Hezbollah Democracy: The Ballot and the Bullet


In the midst of the recent upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt, Lebanon experienced something of a revolution of its own. Hezbollah and its March 8 coalition brought down Saad Hariri’s government in January by withdrawing their ten ministers, then secured the election of an opposition candidate to the premiership. Livid March 14 partisans immediately called it a “coup." The only problem with that label is the remarkable fact that Hezbollah’s rise to power was accomplished peacefully through the democratic process. Or was it?

While the destruction of Hariri’s government and the election of Najib Mikati as prime minister were brought about legally and without violence, these maneuvers were successful only because of entirely undemocratic conduct by Hezbollah.

The first problem is that Hezbollah’s actions ignored the historical model of consensus in Lebanon’s confessional system. This fragile political structure, in which each sect is allocated representation in the government based on its (supposed) demographic weight, is often navigated by negotiation and deal-cutting. Cabinet formation is a particularly messy process that must account for the demands of the minority as well as the majority.

March 8 leaders themselves adamantly rejected the election of any Parliament speaker other than Amal leader Nabih Berri in 2005, then withdrew from the unity government in 2006 and claimed it was unconstitutional because it failed to honor the “pact of communal coexistence” required of any legitimate authority by the Lebanese constitution. They have blithely broken both of these precedents in their first moments in power, rejecting the necessity of a consensus government and spurning the acknowledged representative of the Sunni community.

The second problem is that the election of Mikati was achieved through intimidation. The opposition gained the requisite votes from the sudden support of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the core of his bloc. He was an unlikely ally. Until recently a vociferous critic of Syria and Hezbollah, he was the instigator of the government's takedown order on Hezbollah's communications network that motivated them to begin the 2008 violence, the deadliest element of which was the invasion of the Druze mountains by March 8 forces.

So why the volte-face? Upon shifting his vote from Hariri to the opposition candidate, he warned of "catastrophic consequences" should he continue to support March 14. He appeared to be under duress and went so far as to say that "Hariri's regional and international backers only resort to statements, while his opponents turn to all manners of military and popular pressure."

This brings us to the third and most fundamental problem: Hezbollah is willing to use violence hand in hand with democracy. Hezbollah’s pressure on Jumblatt was effective only because he knew the threat was real. Hezbollah is perfectly prepared to resort to violence to achieve “democratic” change. The 2008 Doha Agreement granting veto power in the cabinet to the opposition was secured by force of arms: it was the culmination of a period of violence set off by Hezbollah in response to government moves against their private telecommunications network.

Revolution or no, this change in power was certainly not democratic, backed up as it was by the persistent threat of armed revolt. In toppling the Hariri government, Hezbollah used the democratic process, but that process was only one arrow in a quiver that also contained armed insurrection. Hezbollah cannot be considered a sincere participant in Lebanese democracy so long as it maintains its arms and remains willing to use them against its political opponents.

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