebanon is lost to Hezbollah and Iran. The minimal attention directed to Lebanon in the ostensible detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran points to Riyadh’s skepticism on the Lebanon front.
Yet, neither of these perspectives accurately explains Lebanon’s failure, obfuscating the role international actors can play to support efforts within the country to recapture the state and reform its political economy. An alternative explanation to the misleading duality of an endemically corrupt political elite versus Hezbollah’s state-within-a-state status is what we call the mafia-militia nexus.
The mafia-militia nexus
After years of confrontation between Hezbollah and the anti-Syrian March 14 forces, the former had managed — using both sticks and carrots — to either subdue or co-opt various political opponents into so-called “national unity governments.” This process, which hesitantly began in 2008, culminated in 2016 with the election of a Hezbollah ally, Michel Aoun, as president. By then, Lebanon had fully delved into a Faustian, transactional arrangement between the militia (Hezbollah) and the mafia (the co-opted cartel of sectarian political elites), which functions according to a relatively simple modus operandi: the mafia provides the militia with political legitimacy, condoning or even actively endorsing its military adventurism in various corners of the Middle East (and beyond) as proxies of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), despite the immense financial costs arising from enmity towards the Gulf states on which Lebanon’s economy largely depends. In return, the militia uses violence (or the threat of it) to ensure that various mafia dons continue to further their interests and tighten their grip on power through institutionalized corruption, as happened in the wake of the October 2019 uprising.
During those years, Lebanon’s Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, acting as the mafia’s financial architect, siphoned depositors’ money from commercial banks to fund the elite’s expanding clientelist network, resulting in the loss of life savings for hundreds of thousands of Lebanese. The recent case of the U.S.’s sanctioning of Hezbollah-affiliated money exchanger Hassan Moukalled, accused of supporting Hezbollah’s finances by acting as an intermediary between the Central Bank and the black market, demonstrates how Salameh’s control of the Central Bank is a key component of Hezbollah’s evolving ability to capture state resources and circumvent international sanctions.
Neither the mafia nor the militia, even if acting in parallel, could have led to Lebanon’s demise. It was the quid-pro-quo that sealed the country’s downfall. And it is the failure to effectively counter this nexus that explains Lebanon’s protracted crisis.
Lebanon still has a fighting chance
The misfiring of the Paris summit marks a critical opportunity for the Biden administration to depart from Washington’s long normalization of this quid-pro-quo at a moment when it is increasingly contested within Lebanon. It also presents a crucial opening for Washington to reverse its policy of letting the French, whose strategy has contributed to cementing the mafia-militia’s grip on power, take the lead on the Lebanese crisis.
Indeed, despite President Macron’s assertion that the only way forward is for “Lebanon to change its leadership,” the Lebanese have exhausted almost every democratic practice to do so.
For years they protested, across sectarian and geographic divides. When those protests failed to transform the status quo, they mobilized to form alternative political parties and compete in elections, resulting in a loss of Hezbollah’s majority in parliament and a historic space for alternative candidates. Efforts to realize the 2019 popular uprising’s calls for a government of independent technocrats were soon met with (renewed) threats from Hezbollah, which proceeded to form its own government regardless.
Yet, Lebanon is still not lost. Local actors within and outside government continue to fight for a stable, functional democracy. But they are fighting alone using democratic practices against a fundamentally illiberal opponent whose survival is maintained by criminality, violence, and impunity. The failure of the Paris summit to recognize these actors or any technocratic alternatives to the mafia-militia, despite both the repeated failure of the mafia-militia and the key milestones achieved by alternative actors, is bolstering those responsible for Lebanon’s collapse at the expense of credible alternatives and is central to understanding the survival of a defunct status quo.
Washington needs a consistent and decisive Lebanon policy
The Biden administration’s recent nomination of a new ambassador to Lebanon offers an opportunity to roll out a new approach focused on setting the narrative on Lebanon and aligning the positions of France and Saudi Arabia, while moving away from the Doha Agreement that heralded the mafia-militia arrangement. Nearly four years into Lebanon’s crisis any arrangement that consists of quasi-consensus between Hezbollah and the mafia, as with the election of a “March 8” president and a “March 14” (leaning) prime minister, will not only fail to stabilize the crisis, but erode the already fragile democratic institutions keeping the country together.
