As Lebanese Protests Rage On, Regional Suitors Hedge Their Bets

7 MINS READNov 1, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
Lebanese riot police officers remove anti-government protesters as they dismantle a roadblock in the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Oct. 31, 2019. Traffic came to a standstill on major highways, as protesters erected metal barricades.

Police officers forcefully remove protesters from an Oct. 31 demonstration in Beirut. The unprecedented anti-government rallies in Lebanon are entering their third week.

(ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)
  • The growing push for systemic political change in Lebanon, if successful, could weaken the proxy positions of Iran and its regional adversary, Saudi Arabia. 
  • Iran has built up the most political capital in Lebanon via Hezbollah and thus has the most at stake, should the current unrest continue apace in the months ahead.
  • Outside powers like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could hold off on providing support if they believe that it could bolster Hezbollah's position.

As the size and scope of the anti-government protests in Lebanon grow, so too has the sense that a Pandora's box may be opening for the country's ruling elite. Stoked by the country's increasingly dire financial situation, the widespread anger that has taken root across Lebanon has seemingly reached the point where any government decision perceived as either a piecemeal promise or surface-level solution risks only adding fuel to the fire. This has, in turn, left Beirut's leaders with little means to regain its citizens' trust, barring the kind of sweeping political reforms they're now demanding on the streets. 

The protesters face an uphill battle in accomplishing their ambitious goals of structural change, as past attempts to enact even small political reforms in Lebanon have proven largely unsuccessful. But given the demonstrations' intensity and momentum, there's a chance the unrest could turn into a full-fledged political movement that tangibly shifts Lebanon's government over time. Indeed, early elections are already under discussion; and if held within the current political climate, they could very well threaten everyone who has carefully eked out their positions in Lebanon's complicated political system — including the country's longtime regional patrons, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Big Picture

The 1989 Taif Accords may have ended Lebanon's long civil war, but it left behind the deeply ingrained sectarianism that underpinned the conflict. Over the years, nearby powers have exploited these socioeconomic and religious divisions to make their own inroads in the country via political proxies, such as Iran's ally Hezbollah. 

Political Proxy Battles 

Lebanon has long been viewed as a valuable proxy theater for the region's more powerful and wealthier states, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and (to a lesser extent) Israel. Each of these countries has a track record of exploiting Lebanon's sectarian divides for their own gain. Iran, however, currently maintains the most leverage in the country through its powerful political proxy, Hezbollah.

Hezbollah first rose to power in Lebanon in the early 1980s as a patron of Shiites, who had been perpetually cut out of the country's successive power-sharing deals between Sunnis and Christians. The violent clashes that erupted as part of Lebanon's 2008 political crisis then left Hezbollah as the dominant armed faction in Lebanon, a status it retains today.

This timeline depicts key events in Hezbollah's history.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, has supported Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (who has investments and property in the kingdom) and his Sunni allies in Lebanon as a means to both channel its influence in the country and counter Iranian-backed Shiite power under Hezbollah. But Saudi Arabia's involvement in Lebanon and support for al-Hariri's government has ebbed and flowed, depending on how well it believes its proxies can control Hezbollah's place in power. In more recent years, Saudi Arabia's political influence in Lebanon has weakened. This is due in part to Beirut's perception of Riyadh as a more overt meddler, especially following the Saudi-instigated detention and semi-forced resignation of al-Hariri in 2017. And as a result, its political foothold in Lebanon has waned in contrast to Hezbollah, which has strengthened its grip. 

Pandora's Box? 

But Saudi Arabia's decision to largely stay out of Lebanese politics could now be to its benefit, amid the wave of mass protests that have taken hold of Lebanon in recent weeks. Proposed austerity measures and taxes intended to help Beirut mitigate its financial downturn provided the initial spark on Oct. 18. But in the days since, the rallies have evolved into a much larger anti-corruption push against Lebanon's ruling elite. In a desperate (and unsuccessful) attempt to quell the unrest, Beirut proposed new economic reforms and benefits. The demonstrators, however, broadly viewed the move as being too little, too late, and have continued to flock to the streets to voice their growing list of grievances and demands.

This chart shows Lebanon's two main power blocs.

The Sunnis (under al-Hariri's Future Movement) and the Shiites (under Hezbollah), as well as the Christians (under the Free Patriotic Movement), have all become corrupt symbols of protesters' ire. And as public sentiment continues to plummet alongside the country's dismal financial numbers, Hezbollah's political standing — and thereby, Iran's — could suffer alongside the rest of Lebanon's leaders. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions have hampered Iran's ability to financially support its Shiite base in Lebanon. This lack of funding, combined with the toxic political climate, means Iran's main proxy in the country will be forced to adjust its political position in the country if unrest continues and yields political change.

Or a Window of Opportunity? 

Saudi Arabia, in turn, stands to benefit from a potential decline in Hezbollah's popular clout. But Riyadh isn't the only regional power that would take comfort in the tarnishing of Iran's political influence in Lebanon. Israel, for one, has fought numerous wars with Hezbollah. And over the years, Iran's growing involvement in Lebanon has motivated Israel to deepen its campaign against Iranian regional allies and assets. Should the current unrest yield another dramatic shift in Lebanon's political balance, there's a chance Israel could again reconsider its approach to the country, just as it did in the wake of Beirut's previous political upheavals in 1982 and 2006.

As a counter to Iranian-backed Shiite influence, Turkey has also sought to influence Sunni politics in Lebanon but has largely failed to drum up the political, economic and security support needed to do so. A weaker Iranian presence in the country, however, could grant Turkey an opening to bolster its own presence. 

This map shows Hezbollah's areas of strength in Lebanon.

Indeed, the prospect of benefiting from Iran's weakening political influence could be a large reason why Iran's enemies in the Arab Gulf — namely, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — haven't seemed eager to help financially bail out the cash-strapped country. Riyadh, in particular, has a track record of holding back support when it thinks Hezbollah will benefit. In 2016, for example, Riyadh abruptly rerouted $5 billion in security aid intended for Lebanon to Sudan instead, citing concerns over Hezbollah's (and Iran's) growing influence in Lebanon. For al-Hariri and President Michel Aoun, this lack of funding from the Gulf states is a double-edged sword. On one hand, a cash bailout could do wonders for Lebanon's deeply indebted government. But on the other, not having overt Saudi or Emirati support helps distance Beirut from the narratives of geopolitical interference and corruption that protesters are currently peddling on the streets.

Because Iran has built up the most political capital in Lebanon through Hezbollah, it stands to lose the most should the protests eventually snowball into political reform.

Still, the current unrest in Lebanon, while chaotic, remains a domestic issue. This broader geopolitical impact of Lebanese unrest will only emerge if and when the current instability yields an actual political reshuffle — whether that be a resignation of the current government, a readjustment in the balance of confessional power, or (at the most extreme end) a fundamental restructuring of how the Lebanese government operates.

Given the anti-elitist sentiment brewing in Lebanon, there's a chance the current unrest could even lead to the emergence of a non-sectarian movement that rebuffs external influence in Lebanese politics altogether. Such an outcome, of course, would be a no-win scenario for all of Lebanon's regional suitors, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, with so much uncertainty, there are countless scenarios that could still play out in the weeks ahead. But because Iran has built up the most political capital in the country over the years, it stands to lose the most should the protests persist and eventually snowball into political reform. In the meantime, Iran's regional rivals will likely hedge their bets and continue to stand idly by, hoping that whatever shape Lebanon's political system takes next is one that has a smaller place for Hezbollah.

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