The scenes of fighting in Beirut’s streets on October 14 sent shockwaves across Lebanon and beyond. It reminded many people of the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975. In reality, however, the fighting was not a return to that time.
The latest violence had a clear political goal, namely the removal of judge Tareq Bitar from the investigation of the explosion at Beirut port on August 4, 2020. Bitar had issued an arrest warrant for former finance minister Ali Hassan al-Khalil, a senior aide to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally. Bitar has also sought to question Youssef Fenianos, a former public works minister from the Marada Party, which is also an ally of Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as Nouhad Machnouq, a Sunni politician who opposes Iran. In effect, Bitar is pursuing politicians across the spectrum, and has many enemies. Meanwhile, those on his side, namely the families of the victims of the port blast and smaller opposition groups, have little influence or power.
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has taken the lead in criticizing Bitar and his investigation and has called for his replacement. The demonstrations against the judge by Hezbollah and Amal and the ensuing violence last week served this purpose. For many, what took place was reminiscent of May 7, 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies, including Berri’s Amal Movement and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, deployed gunmen in Beirut and the mountains to overturn two government decisions they saw as a threat. Their success at the time also paved the way for a government in which Hezbollah and its partners were given enough ministers to control the cabinet agenda and block decisions they opposed.
Today, more than a decade later, Lebanese militias are back on the streets. The question is whether they ever went away? Most of the wartime militias, except the Christian Lebanese Forces until 2005, retained many of their fighting capabilities, and bolstered their patronage networks by feeding off of the state and by siphoning money out of Lebanon’s highly corrupt reconstruction process.
Lebanon’s postwar period solidified the centrality of the wartime militias and laid the foundations for their immunity, undermining any process of national institution building. Hezbollah, with its weapons and network of party institutions, has thrived in this postwar reality. The organization is now leading the fight for restoring the old system after the 2019 protests, whether through its campaign against Bitar or by taking the lead in repressing and delegitimizing civil society organizations in claiming that they are linked to foreign embassies or imagined “American plots.”
Examining these militias and their networks in state institutions is both relevant and timely as Lebanon’s newly formed government negotiates a financial bailout plan with the International Monetary Fund and others. As in the case of the Beirut explosion investigation, Lebanese politicians are using sectarian language and threats of war to avoid any accountability for the corruption in governmental institutions and at Lebanon’s central bank.
The calls for a forensic audit of the central bank, for example, have illustrated the dynamics at play. President Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) have called for such an audit, provoking a strong reaction from politicians and parties that do not want their wrongdoing to be made public. This includes, among many others, Amal and Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, who in turn have demanded a forensic audit of the Ministry of Energy, a notoriously shady ministry that has been controlled by the FPM for over a decade.
A more revealing audit would be one that looks into the finances of the dominant political parties and their networks in governmental institutions and the private sector. While this is a near impossibility, understanding such networks is a necessity at a time when Lebanese reforms are on the agenda of the international community.
The dominant sectarian Lebanese parties, many of them former militias, are not funded in the same way as most parties around the world are. They are not member-funded or reliant on fundraising activities, nor do they rely for financing on like-minded individuals in the business community. Yet these organizations maintain anywhere between several hundred and a few thousand full-time employees across different fields, from their head offices and regional offices to their scout organizations, newspapers, electronic armies, educational institutions (which in the case of Amal, for instance, includes three high schools), services bureaus, and health departments, in addition to whoever is recruited into their security and military apparatuses.
The Progressive Socialist Party, led by Druze politician Walid Joumblatt, is one such example. It operates, directly and indirectly, the Farah Institute for social assistance, Iman Hospital, Al-Anbaa newspaper, and the Siblin cement factory which also has a stake in the energy sector. It also has placed full-time party members in the government bureaucracy. All of this brings in revenues or helps to spread the party’s influence and patronage network. Hezbollah, the largest political party in Lebanon, is on another scale. It benefits from external funding, mainly from Iran, and maintains thousands of full-time combatants as well as employees in its welfare institutions, numerous party branches, and publications.
Lebanese political parties, whose networks are far larger than those of parties in other countries of Lebanon’s size, have fed off the host that is the Lebanese state. Postwar governmental institutions have been transformed into webs of political networks, pumping money into parties. Government employees effectively serve their parties not the state. These parties have gained at the expense of good governance, state finances, economic development, and national welfare.
While Lebanon’s economy has collapsed, governmental institutions are struggling to survive and most sectarian parties continue to maintain militias, health services, and welfare and humanitarian networks. That is why any reform of the system must take into consideration this militia-centric structure. The only way forward is to demand independent institutional frameworks in Lebanon, free from political appointments on sectarian grounds. This is at the heart of a proposed law presented by Legal Agenda, a nongovernmental organization advocating for legal reform, which seeks to prevent the appointment of judges by political parties. It could serve as the basis for reform of the appointment processes in other state institutions.
However, reaching this stage will be long and difficult. As the events last week demonstrated, parties and their militias are organisms larger than the Lebanese state and its ailing institutions. For Lebanon to stand on its feet again, the rebuilding of the state can only proceed by reining in these parasitical networks.