Lebanon’s Future Poses a Challenge for the Newly Elected Parliament
The country’s largest parliamentary bloc, led by Iranian-backed Hezbollah, lost its parliamentary majority, but urgent action is required from a new government to address Lebanon’s devastating economic crisis.
BEIRUT — The outcome of Lebanon’s much-anticipated parliamentary elections has somewhat altered the political landscape in the crisis-stricken country, which has been drowning in a catastrophic economic collapse since 2019.
Citizens took to the polls May 15 to cast votes for the 128-seat legislature, which is equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Voter participation was 49.19%, compared with 49.7% in the last parliamentary elections in 2018.
Lebanon's largest parliamentary bloc, led by Hezbollah, lost its parliamentary majority.
The United States considers Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group, a terrorist organization. Hezbollah’s Christian ally is the Free Patriotic Movement Christian party, and its main Shiite ally is the Amal group of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. The Free Patriotic Movement was founded by Lebanese President Michel Aoun and is headed by his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, a former minister of foreign affairs.
The results of the election, announced in full by Lebanon’s minister of interior May 17, “are revealing some important breakthroughs against the parliamentary monolith that was Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement,” said Habib Malik, retired associate professor of history at the Lebanese American University, who shared his analysis of the outcome with the Register.
“The biggest winners were the Lebanese Forces (Christian party), showing that Christian allegiances have shifted away from the Free Patriotic Movement and towards the Lebanese Forces, namely an open rejection of the faux Christian cover that Aoun and company have freely offered to Hezbollah to help it hijack Lebanon to an alien axis, that of Iran, utterly foreign and unacceptable to a majority of the Lebanese, including the Christians,” Malik told the Register.
The Lebanese Forces, backed by Saudi Arabia, had made the disarmament of Hezbollah the spearhead of their campaign.
Going forward, Malik said, “now the big question is: Will the opposition groupings in the new parliament, who got there largely on their own or through bickering with one another, be able to unite around a set of basic propositions that bolster the sovereignty of Lebanon and diminish its current hostage status to Iran via Hezbollah? Will a clear leader emerge to hold together this new opposition block?”
While it is too soon to speculate, Malik said, “hopes are rising that the dire situation of the country will finally drive opposition figures and groups to work together in the new parliament towards weakening the pro-Iran block and thwarting its designs.”
Crushing Economic Crisis
Lebanon is in the throes of a crushing economic crisis described by the World Bank as one of the deepest depressions in modern history, blamed on decades of political mismanagement and corruption. Poverty is now a reality for nearly 80% of the population. Since 2019, the national currency has lost more than 90% of its value.
In a statement, Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, called on the country’s new parliament “to urgently adopt all legislation necessary to stabilize the economy and improve governance.”
He stressed the need for Lebanon’s “political leaders to work jointly with the best interest of Lebanon and the Lebanese people in mind.”
The new parliament will be tasked with forming a new government and enacting much-needed reforms, particularly in order to reach a final agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The parliament is also responsible for electing a successor to President Aoun, whose six-year mandate ends Oct. 31. Under Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite.
Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of Maronite Catholics, in an appeal on the eve of the elections, said, “We know the difficulty and complexity of the situation, and we know that change does not come with a magic wand. Therefore, let these elections be the beginning of the right path that will lead Lebanon out of the abyss,” indicating that the state must assume its responsibilities and save the people.
“No matter the results of the elections, the form of the next government and the type of reforms, the adoption of active neutrality remains the pivotal solution that guarantees the existence of Lebanon and preserves its independence, its stability and its historical and national unity,” the head of the Maronite Church said.
Since the summer of 2020, Cardinal Rai has pressed for his concept of active neutrality, which he has said calls for “Lebanon’s non-alignment with coalitions, axes, political conflicts or regional or international wars and the non-interference by any country in the internal affairs of Lebanon.”
Commenting on the elections, Maronite Archbishop Antoine Bou Najem of Antelias, north of Beirut, told the Register, “Especially in the Christian areas, the Christians held the ruling system accountable. The Christian majority moved from the Free Patriotic Movement to the Lebanese Forces. The question now is: Can the Lebanese Forces and their allies change the reality? How will they engage with Hezbollah?”
“Our problem is with the weapons of Hezbollah and other factions. Lebanon is a country of pluralism, not an Islamic or Christian republic. It is a country for everyone. It is a country of mission, as described by St. John Paul II,” the archbishop said.
“Therefore, we are a people who want life and freedom. We want to live in a country that respects everyone. We do not want war. We want neutrality. I pray to God that the new parliament can fulfill this vision,” Archbishop Bou Najem said.
‘Perilously Precarious’ Situation for Christians
Despite the electoral gains in the parliament, Habib Malik warns that the situation of Lebanon’s Christians “remains perilously precarious.”
“Demographic attrition through rising emigration continues within Christian ranks, particularly among the youth. The general impoverishing of the Christian community and the decimation of its once-thriving middle class persists and is deepening with further economic and financial collapse,” Malik told the Register.
Not factoring in the wave of emigration since the 2019 economic crisis, nor the presence of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees and more than 500,000 Palestinian refugees who are mostly Muslim, Christians account for around 40% of Lebanon’s citizen population of approximately 4 million.
“The primary components that have set Lebanon apart positively in the region, namely distinctive education and health care, have eroded to an alarming degree, and it has been the free Christians who were primarily the ones who made such excellence in these two vital areas possible,” Malik pointed out.
“Unless workable practical steps are taken to address these grave challenges, within the new parliament but also beyond, little can be expected by way of uplifting news for the country’s Christian community as well as for other Lebanese who have benefited from Christian excellence over the decades,” he said.
As Lebanon disintegrates further, all the Lebanese, overwhelmed by despondency, long to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Our Lebanese people are facing a huge crisis, and we are living in an emergency crisis at the moment,” Father Michel Abboud, president of Caritas Lebanon, told the Register.
“All the people are hoping to see a change at all levels,” he said. “We are addressing all the parliament: Please, listen to the Lebanese people. Hear the crying of the children, the mothers, the fathers, the crying of all the families. Don’t be blind to the suffering of the people,” Father Abboud implored.
“The hunger, the famine, is common for all, the suffering is common for all. The famine does not distinguish between Muslim and Christian; it doesn’t distinguish between north and south, west and east (of Lebanon),” the Carmelite priest stressed. “People need medicines; they need food; many people can’t pay the fees of hospitalization, and many people are dying.”
“We hope that the Lebanese parliament will be at the level of the confidence, of the trust which the Lebanese people gave them,” the Caritas Lebanon president said.
“We don’t lose our faith in God,” Father Abboud said. “If we lost our hope in the people, we didn’t lose our hope in God. So, consider this moment, in this situation, like a tunnel. Sometimes you will pass it; sometimes you will find the end and you exit for the light.”