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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Illusion of a Lebanese State

Filed under: Hizbullah, Lebanon

The Illusion of a Lebanese State
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah (left) with Lebanese president Michel Aoun

The disintegration of the Lebanese body politic is proceeding at an accelerated speed, creating a situation in which the different political factions concede that all efforts meant to reach a political solution that would allow Lebanon to climb out of the abyss today are no longer available.

As many times before, Lebanon has been left without a president since October 31, 2022, and a caretaker government with no genuine powers or legitimacy. The historical core agreement considered a sort of “holy alliance” that governed state politics for the last 17 years has ended without fanfare. That document was known as the Mar-Mikhail Memorandum of Agreement, signed by the then-leader of the Maronite “Free Patriotic Movement” (FPM), Michel Aoun, and Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah.1

This memorandum allowed Michel Aoun to be elected president in 2016 while Hizbullah gained prominence in Lebanese politics. In effect, Michel Aoun was held hostage by Hizbullah, who was allowed to block or agree to any political decision concerning domestic and foreign relations. According to one member of the FPM, the decision to end the memorandum of understanding was taken by Hizbullah “after considering that there was no need anymore for the alliance with the FPM.” MP Jimmy Jabbour added: “Nothing is left of the Mar-Mikhail Agreement except for protecting the back of the resistance [Hizbullah], and there is no partnership anymore. The detachment between the FPM and Hizbullah has taken place, and the separation has become a fact

The already complicated imbroglio concerning the election of the next Lebanese president, combined with the separation between Hizbullah and the FPM, has translated into a situation in which “there will be no election of a president in the foreseeable future.” Furthermore, the FPM declared, “The FPM will not take part in a parliament session should 65 votes be secured for the pro-Syrian Marada Movement head Suleiman Franjieh.”2

Indeed, four candidates eye the presidential position. However, none can secure a simple parliamentary majority of 65 members because each represents a political faction that will not compromise with any other. Hizbullah and its Shiite “twin,” Amal, have chosen Suleiman Franjieh, their ally in recent years, while the other Christian factions have named Michel Mo’awwad as their candidate. The FPM is lobbying to put forward the name of its present leader, Gibran Bassil, president Aoun’s son-in-law. The dissociation with Hizbullah serves Bassil vis-à-vis Washington to relieve him from the threat of sanctions because of his relations with the terrorist-listed organization. Thus, he moves closer to emerging as a presidential candidate, while Hizbullah sees his actions as tantamount to treason.3 The fourth candidate is the army chief Joseph Aoun (not related to Michel Aoun), who cannot be elected because of constitutional limitations. He cannot switch his military gear into a presidential suit until a law is enacted. Such a law is impossible right now to pass because a constitutional rule demands an acting government and not a caretaker, as is the case today. To complicate things, to form a new legal government, an interim president is needed, which is again not the case today.4

Suleiman Franjieh and Michel Mo’awwad represent the Lebanese tragedy: Suleiman is the grandson of President Suleiman Franjieh (1970-1976), who asked the Syrians to intervene in the civil war in Lebanon in 1976 and the son of Tony Franjieh who was assassinated (June 13, 1978) by forces led by the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea. Michel Mo’awwad is the son of the assassinated president Rene Mo’awwad, who was killed after serving as president of Lebanon for 18 days (November 5-22, 1989).

However, since they are part and parcel of an electoral campaign, all candidates and supporters are trading barbs to belittle their rival and tar him with accusations of corruption. In an interview with the al-Akhbar newspaper, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said he would try to break the impasse and only call for a session of parliament when he senses that the parties are ready to elect, not to “waste time” and make statements. “Our candidate is known, but their candidate is a test-tube experiment,” Berri said. He added: “The only two serious candidates are Franjieh and Army chief Joseph Aoun, who is currently impossible to elect because it needs a constitutional amendment that a caretaker cabinet cannot make. Berri concluded that “the main problem in the presidential elections is inter-Maronite” [Christian].5

Calling Nabih Berri a “master of corruption,” Mo’awwad said Berri’s remarks carried an insult against his father, slain president Rene Mo’awwad, and all the MPs and blocs that voted for him in the latest presidential election session. “The Lebanese do not forget and will not forget Nabih Berri’s militia practices nor his siege of Beirut and its people and economy nor his siege along with his ally Hizbullah of the entire country to please foreign schemes.”6

The Lebanese Forces (LF), siding with Mo’awwad, joined the exchange of accusations by condemning the Shiite custom of “pleasure marriages” (Niqah Mut’aah), described by critics as “legal prostitution” and “adultery (temporary) marriage,”7 drawing a flurry of attacks by Hizbullah. The LF and the Kataeb party brandished their last resort weapon: boycotting the sessions of parliament to prevent the quorum needed for the election of a candidate, a threat that most opposition parties did not accept.8

Adding fuel to the burning fire, the caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, gave an interview in which he claimed, quoting a poll conducted by the Maronite church, that the Christians in Lebanon represented only 19.4% of the population9 (very far from the almost 40% claimed since the last census conducted in 1932). Mikati was understood to be insinuating that the partition of leading positions in Lebanon decided upon in 1943 in a non-signed oral covenant should be changed. However, his statement caused a general denial, stressing that the distribution between the three main confessions (Christians, Sunnis, and Shi’a) has not changed.

