Since withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Trump administration has sought to curb Iran’s growing sphere of influence. Which makes the ongoing protests in Lebanon all the more significant: A notoriously sectarian country has united across social and religious lines to condemn the power of the Islamic Republic’s most successful export, Hezbollah.
The protests have seen Lebanese Christians, Druze, Sunnis, and even Shiites insist that the government address both corruption and the worst economic crisis in Lebanon since the 1975–1990 civil war. With an unemployment rate of 35 percent and a poverty rate of 45 percent, it is tempting to assume that unrest is only motivated by economic anxiety. Many protesters, however, have also turned their attention to Hezbollah — with two main demands. For one, they wish to see many Hezbollah members step down from government, citing corruption and complacency with the economic status quo. Anti-government protesters also demand that the Iranian-backed group forfeit its weapons to the Lebanese Armed Forces, Lebanon’s official military. Hezbollah has hundreds of thousands of missiles in Lebanon, many provided by the Iranian government, and outnumbers the Lebanese Armed Forces in arms.
Historically, Lebanese society has had a high tolerance for Hezbollah’s extra-governmental affairs and its ties to Iran, because Hezbollah helped keep the Islamic State out of Lebanon and possesses the military capabilities to counter Israel. Hezbollah also holds official seats in the Lebanese government, a confessional system that reserves positions for each of Lebanon’s main sects.
But that may be changing. The protests began last fall, when, amidst Lebanon’s economic collapse, civilians marched in the streets of Beirut to call for a new government free of corruption and sectarian divides. Hezbollah was reluctant to step down. In response, protesters dubbed the group terrorists and chanted “Here is Lebanon, not Iran” (sentiments that are largely unprecedented in Lebanon.) They met with friction and even violence from Hezbollah and its sympathizers, but the fall protests culminated with the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which led to the creation of a new government.
Hariri’s resignation notwithstanding, the country’s underlying economic problems and Hezbollah’s position of power have remained since the initial protests. After the easing of coronavirus restrictions, however, clashes between the anti-government group and Hezbollah have broken out yet again. Protesters are evoking U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, which seeks to disarm Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias. This resolution would serve as a direct blow to Hezbollah’s power. Meanwhile, Iran is facing similar protests from citizens unhappy with the economy and their theocracy.
This united effort against Hezbollah is unprecedented. It is also a promising sign for U.S. foreign-policy goals, perhaps suggesting that U.S. sanctions targeting Iran and Hezbollah are working. But there are downsides. The Lebanese and Iranian people are suffering crippling economic collapses, and the enduring factionalism in Lebanon could mean another civil war should Hezbollah decline to back down.
The Lebanese people appear ready to take back power from ineffective groups, including Hezbollah, and to create a government that both represents citizens across sects and empowers a military that controls all arms in the country. This spells disaster for Iran, which looks to Hezbollah as both a Shiite stronghold and a bulwark against Israel. For the U.S., however, resistance to Hezbollah is a promising development for a key ally, Israel, and a message of hope for governmental legitimacy in Lebanon. For Lebanon, these protests symbolize a united national consciousness that transcends sectarian lines and demands functional, representative government.