All posts by thedavidsoninternational

We Are With You Forever: Lebanon Wants its Prime Minister Back

By Nick Lobo

On November 22, Lebanon’s prime minister Saad al-Hariri returned to Beirut after more than two weeks, having hastily tendered his resignation from the Saudi capital at the beginning of the month—a move widely understood to better reflect the will of Riyadh than that of Hariri himself. The prime minister returned to a country whose chronically volatile political order had just flirted with disaster. Certainly, the prospect of a head of government being strong-armed by one of his country’s larger, more aggressive allies would be cause for concern anywhere in the world. Lebanon’s is an especially precarious case made significantly more complicated by internal actors and interests just as much as by its powerful neighbors, who have historically played an inordinate role in shaping the country’s development. Thus, any analysis of the current crisis must be firmly rooted in a clear understanding of this cast of characters, comprising the domestic and the foreign alike. Still, the question on the mind of anyone intently watching the situation unfold remains brutally simple: is Lebanon headed for another war?

In Hariri’s resignation speech given in Riyadh, where he remained for nearly three weeks, the premier castigated Hezbollah for contributing to the country’s deeply fractured political state, going so far as to refer to it as “the arm of Iran.” Notably, Hariri also cited threats against his life as a major impetus for his resignation and mentioned an atmosphere in Lebanon resembling that of early 2005, when his father, former premier Rafiq al-Hariri, was assassinated in a tragic car bombing widely attributed to Hezbollah. However, the Lebanese army put forth a statement following Hariri’s speech announcing that no assassination threats had been discovered in its investigations, raising suspicion about the veracity of the premier’s stated concerns. The questionable circumstances of Hariri’s stay in Riyadh had few Lebanese, especially within Hariri’s Sunni base, convinced that he was acting of his own free will. President Michel ‘Aoun, a Maronite Christian and long-time ally of Hezbollah, wasted no time in declaring that Hariri is a “hostage” of the Saudi regime and that he will not accept the prime minister’s resignation until it is delivered in person.

Hariri’s lengthy November 12 interview with Paula Yacoubian of Future TV did little to dispel these suspicions; Yacoubian, who went to great lengths during the interview to prove that it had not been pre-recorded or otherwise staged, remarked that she was unable to convince anyone that the premier is not a prisoner in the Saudi capital. Hariri’s stressed and erratic demeanor throughout the recording served only to further affirm this assumption.

Hezbollah, meaning “party of God” in Arabic, has wielded significant military power and enjoyed the backing of wide popular support in Lebanon since its emergence during the country’s bloody civil war in the 1980s as an aggregation of Shi’a groups loyal to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollah’s genesis certainly owes to a complex blend of local and international factors, but the Islamic Republic’s role in the group’s formation and its historic support for and coordination with its efforts is notable. The 1989 Ta’if Agreement, brokered in Saudi Arabia, brought the war to an end and disarmed the country’s various militant groups. Hezbollah was allowed to remain the country’s only armed sectarian militia thereafter, labeled as “Islamic resistance” to the ongoing occupation. It is this historical reality that placed Hezbollah at the helm of Lebanese politics. Hezbollah relies extensively on foreign support, chiefly from Iran—it continues to receive the financial patronage of the Islamic Republic to the tune of $800 million in recent years according to some estimates, although the exact amount is impossible to know.

The group, now an institutionalized political entity, commands a larger fighting force than the Lebanese military and has served as a steadfast patron of Bashar al-Asad’s regime since 2013. Although the group continues to command loyal bases of support among Shi’i communities, within Lebanon and across the region, it has been the target of increased criticism and scrutiny for its use of violence, most recently by the Arab League which formally declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization on November 19.

Saudi Arabia has long been intent on limiting Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. The two countries have been staunch adversaries since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 deposed the shah’s regime and established a Shi’a theocracy in its place. These diametrically-opposed regional powers exist in a chronic proxy conflict, often described as a cold war, fought across several theaters: the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the Qatar diplomatic crisis, and now the situation in Lebanon are prime examples of how this bad blood has manifested in significant and tragic ways across the region—particularly for the smaller, less powerful states that wind up caught in the sectarian crossfire. The recent Lebanese political turmoil also started in the wake of Saudi forces intercepting a missile fired at Riyadh from the Iranian- and Hezbollah-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Kingdom and its coalition have for years been deeply invested in upholding the besieged government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

There’s nothing new about this deep-seated regional rivalry per se, but the crisis in Lebanon can also be attributed, in many ways, to the personal ambitions of Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who recently caught the world’s attention with his ostensible anti-corruption purge of nearly 500 princes, ministers and businessmen. In addition to the prince’s efforts to consolidate his power domestically, as represented by this purge, bin Salman has sought to rein in his regional allies as well. Hariri, who stands at the helm of a government that not only allows but directly includes Hezbollah, a powerful Iranian-allied force ideologically and strategically hostile to Saudi interests, became a liability in bin Salman’s calculus of regional politics. It is also likely that Hariri’s lukewarm popularity before his resignation and his lack of a strong mandate over his Sunni base—portraying the premier as failing to fill the shoes of his immensely popular father and predecessor—motivated bin Salman’s desire to bring about a restructuring of Lebanon’s government.

