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Lebanon’s Elections: Democracy at Risk

Censorship of films amplifies concerns about remaining freedoms of the Lebanese

A portrait of the head of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrallah, is seen on November 5, 2017, in the southern Lebanese village of Adshit. (Getty)

by Hanin Ghaddar*

Four months separates Lebanon from its next parliamentary elections, one that will probably change the face of Lebanon drastically. It is expected that Hezbollah will win a parliamentary majority, and for the first time, will democratically win Lebanon. Some expect that Hezbollah will make constitutional changes to guarantee its control over Lebanon for a long time.

Political power in the institutions will probably give Hezbollah more sway in security and military decisions, and that’s going to cost Lebanon a lot. However, there are signs that say that after the elections, Lebanon will lose much of its image of democracy and modernity that – despite all wars and crises – still makes Lebanon somehow appealing to the international community, and thereby attractive to some investors. This shaky image is also on its way to wither, with Hezbollah and their Lebanese allies and proxies getting ready for a major comeback.

ON POLITICS AND SECURITY

When Hezbollah wins the parliament, they will be able to fully control Lebanon’s Foreign Policy – something that they have already secured with FM Gebran Bassil, who a few weeks ago called the Arab states to sanction the United States for the administration’s recent decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Hezbollah will have much more power in all sovereign ministries, including defense and economy, and they won’t feel the necessity to compromise with their opponents, because simply, they won’t be any opponents left.

But most significantly, Hezbollah will no longer need anyone’s blessing to start a war from Lebanon against any enemy that Iran wishes to fight. They’ll be able to bring in any foreign Shia militia they want to participate in this war, even if it means the end of Lebanon. A sign of this plan was manifested a few weeks ago with the public and recorded visit of the Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iraqi paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, to the south of Lebanon, where he declared his readiness “to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause.”

Prime Minister Saad Hariri condemned this visit but he wasn’t able to stop it – or get Hezbollah to withdraw from anywhere in the region, in line with his recent “dissociation policy” which Hariri announced as he recanted his resignation. The last shred of this policy will probably be completely eliminated after the elections.

ON ECONOMY AND FINANCIAL STABILITY

Couple of weeks ago, Lebanon’s government hired management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to help restructure the economy that’s overly reliant on remittances and banking, and grappling with high unemployment. The problem with Lebanese economy is obvious: corruption and lack of investment. Without serious reform of the state institutions, transparency, and getting rid of Hezbollah’s arms, there won’t be need for any restructuring. McKinsey will also have to analyze and quantify Hezbollah’s parallel economy, meaning that they will need access to this parallel system, and that – of course – is impossible.

When Hezbollah wins the elections in May, the blurry line that separates Lebanon’s government and the Party of God will disappear and Lebanon will no longer be able to enjoy the international community’s sympathy or support. More investments will pull out, mostly Gulf investors, and gradually followed by western investors. Lebanon’s economy will further disintegrate and nothing but a miracle will be able to restore it. The already poor services such as electricity, water, Internet, will further deteriorate, and the private sector will struggle to fill the gap without proper investments.

Iran does not need Lebanon to thrive. On the contrary, weak institutions and poor communities allow Iran to spread its control. Helpless Lebanon is better for Iran than thriving Lebanon. Hezbollah is the child of the Iranian regime, and as the regime in Iran used the Iranian people’s resources to finance its regional operations, Hezbollah will do the same in Lebanon. Unemployment, poverty, and isolation will probably increase in Hezbollah’s new era of control.

Gloria Estefan and Director Steven Spielberg leave the 2015 Presidential Medal Of Freedom Ceremony at the White House on November 24, 2015 in Washington, DC.(Getty)

ON DEMOCRACY AND MODERNITY

The past few months in Lebanon have given us clear signs to be seriously concerned about the remaining freedoms of the Lebanese. Journalists and activists are being tried in court (civil and military courts) for expressing opinions, while criminals (Michel Smaha as an example) are being released.

A number of events and movies have been banned, last of which was The Post because its director, Steven Spielberg, is Jewish. The Lebanese censorship board banned it citing a “boycott Israel” list that includes Spielberg’s name, due to his Oscar-winning Holocaust film Schindler’s List, which shot some scenes in Jerusalem. Over the last three years, at least five films either directed or produced by Spielberg have been approved by the censorship board and released in Lebanon, including The BFG and Bridge of Spies, but only now is Spielberg’s inclusion on the “boycott Israel” list being invoked.

Although the film has been unbanned because the Prime Minister himself interfered, other movies are still on the path of being banned. With Hezbollah in power, Lebanon will ban culture, threaten freedoms, and kill diversity. Democracy in Lebanon is already becoming a joke that no one laughs at, and the new electoral law will only open the door wider to Iran.

Lebanon is Iran’s backyard and Hezbollah is its favorite child. The regime in Iran has recently realized that its people will no longer stay silent. Calls for regime change have been loudly heard in the streets of Tehran. With regional instability and the shift of focus from ISIS to Iran in Syria and Iraq, the Iranian regime will need Lebanon today more than ever. The parliamentary elections are the safest way to guarantee Lebanon to stay under Iran’s control and Hezbollah will stop at nothing to make it happen.

To fulfill this objective, the people will have to be tamed and isolated, and banning movies, events and books is just the beginning of a dark era where people will be used as fighters, not as citizens. Lebanon’s democracy and cultural openness are elements of a healthy society that will eventually rebel and demand change. Hezbollah would rather bring Lebanon back to the dark ages.

Things will surely change for Lebanon after May 2018. The United States has supported the March 14 coalition since 2005 in its struggle against the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc and was reluctant to impose hard measures that could destabilize Lebanon. Now that the former leaders of March 14 are cooperating with Hezbollah and its allies, and will form alliances ahead of the elections with them, Washington might change its mind.

The US Congress is close to adopting new anti-Hezbollah legislation amid speculation that the administration of President Donald Trump could begin squeezing some of Hezbollah’s allies. Such pressure by the US Treasury on Lebanon’s banking sector could have catastrophic results on the economy.

Hezbollah’s sponsors in Tehran will not be able to save the economy of Lebanon or the livelihood of the Lebanese people. Lebanon today needs more pressure by the international community to save it from Hezbollah’s grip, and more importantly, the Lebanese people need to understand the consequences of voting for candidates that will only empower Hezbollah.

*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.

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Hanin Ghaddar
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. She tweets @haningdr [https://twitter.com/haningdr]

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