Part II: Hezbollah’s takeover of the Lebanese state. Read Part I here.
Scores of people flocked to Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square, waving Lebanese flags and chanting slogans calling for unity.
Everything suggested that it was a popular and patriotic uprising to preserve Lebanon’s interests. But it was an entirely different story that was unfolding on this day of March 8, 2005.
Pro-Damascus groups were demonstrating in Beirut to protest the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. In hindsight, this event served more as a handover: the end of the Syrian occupation and the start of Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon.
The Shiite party was keen on being discreet in this move, but party loyalists made up the majority of the protesters.
“We want to show Americans that we are the majority of Lebanese,” one of them told the New York Times at the time.
Delivering a speech from a platform before an electrified crowd, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said, “Today we decide the future of our nation.”
The party was no longer hiding. The time had come to take control of the land of the cedars.
This dynamic had been set in motion five years earlier. Following the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah began focusing on its role internally, while continuing to push forward with its “resistance” project to liberate the occupied Shebaa farms.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the American policies that ensued would shake up regional dynamics to the benefit of the Party of God and its Iranian patron.
While then US President George W. Bush’s administration designated Iran part of the so-called axis of evil, America’s invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein paved the way for the Islamic Republic to consolidate its presence throughout the region.
“The post-2001 period contributed to weakening political Sunnism and marked the starting point of political Shiism in the region,” a prominent Lebanese politician, speaking on condition of anonymity, says.
The 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chairman, allowed Iran and its proxy groups to present themselves as the main defenders of the Palestinian cause.
At home, things had changed since the death of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in June 2000.
Syria was weakened and forced into a standoff with late former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Groups in Lebanon began mobilizing to demand the Syrians’ departure, including the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, led by the late Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir.
At that point, Hezbollah was not yet playing the confrontation card. The party even refused an offer to receive the lion’s share of the Lebanese executive in exchange for giving up its resistance project.
‘Nasrallah has not slept for over 24 hours’
Everything sped up at the end of 2004. Following an initiative by France and the United States, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1559, calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and the disbandment of all militias in the country.
“It was all part of a new US policy aimed at shaping ‘a new Middle East,’” a source close to Hezbollah says, referencing the words of then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
From 2004 to 2008, Hezbollah accused Washington of doing everything in its power to divide the Lebanese.
“But it’s the contrary. Hezbollah is the one shaping the new Middle East,” a politician opposed to the Shiite party says.
The assassination of Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, marked a turning point.
A month later, a gigantic crowd flocked to Beirut, to the surprise of the main organizers of this mobilization. The March 14 camp was born in response to March 8 and the balance of power shifted in favor of the former.
On April 26 of that year, Syrian troops were forced to leave Lebanon. Hezbollah found itself alone in the Lebanese political arena, and it would not take the party long to turn the situation to its advantage.
While the parliamentary elections could have set off an intense struggle between the two camps, with all the risks of security tensions between the two sides, several political parties belonging to March 14 decided to shift alliances and join forces with Hezbollah and the Amal Movement for the elections.
Saudi Arabia and France were sponsoring a coalition among the Amal Movement, the Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party and Hezbollah. The Lebanese Forces were also an unofficial partner in this grouping. One of LF’s candidates, Edmond Naim, ran on a list that included a Hezbollah member.
Anything seemed possible at the time, as Hezbollah held back from making its stance clear. In fact, Sethrida Geagea, the wife of the LF’s leader, Samir Geagea, intended to go to Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, for a joint meeting with party officials and to announce the election results.
“Nasrallah did not sleep for over 24 hours, assessing the impact of such a visit. In the end, the party informed Sethrida that she could not go to [the suburb of] Haret Hreik, because it was not something that the party would allow,” a source close to Hezbollah says.
In July 2005, for the first time since its creation, the Party of God entered the cabinet. This strategic decision had a clear objective: to prepare to inherit tutelage of the country from Syria.
Very quickly, however, the coalition imploded because of its members’ antagonistic visions and a series of political assassinations blamed on the Syrian–Iranian axis.
An international tribunal was called for to investigate Hariri’s assassination, much to the powerful Shiite party’s dismay. “Hezbollah was in favor of forming an Arab tribunal,” a party official says.
