BEIRUT — Since its independence in 1943, Lebanon has been exposed to the vicissitudes of the Middle East's complicated geopolitics, from the creation of Israel, which led to a massive influx of Palestinian refugees on Lebanese soil, to the recent war in Syria, not to mention Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.
Since 2005 and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which marked in dramatic fashion the end of the Syrian control over the country (established at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war), institutional instability has been a chronic feature of public life. It has been an expression of the way the country absorbs the more or less cold wars simmering across the Middle East, and even beyond the region.
Lebanon had recovered a semblance of institutional "normality" with the compromise that made possible last year's election of President Michel Aoun and the forming of Saad Hariri's government. The latter's resignation has blown this fragile balancing act — which was rather favorable to the Tehran-Hezbollah axis — to pieces and again submits the country to the proxy power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Will Saad Hariri really resign?
France's intervention allows Saudi Arabia to save face and get itself out of a bad situation, by officially allowing it to deny accusations that it's been holding the Lebanese Prime Minister hostage, as President Michel Aoun and the Hezbollah have claimed, allegations that the Lebanese authorities were considering taking to the UN Security Council. It's still unclear whether Saad Hariri, who is expected to return to Beirut for Independence Day on Wednesday, Nov. 22, will officially hand in his resignation or whether he'll go back on his decision and initiate negotiations, as he's already suggested.
We aren't sheep.
The exact motives behind the Saudi stunt are still shrouded in mystery, making an analysis of potential outcomes difficult. Especially given the fact that his surprise resignation has had contradictory effects. On the one hand, his humiliation has inflicted lasting damage to his image, so much that some predict the end of his political career. On the other hand, his newfound popularity, skillfully encouraged by Hezbollah, which has played the card of besmirched Lebanese patriotism for its own benefit, is potentially a new advantage for Hariri himself. In the end, it is, therefore, possible that Michel Aoun will accept Saad Hariri's resignation and immediately appoint him as Prime Minister again to form a new government, provided Saudi Arabia gave Hariri the green light to do so.
Otherwise, a new Sunni Muslim leader will have to emerge to take over the task assigned to this community, according to Lebanese customs. "We aren't sheep," Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said in response to the prospect of Saad being replaced by his older brother Bahaa, a possibility that Riyadh seems to have pushed for. But regardless of whether the Hariri clan remains at the helm, anybody who might want to take over Sunni leadership in Lebanon will find little room for autonomy from Riyadh. And Saudi Arabia has made it clear they would no longer let Hezbollah have free rein in Lebanon.
Why are the Lebanese so worried?
Even Hezbollah's harshest critics — who denounce it as a state within the state, with its own military might — admit that "cutting off" the hands of Iran's ally in Lebanon (to quote Hariri) and in the region is much easier said than done, as it could place the entire country under threat. The party is deeply rooted among the Shia Muslim population (which makes up about one-third of Lebanon's population) through an autonomous network of social services, all the while having representation in Parliament and in the government. That's why the Lebanese population was so worried after Hariri spoke in such harsh, and unusual, words when he announced his resignation, on Nov 4 — especially given how closely these words also fall in line with the tougher stance on Iran taken recently by Washington, which echoing Israel's.
The idea that had been prevailing in Lebanon was that the deterrent effect was strong enough on both sides to keep Hezbollah and Israel from open warfare. The rise of Iran as a regional power and the way the Syrian conflict has evolved — with pro-Iran forces, including Hezbollah, digging in along the Israeli border — coupled with Donald Trump's questioning of the Iran nuclear deal, is creating a whole new situation that brings closer the prospect of an Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, with U.S. and Saudi support for Israel. Considering how Israel now openly offers to cooperate with the Gulf monarchies to counter Iran, their common enemy, experts agree that such a war would be much bloodier for Lebanon than the 2006 war, and the probability that it might trigger a regional conflagration would be quite high.
Could Saudi Arabia use its economic weapon?
In his televised interview on Nov 12, Saad Hariri clearly hinted that it was in Lebanon's best interest to stay in Saudi Arabia's good graces, given the important Lebanese community living in the kingdom, which also happens to be one of the best clients for Lebanon's meager export market. A total of 300,000 to 400,000 Lebanese citizens live in the Gulf region. This diaspora is a crucial financial asset for Lebanon: The expats' capital that enters the banking system is essential to the refinancing of the country's colossal debt, especially given how little it produces. Any threat to close off the tap sends out a negative sign for a financial model that's already notoriously unstable, according to international organizations. But even beyond the pure economic calculation, this crisis illustrates the Lebanese government's vulnerability. Peter Harling, a Middle East expert, compares Lebanon to a "plane without pilot."
Hezbollah has once again become Saudi Arabia's direct target.
Lebanese politicians have mastered the art of exploiting geopolitical tensions to polarize the public opinion along religious lines and thus maintaining their grip on government institutions trapped in cronyism. "We must break the links between the foreign godfather and the Lebanese chief, as well as between the latter and the members of his community if we are to restore the basis of a true citizenship," said one activist at a meeting among different protest groups that emerged during the waste crisis of 2015. Many of them are now considering running in the general elections planned for next year.
How might Hezbollah react?
It's probably because it's become stronger than ever in Lebanon, after its success in providing support to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, that Hezbollah has once again become Saudi Arabia's direct target. More specifically, Riyadh denounces its support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are fighting against Saudi Arabia there. The same Houthi have been accused of firing a missile at Riyadh, a virtual declaration of war in the eyes of Saudi authorities. On the Lebanese front, those in favor of a tough stance against Iran reproach Saad Hariri for having in his government members of Hezbollah, accused of having assassinated his own father Rafiq and of involving Lebanon against its will in Iranian expansionism, a compromise that benefits no one in the country but Hezbollah.
For now, the leader of the Shia party has chosen to play for time. But Hezbollah can wait only so long: the protection the Lebanese institutions have granted it — among other things to soften the impact of American financial sanctions — can evaporate very quickly.