Compelling, though still technically unconfirmed, evidence suggests that bin Salman pressured Hariri to resign the premiership in order to mitigate the risks he envisioned. By most accounts, bin Salman’s gambit appears to have failed. The most direct support for this conclusion is that Hariri suspended his resignation upon his return to Beirut. Moreover, Hariri’s apparent detention in Saudi Arabia has given rise to a significant jump in his popular backing, rallying the Lebanese people around slogans like “We are all Saad” and “We want our PM back” and inspiring demonstrations. Although it remains to be seen whether this outpouring of support will result in a much-needed parliamentary victory for Hariri and his al-Mustaqbal (Arabic for “Future”) party next May, the popular backlash against Saudi interference in Lebanese affairs severely undercuts bin Salman’s bid to keep Lebanon in line and has denied the Gulf power a clear “win” against Hezbollah and Iran. The conditions of Hariri’s long-awaited return to his country and office suggest that Lebanon is unlikely to collapse into total disaster in the near future. Nevertheless, the crisis has shown that the country’s fragile political order remains deeply susceptible to the whims of foreign powers.

Featured Image from The Christian Science Monitor

The Trump Effect: Could Trump Cause a Backlash against the Rise of Populist Parties in Europe?

By Devon Winsor

Just as President Donald Trump’s far right ideals have galvanized support in the United States, a rise in similar ideals has occurred in Europe as well. The success of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s campaign to leave the European Union, the rise of Marie Le Pen and the National Front in France and the Five Star Movement in Italy, are just three of a multitude of examples of the resurgence of far right parties and ideals in Europe. These groups have seized momentum after President Trump’s surprising win in the U.S., citing his victory as a reason for their future success. President Trump’s win also illustrated to the parties’ supporters that citizens around the world share their views and concerns. However, Trump’s controversial vernacular during his campaign, specifically about women, and his subsequent policies implemented during his first few weeks in office have caused a backlash in Europe that could be detrimental to these far right parties.

The Women’s March the day after President Trump’s inauguration did not only occur in cities throughout America, but in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Barcelona, and many other cities across Europe. According to CNN, approximately 100,000 people participated in the Women’s March in London, and the Mayor of London even spoke out condemning President Trump’s views on Islam. These responses to Trump in a region unaffected by President Trump’s laws regarding women indicate the growth of unity against the principles that President Trump represents. Although the European far right parties that have seen an increase in support over the past few years do not threaten women’s rights, their alignment with President Trump could cause a backlash from a group otherwise unaffected by their policies.
Furthermore, President Trump’s controversial executive order that banned immigration from seven majority Muslim countries was met with disdain in Europe as well. Immigration has remained one of the most important and controversial issues in the European Union, especially after the refugee crisis, and it has been one of the main causes in the rise of the far right parties. For example, in a study performed by the British Election Study Team, the most prominent concern for British voters that desired to leave the European Union was immigration. This is the topic in which President Trump’s policies most aligned with the far right parties and their supporters. However, leaders throughout Europe have criticized Trump’s Muslim ban, including Angel Merkel, Theresa May and Francois Hollande.

These leaders, however, represent mainstream politics and their opinion is most likely not highly valued by those that already support the far right parties particularly because his ban has been praised by the leaders of the movement. Therefore, President Trump’s policies may not impact the support for the far right parties, but they could unite other groups against these parties, improving voter turnout in favor of other candidates in order to prevent these parties from gaining power.

In particular, Trump’s policies may galvanize momentum for politically disengaged citizens in Europe that have more centrist political views. President Trump’s policies have been considered some of the most divisive policies in history, being criticized by politicians and other public figures throughout the world, yet his successful campaign indicates that his values resonate with citizens. Thus, considering how divisive the current political climate remains, European citizens who may otherwise not engage in politics may feel the need to become involved in order to prevent similar policies from being implemented, especially after seeing the results of the Muslim ban, which were highly publicized in the media, with a particular focus on Muslims who could no longer return to their home in the U.S.

Despite the fact that polling in favor of the far right movements such as the National Front has remained strong, the future decline of these groups may be imminent. President Trump’s divisive nature could awaken a group of citizens in Europe that have seen the results of his policies and desire to prevent them from spreading to Europe. Those that already support strict immigration laws will continue to praise President Trump, but they may not realize that aligning themselves with someone as divisive as President Trump could cause citizens who prioritize other political issues, such as women’s rights, to more vocally support opposition parties.