Lebanon is a model of militias taking control of the state
Across the Middle East, armed groups or militias have come to play a prominent role in states. In Yemen, the Houthis have taken control of the capital Sana’a and now control large swathes of the country. In Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Forces, like the Mahdi army of Moqtada Al Sadr before them, are a major player in the Iraqi political process and have a significant influence on major government decisions.
Yet one country, Lebanon, stands out as a model of how former militia leaders took control of the state. A majority of sectarian military leaders became pillars of the post-war order after the country’s civil war ended in 1990. This happened at a time when centralized states were still the norm in the region. . But this is no longer true, because countries in the Arab world have been shattered by conflict.
Under normal conditions, there is a tendency to see a clear dichotomy between the commanders of the militias who rule in times of war and the civilian leaders who return to power after the fighting is over. However, this is not what we are seeing today in a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where non-state actors such as militias have taken over state institutions, or even take control.
Why should Lebanon be important? Precisely because it was the first country to show that militia leaders could be recycled after a war into legitimate national figures, regardless of the crimes they committed during the conflict. Leading a militia has become a means of social advancement for many people formerly on the periphery of society.
More importantly, Lebanon institutionalized the authority of the former militia leaders by wrapping the state around their interests and making the country a host they could feed on. Where militia leaders had taken advantage of the economic networks formed during the war, they now realized that it paid off to embrace peace as their financial stakes would be secured, if not heightened, in the post-war order. .
The way it was done was twofold. Former militia leaders have become ministers, giving them access to massive funds generated by public reconstruction contracts. They also allied themselves with a class of businessmen and bankers, creating a bond of power that continues to this day. Businessmen would finance election campaigns, in exchange for political support or a parliamentary seat. Bankers have forged links with cult leaders in order to protect their financial interests in government decisions.
Across the region, many militia leaders can now aspire to follow a similar path. More importantly, if the weapon can lead to wealth and advancement, it makes it much more likely that post-war periods in several Arab countries will not restore normalcy at all. They will encourage the efforts of actors in wartime to hijack states and perpetuate their power and illicit activities in peaceful contexts.
This is what makes the return to functional states so difficult throughout the region. Whether it is Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon or Libya, wartime actors have little incentive to restore state powers and institutions. Rather, they thrive in environments with weak states and they can fill the void.
However, the costs of such a situation are dramatic and are sure to escalate. Already, many states in the region are ill-equipped to move into a post-oil era, in which rentier systems of government are unsustainable. Major challenges, such as climate change, have existential implications in parts of the region. Yet fragmented states will be utterly incapable of solving these problems.
If Lebanon was a vanguard in militia control over states, it also turned out to be an indicator of the ensuing state collapse. The warlords and their trade allies have drained the state so that it is barely able to import essentials. Yet the ruling cartel’s determination to protect its interests prompted its members to block any reform, indefinitely prolonging a crisis that should have taken much less time to resolve.
Moreover, the militia regime in places like Iraq and Syria is characterized by debilitating levels of violence to preserve the status quo. Because some of the armed groups are linked to powerful regional actors, the governments of the day cannot dislodge them. For example, protests in Iraq against Iranian influence met with savage repression, while Syrian militias maintained a vast ecosphere of exploitation.
In Lebanon, an additional irony is playing out. The post-war system may have been dominated by former militia leaders, but its main protector today is another militia, Hezbollah, which was not initially part of the post-war dismemberment. Former militiamen and businessmen have relied on Hezbollah to protect their system, but in doing so, they threaten to be marginalized.
In other words, the systems of government of the former militiamen are inherently unstable because they are not adept at governing states and solving problems. Hezbollah, which favors such incompetent orders for its own survival, came to the aid of the post-war Lebanese cartel, because if it failed, it would limit the party’s room for maneuver.
As the Arabs in these countries look to their future, what they see cannot reassure them. Being robbed in peacetime by the same people who persecuted them in wartime is the moral of their history and their destiny. As long as the Arab populations do not reject such realities, their world will remain a dark corner in the global picture.
Posted: Sep 29, 2021, 5:00 AM