“Consensus democracy” is the buzzword of Lebanon’s sectarian politics, in which candidates for the highest state positions must have cross-sectarian approval. That, at least, is the theory. In practice, Hezbollah has no qualms about trampling on consensus when it suits the pro-Iran Shia agenda.
Together with President Michel Aoun and his Maronite Christian supporters and Nabih Berri, the Shia speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Hezbollah has forced through the appointment of Hassan Diab as Lebanon’s new prime minister.
Diab is Sunni but his qualifications for the job do not extend much further. Apart from a three-year tenure, from 2011 to 2014, as minister for education, his background is in academia, as a professor of engineering. He doesn’t even have wide support from his own Sunni community. But Hezbollah used its slim parliamentary majority (the party holds 69 of the 120 seats), to force through Diab’s appointment on December 19.
Such strong-arming is familiar Hezbollah behavior. Between 2005 and 2018, when the party lacked a parliamentary majority, it used a supposed lack of consensus as a pretext for paralyzing the government. The country was without a president for two years until Aoun was elected.
“Consensus democracy” is, of course, an oxymoron. Democracy is decision-making by majority. The term does not figure in the Lebanese constitution but Hezbollah and its allies argue that consensus democracy has been the “national convention” since independence in 1943.
The recent popular protests in Lebanon have divided the ruling establishment bitterly. The soon-departing Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, conceded to popular demand and resigned. He has since resisted considerable pressure from Aoun and Hezbollah to return, insisting he will only do so if he can form a new cabinet of non-partisan experts, as the protesters demand.
This was too much to ask. Hezbollah first tried to replace Hariri with candidates who could be relied upon to toe the line. The protesters roundly rejected both of Hezbollah’s nominees. Hezbollah justified imposing Diab on the country by arguing that democracy means rule by majority – the consensus part has been conveniently forgotten.
Even more worrying than Hezbollah’s manipulation of the system is its inability to comprehend the gravity of Lebanon’s problems. In the minds of Hezbollah’s leaders, politics and economics are two separate issues and it is more important to ensure the country is run by compliant officials, whether Shia, Sunni or Christian. The economy, meanwhile, can be left to fix itself.
In a recent speech, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah suggested that the solution to Lebanon’s economic woes was to sell its potato crop to Iraq.
At a recent press conference, Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah member of parliament, insisted that the nation’s problems were caused by a conspiracy to make people take their capital out of the country. Hezbollah’s plan for restoring Lebanon’s fortunes seems to consist of trying to force bankers and corrupt officials to bring their money back to Beirut. It completely overlooks the fact that while the latter group embezzled money from public funds and therefore committed a crime, the former merely profited from a decade of the central bank’s high interest rates, which is not illegal. There can hardly be a clearer illustration of how little Hezbollah understands governing.
The Lebanese pound has lost a third of its value since September but even with a vote of confidence from parliament, it is highly unlikely that Diab and his cabinet will be able to stop the economy sinking further. Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, has big problems of its own. A tax on fuel has increased prices by 30 percent and inflation in Iran has passed the 40 percent mark. The economic situation is so dire that financial institutions stopped updating their numbers in March. Lebanon’s Central Bank stopped posting its foreign exchange reserve levels in 2016.
Also in that year, Hezbollah forced parliament to elect Michel Aoun as president. Now it has foisted Hassan Diab on the country as prime minister. The fate of Lebanon is now entirely in the hands of Hezbollah. All pretense of “consensus democracy” has been dropped. The party that broke Lebanon now owns it.
To Hezbollah and its propagandists, Lebanon’s ills are the result not of government incompetence but the global conspiracy fomented by America and Zionists with assistance from Hezbollah’s enemies within Lebanon. Like its sponsors in Iran, Hezbollah and its allies and supporters live in their own alternative reality.
In normal countries, crumbling economies usually lead to a drastic change in leadership. In Iran and its satellites – Iraq and Lebanon – the answer is simply to repeat failed strategies over and over. No wonder the economies of Iran and Lebanon are in free fall, with no end in sight.
As everything falls apart, politics and cabinet reshuffles in Beirut seem irrelevant. Times of crisis require exceptional people. Prime Minister-designate Diab, the engineering professor and low-key former education minister, does not fit the bill.
And with Hezbollah underwriting his tenure, for the people of Lebanon, the light at the end of the tunnel seems further away than ever.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.