In his memoirs, then–Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Abdel Aziz Khoja confirms this version of events, adding a surprising anecdote. He recounts that during a meeting, Nasrallah suggested the formation of an Arab tribunal — a proposal that prompted the Saudi diplomat to call for an international trial.
‘A new Cairo Agreement’
It was a time of extreme polarization, and the worst was yet to come. The division between March 14 and March 8 took precedence over everything else.
“The March 14 forces yielded to the wishes of France and the US, which prompted Hezbollah to seek [political] cover elsewhere,” the party official says.
The groundwork for the alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement had been laid.
Several mediators acted as intermediaries between the two parties, which appeared to have nothing in common. The Aounists belonged to the March 14 camp, and their leader never ceased to make statements calling for the country’s sovereignty and the state’s reestablishment.
But Michel Aoun, then the leader of the FPM, emerged victorious in the 2005 parliamentary elections, and no longer believed that he would be given the authority he deserved within the March 14 coalition.
Aoun saw rapprochement with Hezbollah as an opportunity to assert himself as the country’s strongman. An agreement with the Shiite party was signed on Feb. 6, 2006, at the Mar Mikhael Church.
Hezbollah immediately changed its status, becoming a strategic ally of Lebanon’s largest Christian party — something that provided cover for its activities and opened doors to state influence that the Shiite party could only have dreamed of prior to the alliance
At the time, Hezbollah was not seen by regional stakeholders as merely the armed wing of Iran. Saudi Arabia maintained cordial relations with the party and presented itself as a mediator to ease tensions with the March 14 forces.
A meeting was organized in Riyadh under the auspices of Saudi King Abdullah between Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, Hussein Khalil from Hezbollah and Ali Hassan Khalil from Amal.
Hezbollah suggested forming a small ministerial committee to hold meetings and agree on the agenda.
Then Prime Minister Fouad Siniora rejected this suggestion, saying, “I do not want what looks like a new Cairo Agreement,” referring to the 1969 agreement that established the right for Palestinian armed forces to be Lebanon.
Siniora alone appeared to understand what was at stake in Hezbollah’s proposal: the Shiite party was at that point pushing for the right to oversee everything in the state.
With its power and weapons, Hezbollah could distort the political game and upset the balance of power within Lebanese institutions.
As the weeks went by, tensions were running high. Although Nasrallah promised the Lebanese a calm summer, his party kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006.
Israel jumped at the opportunity to start a war designed to eliminate the militia, which at that point was seen as Israel’s main threat.
Hezbollah was taking full advantage of the political cover offered by Aoun so as not to find itself isolated at home. Siniora’s government, for its part, was working hard on an agreement to end hostilities.
UN Resolution 1701, adopted on Aug. 11, 2006, established a cease-fire between the warring parties, providing for the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the deployment of the Lebanese Army in South Lebanon, and consolidating the presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in the South.
The Shiite party lost the military battle but largely won the psychological and media warfare. The Israeli Army failed to achieve its objectives and even suffered significant setbacks. Hezbollah, meanwhile, experienced a moment of euphoria and was enjoying a new aura in Lebanon and throughout the Arab World more broadly.
How then to marginalize a party that for many has just won a “divine victory” against the most powerful army in the region?
‘Over my dead body’
At home, March 8 and March 14 were still at loggerheads over the issue of the international tribunal.
The conflict escalated until Hezbollah’s and Amal’s ministers resigned from the government in December 2006.
The Shiite party and its allies were calling for sit-ins in Downtown Beirut demanding the overthrow of Siniora’s government, which managed to hold on and made no concessions.
The Party of God was dropping hints that it was preparing to storm the Grand Serail, the government’s seat. The Sunni–Shiite divide was growing.
The Saudi ambassador decided to elevate his tone.
“You enter the Grand Serail over my dead body first,” Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri warned. Berri was no longer able to play the role of mediator between the two camps.
It was the time of political confrontation, which reached its peak in the spring of 2008 when the government dismissed the head of the airport security, Wafiq Choucair, who was seen as close to Hezbollah, and moved to dismantle a telecommunication network allegedly developed by the party.
This was a “declaration of war” from Nasrallah’s point of view.
Gone were the days of compromise: Hezbollah decided to flex its muscles and reveal its true colors.
The party invaded Beirut on May 7, raising the specter of civil war and traumatizing the population. The message was crystal clear and went through everyone’s mind: “Here’s what to expect if you take it out on us.”
