Lebanon’s fate has long been hanging in the balance. A precariously balanced sectarian formula has impacted its stability, while a regional inter-Arab entente — or lack of it — could translate into a detente or acts of violence and an international East-West confrontation could stimulate arguments between the divided Lebanese. But the last 15 years have clearly seen Lebanon firmly position itself in the orbit of an Iran that is bent on taunting Israel and the West, dragging the international community into lengthy negotiations to curb its nuclear program while denying any meddling in the affairs of Arab countries. Hezbollah has been serving Tehran’s interests in a bid to dominate Lebanon and use it in its scuffles with the Arab Gulf states and the wider world.

It is not news to write that Hezbollah wields total control over Lebanon, while window dressing such control by propping up representatives from each of Lebanon’s sectarian communities as required by the country’s quasi-democracy.

The recent decision by Sunni Muslim leader Saad Hariri to step away from Lebanese politics opens the door for Shiite Hezbollah to tighten its already strong hold over the country, rendering it a bastion of Iranian influence on the Mediterranean. But this might also risk driving Lebanon’s Sunni community into despair, pushing the most marginalized into the hands of extremists.

Three-time Prime Minister Hariri’s reason for exiting public life and boycotting May’s scheduled general election could destabilize Lebanon even further, as he cited Iran’s influence over Lebanese affairs as the key reason for his bowing out. He said he saw little hope of any possible positive change for the country and its suffering populace.

Hariri’s departure, long anticipated by those who saw the futility of window-dressing politics, opens a new phase in Lebanon’s sectarian politics, which is governed by a system of power-sharing among its many sects. It also rings alarm bells for fear that the peaceful, inclusive, compromise-based approach to Lebanese policies adopted by Hariri and his Future Movement could easily be replaced by a demagogic, more extremist-leaning leadership that might be propped up or even manufactured by the dominant power controlling every matter in Lebanon’s domestic, regional and international affairs.

Hariri’s move might also accelerate the fragmentation of the Sunni community, whose majority is still opposed to Hezbollah’s posturing in Lebanon and Iran’s regional agenda, unlike the Christian community, which is already divided. President Michel Aoun, for example, pays lip service to Hezbollah’s agenda, helping to erode the state, society and the independence of the country in favor of rubber stamping and advancing the interests of his patrons in Tehran.

This exit of one of Lebanon’s key anti-Hezbollah Sunni leaders — whose ex-PM father was found by an international tribunal to have been assassinated by a Hezbollah affiliate — adds to Lebanon’s uncertainty. This small nation has been on the brink since it was classified as suffering one of the world’s worst financial crises of the past 100 years. It has a collapsing economy, its national currency is in free fall, its power supply has been reduced to one or two hours daily, the cost of living is skyrocketing, and fuel prices are increasing. All of this has been supervised by a political class that is determined to carry on with its corruption and embezzlement of state and nonstate funds, while preventing the reforms on which international support hinges.

The impact of Hariri’s announcement is yet to be felt, but it will surely extend beyond the election, which is unlikely to refresh the precariously calibrated distribution of seats that have swung in favor of Hezbollah and the advocates of its policies in the country. Hezbollah, being stronger militarily and financially than most factions in Lebanon, is well positioned to capitalize on Hariri’s retreat from public life.

Hezbollah has for years been bent on trying to undermine and weaken Hariri’s grip on the Sunni community in Lebanon. And many believe that the void he leaves is likely to be filled by marginal Hezbollah-allied Sunni personalities that lack national Sunni support, as well as regional and international stature. At the same time, Hezbollah must be wary of the emergence of more hawkish figures who will seek confrontation rather than strike compromises like Hariri chose to.

A weakened Hariri and a weaker Sunni community has always been a goal of the Iran-allied Hezbollah, but the changing of the rules with Hariri’s exit ahead of the May election will distort the group’s calculations. However, this is unlikely to divert its path from consolidating its grip on a bankrupt and dispossessed Lebanon, which is approaching its ultimate fate as a failed state.

Lebanon after Hariri will be a more dangerous place. Its power-sharing formula — loathed for years by some Lebanese — seems to have edged closer to irrelevance. Hezbollah will always be capable of propping up a loyal Sunni leadership to display on the world stage and add to its carefully designed, constitutionally compliant national mix of nominal leadership, and it will not shy away from grooming extremists for such roles if necessary. But I doubt this will win over a further-marginalized Sunni community that has been pushed to the brink and has long held the belief that Lebanon is only viable as a country when all its communities are represented in the precariously balanced power distribution formula, while also being determined to uphold its special relationship with the Arab Gulf states against all odds.

  • Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.
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