Twelve years after an ostensibly definitive ban, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has re-entered the diplomatic fold, and is back at the forefront of regional developments. Tehran, the once sworn enemy of the Arab countries that had previously unified them around the concept of a “new Middle East,” is back at the negotiating table.
Lebanon expects to reap the benefits of a “technical” maritime agreement on its southern border. Damascus has won the battle. The Saudis are preparing to withdraw from Yemen.
The situation appears to be shifting toward “pragmatism.”
Even the Hezbollah and Amal-endorsed presidential candidate, Sleiman Frangieh, has managed to present himself as a “pragmatic” choice, despite Washington’s reluctance and Riyadh’s reservations, as well as a large majority of Christian MPs’ categorical refusal to support his candidacy.
After a decade of turmoil, diplomatic efforts seem to lean toward appeasement, which, far from being a substitute for violence, appears to enshrine the law of the strongest.
In the region, compromise is tantamount to recognition of power. This is one of the lessons of the infamous May 7, 2008, events.
Fifteen years have passed since Hezbollah took over the western parts of the Lebanese capital and tried to impose itself by force in the Chouf area.
Hezbollah sought to strongarm the government of then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to backtrack on a plan to dismantle its telecoms network and to sack the head of security at the Beirut airport, who was reputedly close to the party.
The events shook the nation, dealing a blow to a country that was already in the process of recovering from a string of political assassinations and was still grappling with the aftermath of the almost three decades of Syrian occupation.
For Hezbollah, however, the game was won.
From that moment on, “Hezbollah’s dominance became visible,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “It became obvious that the party was ready to resort to brutal force if need be.”
In a landscape where the constant threat of war or violence looms, Hezbollah finds itself in a position where it no longer requires active deployment of its military arsenal to influence the course of events.
“No one questions the party’s red lines, which are now respected by the entire political class,” said Karim Mufti, a political science professor and researcher.
Using its military power, Hezbollah has managed to impose its will on significant national matters, from the southern border to administration appointments and the investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion.
In his speeches, which subtly “reframed” narratives and even carried “street-level” intimidation, party leader Hassan Nasrallah conveyed a message that the party — which was born from the “resistance” against the Israeli invasion in the early 1980s — has now gained a deterrence capability over the Lebanese population.
This transformation stands as the primary consequence of the May 7, 2008, events.
The show of force took place after 18 months of political deadlock and led to international mediation.
The May 21 agreement in Doha made way for a swift return to calm and the election of then-army chief Michel Sleiman as president.
By establishing a “national unity” divide at the executive level, the Doha deal upheld the idea of government by consensus and came as the final nail in the coffin of the Taif Agreement spirit — a minority of ministers can now dismiss a cabinet at any time.
This Lebanese-style “vetocracy,” which consolidated Hezbollah’s power, paved the way for political paralysis, was evidenced in January 2011.
At the time, the government of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which had been formed two years earlier collapsed, following the resignation of 11 ministers mostly affiliated with Hezbollah and its ally the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).
The “blocking minority,” provided for in the law, was becoming increasingly burdensome.
Hezbollah managed to acquire the political means to devise a strategy of obstruction, inching closer toward a state of “normalization.” After having operated in secret and showcased its military dominance in the 1990s, the 2000s came to mark a phase of transformation for Hezbollah.
From a clandestine militia, Nasrallah’s party became a political force at the heart of the establishment.
With the Doha Agreement, Hezbollah managed to turn the threat of an armed conflict into political blackmail.
In the following decade, the gains of the May 7, 2008, events, i.e., a deterrence force and consolidated vetocracy — were challenged. During this period, the foundations on which the party was built were shaking.
Iran, Hezbollah’s political patron, was going through a two-fold crisis at the political and economic level, undermining its ability to finance its local proxies. The American sanctions against Tehran between 2016 and 2017, disrupted the cash flow to the party.