The party offered a choice: a decision by diktat on the issues it deemed strategic, or war. Hezbollah changed the political equation and forced all parties to adapt to this new reality.
Any political showdown was doomed to end in blood. It was the ultimate compromise, whereby Hezbollah must be the arbiter. This was the cardinal rule.
The Doha Agreement, concluded on May 21, 2008, enshrined this new reality. The March 14 forces were dealt a serious blow but had yet to give up the fight.
There was no question of repeating the 2005 scenario. The 2009 parliamentary elections must be decisive. Never in Lebanon’s history has the vote been so polarized. The March 14 camp won a landslide victory.
Hariri, however, opted, in the logic of the Doha Agreement, for the formation of a national unity government under the slogan “Everyone is welcome under the blue sky,” on the basis of a regional compromise between Syria and Saudi Arabia.
But this victory was not enough for the March 14 forces to govern freely. Hezbollah was pushing the government to renounce the international tribunal, which it feared like the plague.
The March 14 forces did not budge, prompting the Shiite party to bring down the government on Jan. 12, 2011, following the resignation of 11 ministers.
Hezbollah’s opponents saw this as Tehran’s doing. Iran did not hide its hostility vis-à-vis the Syrian–Saudi agreement.
Shortly after the resignation of Hariri’s government, PSP leader Walid Joumblatt traveled to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ask him to support Hariri’s return as the head of the government. Assad agreed.
A few days later, Hussein Khalil and Ali Hassan Khalil went to Syria to meet with the president and asked him not to.
According to a person who was present in the meeting, the two Khalils were relaying an Iranian request. They returned from Damascus, met with Joumblatt after midnight and informed him of Assad’s change of heart, much to the Druze leader’s surprise.
Nagib Mikati’s government, which was seen as less hostile to Iran than Hariri’s, saw the light of day in June 2011.
In the following decade, regional developments would dictate the tempo and profoundly change the game at home.
Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria gave it a new dimension, rendering it a major regional player and at the same time catalyzed tensions between Sunnis and Shiites.
The start of nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran gave Iranian influence in the region some sort of legitimacy. This influence was strengthened following the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions.
The Mikati government resigned on March 22, 2013. Almost a year later, then Prime Minister–designate Tamam Salam, who for months had failed to form a cabinet pending the results of the US–Iran negotiations, received a call from then US President Barack Obama.
The American president told him that the time had come to form the cabinet. At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Lebanon and conveyed the same message on the need to form a government.
Hariri opened channels for dialogue with the Shiite party, resulting in an understanding that would remain in place until today. Hezbollah was winning on all fronts: the Syrian Civil War war gave it more power, the nuclear deal reinforced its legitimacy and it was now benefiting from Sunni and Christian political cover, giving it leeway to dominate the Lebanese political scene.
In 2016, 30 years after its creation, Hezbollah was finally in a position to pull all the strings.
The party was a partner or strategic ally with the three poles of power: President Aoun, then Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Parliament Speaker Berri.
At that point, Hezbollah had not completely infiltrated the state or at least it had not fully taken over the country.
As it did not have an army of public servants in every corner of the state, the party’s direct influence over Lebanese institutions remained limited compared with that of many other parties.
But Hezbollah’s power allowed it to steer decisions in its favor, halt any development that did not work in its best interests and impose red lines. The Shiite party was even able to maintain its political alliances without having to flex its muscles.
Hezbollah became the master of the game without having to resort to arm wrestling or political assassination.
It was only the October 2019 uprising that threatened this dream situation. The Shiite party, however, killed the movement in the bud.
Hezbollah is preparing for the coming phase.
While the party is content with the current situation, it is well aware that the existential crisis gripping Lebanon, added to a regional context that could lead to the resumption of diplomacy and a change in the structure of the Lebanese system, presents a golden opportunity to enshrine the era of Shiite domination in the country’s constitution.
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.
Part II: Hezbollah’s takeover of the Lebanese state. Read Part I here.Scores of people flocked to Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square, waving Lebanese flags and chanting slogans calling for unity.Everything suggested that it was a popular and patriotic uprising to preserve Lebanon’s interests. But it was an entirely different story that was unfolding on this day of March 8, 2005.