Clientelism and Proxy Conflict: The Dangers That Lie Ahead for A Weakened Lebanese State

By: Joe Ward
Picture credits: Charbel Karam via Unsplash

Lebanon’s history is marred by conflict. Throughout the 70s and 80s, civil war tore the sectarian country apart, since then conflict with Israel has been frequent and brutal. Today, Lebanon faces one of the worst economic crises in modern history. This exposes it to more potential conflict as Hezbollah seeks to capitalize on the country’s economic weaknesses and regional powers show early indications of cold conflict in Lebanon. These threats are concerning as the crisis is set to worsen in the coming weeks and months. As the newly formed government scrambles to reform Lebanon’s economy, incentivized by the potential of an IMF bailout, it has cut subsidies across the board. Electricity blackouts are a daily occurrence and most people have resorted to the black market for fuel supplies because of severe shortages. 

Desperation transcends Lebanon’s sectarian boundaries. As three-quarters of the country’s citizens face grinding poverty, Shia, Sunni, Maronite, Druze, and other communities are starved of their necessities. This environment of vulnerability is ripe for clientelist political actors. Clientelism is a common tactic for paramilitary organizations, in the Middle East and elsewhere, whereby goods and services are exchanged for political support.

Hamas is an illustrative example. Despite its notorious record for civilian attacks, the paramilitary group was able to utilize clientelism to win Palestine’s last election in 2006. Hamas provided social services in areas neglected by the Israeli occupation, including healthcare and education, which lead impoverished Gazans to overlook Hamas’ suicide bombing campaigns when casting their votes. 

This case shows that politics in times of desperation is about one thing: people’s basic needs. As a result of their nation’s crumbling economy, Lebanon’s people find themselves in a similarly dire predicament to their Palestinian neighbors. Basic necessities become scarcer by the day. Learning from their ally in Gaza, Hezbollah is seeking to capitalize on this weakness and employ clientelism for political gain in Lebanon. The most egregious example of this tactic has been Hezbollah’s recent fuel imports. 

Fuel shortages have plagued Lebanon since March; however, their frequency and intensity have increased exponentially in recent weeks. October 9th brought a shutdown of two of the state’s main power plants due to a depletion of their diesel reserves. Unsettling footage of Beirut – a bustling city of over 2 million people – circulated the internet that night, showing the country’s capital engulfed in near-total darkness. 

Hezbollah’s response to the energy crisis has been to turn to its main supporter: Iran. The first shipment of diesel that Hezbollah brokered from Iran arrived in Lebanon on the 16th of September. This shipment entered Lebanon on a convoy of 60 trucks, carrying an estimated 3 million liters of diesel. The second shipment arrived in Lebanon a week later and a third tanker has reached the Syrian port of Baniyas, where Hezbollah collected last month’s supplies. 

Despite the obvious need for fuel in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s actions have sparked significant controversy. Opponents of Hezbollah have protested Iran’s significant influence in Lebanon, which it maintains through its relationship with the paramilitary group. This relationship – some argue – positions Hezbollah as little more than Tehran’s puppet. Iran and Hezbollah share a Shia identity, but the similarities don’t stop there. They share a hatred for Israel, a rivalry with Saudi Arabia, and a spot on the United States’ sanction list. 

Sanctions on Tehran are a notable roadblock to Hezbollah’s fuel import strategy, as they render any shipment from the Islamic Republic illegitimate. Diesel has been transported to Baniyas Port, where it is collected by Hezbollah and smuggled into Lebanon through informal border crossings in order to bypass the authorities. Lebanon’s new prime minister Najib Mikati, who relies on Hezbollah’s support for a majority in parliament, has stated that the recent imports violate the country’s sovereignty. 

By doing so, Hezbollah is undermining the legitimacy of the government it signed onto only last month, however, their actions have been met with praise by many. After all, Lebanon is entirely dependent on foreign imports to meet its energy demands, and with the Lebanese pound plummeting to roughly 10% of its value in two years, the government simply cannot afford to maintain the supply by legitimate means. In a situation like this, some in Lebanon will accept fuel from anyone. 

Hospitals, orphanages, and the civil defense forces are among the energy-deprived institutions that have benefitted from Hezbollah’s fuel patronage. This has made it difficult for opponents, most notably the United States, to criticize Hezbollah on the grounds of international sanctions. By doing so, Washington would play into Hezbollah’s narrative that the US is primarily responsible for the inaccessibility of fuel. Emboldened by the effectiveness of this political strategy, Hezbollah’s chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has called for a sanctions waiver for Lebanon so that it can access Iranian diesel more freely. 

The patron-client relationship between Hezbollah and its social services beneficiaries is well established within the group’s modus operandi. The organization regularly supports the families of so-called martyrs, and it operates its own ration system for those in need of food. However, Nasrallah’s recent dealings transcend the traditionally sectarian nature of this tactic. Through the distribution of diesel reserves, Hezbollah has expanded its clientelist network beyond Shias to other communities including Sunnis, Maronites, and Druze. For example, multiple Christian leaders of orphanages and nursing homes have publicly commended Hezbollah for rescuing them from the brink of collapse by providing fuel for their power generators. In this way, Hezbollah stands to gain political clout by perpetuating a system where the state is too institutionally fragile to provide for its citizens, creating a welfare void that can easily be exploited. Where the state is too weak to care for its vulnerable citizens, civil society becomes dependent on shady patrons such as Nasrallah for its needs.

The Lebanese political establishment, within which Hezbollah is firmly embedded, has been criticized ad nauseam for its pervasive corruption. Moreover, the announcement of Makati’s new government did little to inspire confidence in a speedy economic recovery. The cabinet is notably familiar, consisting of the same political elite which seemingly caused the crisis in Lebanon in the first place. Makati himself has already served two terms as prime minister, once in 2005 and again between 2011 and 2014. 

As things are not set to improve in Lebanon for a long time, its instability could make it a target for cold conflict between feuding Middle Eastern superpowers. Proxy warfare has become part and parcel of the Middle East’s regional politics in recent decades. The broader conflict has pitted Iran against Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are bound by their mutual enmity of Iran. 

Syria and Yemen are complex yet illustrative examples of ongoing proxy wars. Though commonly referred to as a civil war, external powers have assured the persistence of these never-ending conflicts. Lebanon has suffered at the hands of this proxy conflict too. Though 2021 marks 15 years since their last official war, tensions have remained constant between Israel and Hezbollah. As the latter seeks to expand its influence through clientelism in Lebanon, the former will work to curtail these efforts by any means. 

Early signs of these rising tensions emerged following a worrying outburst of violence on the streets of Beirut last week. In the aftermath of gunfire exchanges which claimed 6 lives, Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet blamed Iran’s influence for Lebanon’s problems: “Every place the Iranians go enters a tailspin of violence, poverty, failure and instability”. Saudi Arabia also issued a statement calling for “possession and use of weapons outside the framework of the state” to end. This could be seen as a condemnation of Hezbollah’s considerable armory. 

Riyadh’s statement called for the “strengthening of the Lebanese state for the benefit of all Lebanese”. However, if powerful states in the region see Lebanon’s weakness as an opportunity to challenge one another on a new front, the situation could resemble the humanitarian disasters in Yemen and Syria before long. Iran’s facilitation of Hezbollah’s fuel patronage and Israel’s fiery condemnation are early warning signs for concern. Moreover, Nasrallah’s ability to expand his clientelist base has already proven to be an existing threat. If Hezbollah’s popularity grows as a result of Lebanon’s crisis, the situation is likely to remain unstable. 

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