From 2013 onwards, the Syrian conflict evolved into a matter of survival for Hezbollah. The party recognized that its military intervention was necessary to prevent a regime change in Damascus, which could have severed the crucial lines of communication linking it to the Iranian sponsor.
This intervention, however, came at a significant cost.
In addition to the thousands of Lebanese who lost their lives in the war raging next door, Hezbollah appeared as a counter-revolutionary force.
On the regional stage, the risks undertaken yielded favorable outcomes for Hezbollah. The party underwent a transformation in its status, transitioning from a local militia primarily involved in Lebanese affairs to the armed wing of the Iranian axis within the region.
From Beirut to Sanaa, spanning through Damascus and Baghdad, Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria enabled it to forge an international reputation. Its involvement in the Syrian conflict provided the party with valuable military expertise, as it trained an entirely new generation of fighters.
Hezbollah’s rise in power was also reflected on the local scene. From 2008 to 2014, the party took advantage of the gradual disintegration of the March 14 camp in a bid to consolidate its place at the heart of the Lebanese political landscape.
The 2006 agreement with the FPM led to the election of Michel Aoun as Lebanon’s president 10 years later.
For the first time in its history, Hezbollah held almost all the levers of powers as a result of its alliances with Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and by establishing a modus vivendi with then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
The logic governing the May 7 show of force was pushed to the limit: Hezbollah’s domination became indisputable.
“The party finally managed to control every aspect of the system,” Khashan said.
The party’s glory came to an end in 2019, with the outbreak of the Oct. 17 thawra. The wave of protests and ensuing political turmoil posed “significant challenges” to Hezbollah, according to Kassem Kassir, a journalist and political analyst with close ties to the party.
“The protests were quicksand into which it feared sinking,” Mufti said. Hezbollah began to hear increased public criticism and even encountered dissenting voices from within its own ranks.
Moreover, two major events — its presumed responsibility for the 2020 Beirut port explosion and the Tayyouneh clashes of October 2021 — also contributed to the party’s declining popularity among a large portion of the Christian community.
At the political level, signs of the party’s weakness became apparent. The consensus system inherited from the Doha Agreement resulted in political paralysis, heightening the urgency for reforming the system more than ever before.
While the May 2022 legislative elections partly affirmed the loyalty of its base — with both Hezbollah and the Amal Movement retaining a monopoly on representation within the Shiite community, securing all 27 Shiite seats — Hezbollah and its allies were experiencing a decline in their parliamentary majority.
On the presidential election front, following the end of Michel Aoun’s term, Hezbollah has yet to succeed in having its candidate accepted. There is also no certainty that it will be able to achieve this in the future.
Fifteen years after May 7, 2008, Hezbollah finds itself increasingly isolated on the political stage, particularly due to its strained relations with the FPM, which previously provided it with a Christian cover.
The party, however, continues to take advantage of the fact that the opposition remains divided and that the Sunni leadership has been fragmented since Hariri’s withdrawal from political life. This is not to mention that it perceives that regional developments align with its interests.
But there is a possibility of a deeper crisis emerging in the coming years that could potentially challenge the party’s stability and influence.
Cracks have appeared at the core of the Hezbollah machine, indicating a dilution of the fundamental ideology that underpins the “resistance.”
Despite its past military accomplishments, Hezbollah is experiencing a significant decline in the prestige it once held among the Arab public — a decline that started in the late 2000s.
Criticism within the Lebanese Shiite community is also becoming more noticeable. The assassination of Shiite activist and vocal Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim in February 2021, which has widely been blamed on Hezbollah, reflects underlying tensions within the party’s leadership.
The series of crises that hit Lebanon between 2019 and 2022 had a detrimental effect on Hezbollah’s image, compelling the party to align itself as a conservative force dedicated to maintaining the status quo.
These crises also pose a threat to the stability that Hezbollah cherishes, particularly as it continues to be engaged in regional ventures.
The security incidents, such as those in Khaldeh and Tayyouneh, serve as sporadic reminders that the tensions could easily escalate into armed conflict.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.