The U.S. must press France to prioritize, as it did with the Assad regime’s dominance in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s coercion and the necessity of centering it in any response to save Lebanon. Benefactors of the mafia-militia, like caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, repeatedly praised by President Macron as a credible reformer, will always prioritize the interests of Hezbollah over Washington, and are neither capable nor willing to reform a status quo that positions them as key winners. In reducing Lebanon’s failure to systemic corruption, Macron’s vision for Lebanon further normalizes Hezbollah’s security dominion and the criminal economic model that sustains it. Four years into Lebanon’s crisis, conceding to the rule of the militia with a myopic focus on corruption won’t save the economy either.
Washington should also encourage Riyadh to reconsider disengagement from Lebanon. Withdrawal is counterproductive, as it fuels the perceived inescapability of Iran’s mafia-militia model and disincentivizes efforts to recapture the state not just in Lebanon but in Iraq as well. If Hezbollah’s dominance is the blueprint for Iran’s regional expansion, its undoing is central to undermining its regional hegemony.
Setting the narrative is the first step to shoring up the international support needed to break the mafia-militia’s chokehold on Lebanon. Judge Tarek Bitar’s investigation into the Port of Beirut Blast and its suppression through obstruction and intimidation exemplifies both the consequences of ignoring the mafia-militia’s larger autocratic project and the dangers of sidelining local actors putting their lives on the line for accountability and change.
France’s foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, describes the Lebanese as “victims of a bankrupt system,” whose leaders need to elect a “consensus president.” Consensus between mafia and militia is the cause of Lebanon’s failure, not the solution.
It is time for Washington to take the reins from Paris and maximize the resistance to Iran’s regional strategy of propping up militias and systematically undermining state institutions. Lebanon’s survival is not simply dependent on an anti-corruption president and government, it needs a new leadership that is equally committed to preserving the Lebanese state’s monopoly on violence and sovereignty — one that will not face the mafia-militia and Iran on its own.
Despite a seemingly intractable position, the mafia-militia’s hold on power is increasingly fragile. Standing on faltering ground, it relies on the false promise of the inevitability of its rule and the marginalization of alternatives. Space won in Lebanon and dedicated to challenging the mafia-militia — on the streets, in the judiciary, in parliament — needs to be expanded, not abandoned. The recent thawing of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, though not focused on Lebanon, may offer room to dissipate obstruction towards such an alternative to new iterations of the mafia-militia arrangement. A new Lebanese government and president that can implement the reforms capable of fighting corruption and recapturing the state may be a pill easier to swallow than jeopardizing a tenuous regional détente.
That change cannot materialize if Washington fails to take decisive action; a passive approach will only signal a de facto normalization of the mafia-militia. The United States and its partners must be clear that they will not deal with any president that does not embody the principle of a sovereign Lebanon. The predominant belief among Hezbollah's allies is that the U.S. will come to terms with Hezbollah’s candidate for president, Suleiman Frangieh, once elected. Reviving a targeted sanctions policy both for subservience to Hezbollah and for corruption-related charges will go a long way in containing spoilers and imposing costs on actors sustaining the very status quo that is failing Lebanon and will fail it further. Targeted sanctions have been particularly effective in containing spoilers, as evidenced by the inability of Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and a key Hezbollah ally, to run for the presidency. In turn, the Biden administration must commit to effectively delegitimizing Hezbollah’s allies, making sure they can't have their cake and eat it too. The recent visit of Hezbollah ally Elias Bou Saab to Washington and his meetings with U.S. officials sends a counter-productive message to U.S. allies and foes alike. Central to undermining the mafia-militia is ensuring that revenue from natural and energy resources, particularly those unlocked by the U.S.-sponsored maritime deal, are directed towards the state and Lebanon’s people, and not used to prop up the mafia-militia.
Coalescing international support for a president and government that can break the tenuous grip of the mafia-militia and widen the space for local actors to recapture the state and reform their political economy is the only way forward. It is either the Lebanese or the mafia-militia that will survive. The question is to whom will the quintet throw a lifeline? This is a decision the Biden administration can no longer afford to overlook or outsource.
Fadi Nicholas Nassar is an assistant professor in political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University and the US-Lebanon Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
Saleh El Machnouk is a lecturer in political science at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut.
Photo by Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images
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