Amid conflicting reports about possible “deals” presented by different parties and meant to allow the election of a president, the latest rumors point to a potential deal that could be reached in late Spring or the beginning of Summer, according to which Suleiman Franjieh would be elected as president in return for the appointment as premier of Nawaf Salam, former ambassador to the U.N. and International Court of Justice judge. In the wake of the latest Paris meeting, the French sent a “clear message” to Hizbullah about the Franjieh-for-Salam deal.10

The presidential vacuum has created a chaotic situation in which the different branches of government fight one another. This is particularly true of the clash between the judiciary and the executive branch. For example, since the massive Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020, all investigations conducted by judges to uncover the causes of the blast have been blocked by politicians, especially those linked to Hizbullah, suspected of storing the ammonium nitrate Hangar 9 of the port. The pro-Hizballah politicians used their power and influence to block all investigations and personal orders of a subpoena.

The judicial system has also been blocked in its effort to investigate the assassination of the journalist Luqman Slim (February 4, 2021), known for criticizing Hizbullah.

Now the Lebanese Prosecution Office May Be Stirring

With the intensive talk about corruption and the uncovering of the involvement of politicians and high-ranking officials in the transfer of vast sums of monies outside Lebanon with the cooperation of Lebanese banks, the Lebanese press is full of details on politicians who plundered the state coffers and filled their own.

Judge Ghada Aoun, a relative of President Aoun and a Mount Lebanon prosecutor, has charged the director-general of the internal security forces with obstructing the implementation of a judicial warrant and breaching his job duties.11 The minister of interior, Bassam Mawlawi, under Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s orders, instructed the authorities not to carry out Ghada’s orders.12 Lebanon’s top prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat told judge Ghada Aoun to pause the probe into banks’ wrong-doing.13

Ghada Aoun said that those instructions to stop the probe represented “a total breakdown of justice in this poor country,” and she called it “an unprecedented interference in the work of the judiciary.”14

Lebanese judge Raja Hamoush charged the former Central Bank governor, his brother Raja and his assistant Marianne Howayek with embezzlement, forgery, illicit enrichment, money laundering, and breach of tax law on Thursday. – (MENA, February 28, 2023)15

In fact, Ghada is aware of the link between the brothers Miqati Taha and Nagib and Riad Salameh, the Governor of the Bank of Lebanon. According to a press report, Riad Salameh received 14 million dollars from Taha Miqati, which was transferred in the framework of an agreement between a company owned by Salameh in Geneva and the group M1 of the Miqati brothers.16

Ghada Aoun is not only going after the Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon. She is also after 20 Lebanese banks, suspected of money laundering, assisting Hizbullah, and illegally transferring monies outside the country. So is the Swiss regulator who is investigating 12 Lebanese banks related to the Governor of the Bank of Lebanon, who is accused of transferring 250 million dollars into his personal accounts in Switzerland17 and other banks considered to be money havens (United Kingdom, France, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Germany) and to have facilitated the transfer of five billion dollars from Lebanon to foreign banks at a time when it was forbidden to transfer foreign assets abroad in the aftermath of the 2019 economic crisis. Governor Salameh is accused with his brother Raja, his son Nadi, and his personal assistant Marianne Hoayek of money laundering by the Swiss Authorities and speculating against the Lebanese lira and illegal transfers abroad. According to Ghada Aoun, proof, testimonies, and numbers are coming from the Swiss investigators that cannot be ignored. The investigators also discovered that Riad Salameh had a daughter in a relationship with a Ukrainian woman, to whom he transferred 21 million dollars.18

Riad Salameh’s activities were revealed in the massive trove of the “Panama Papers.” According to those revelations, Riad Salameh had two bank accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Panama. In addition, a company owned by Bashar Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, transferred to Salameh’s Zurich account 55 million Euros. Salameh also owns a bank account at First National Bank with 80 million dollars in deposits. As for his brother Raja and his assistant Marianne, they possess 446 million and 340 million dollars in their bank accounts. When a journalist began investigating the issue in 2020, Ghada Aoun was summoned to the internal security headquarters and accused of tarnishing the reputation of the Lebanese banks and the prestige of the economy led by the Governor of the Central Bank, Riad Salameh, and advised to forget about her investigation.19

Her critics claim that she is acting on behalf of former president Michel Aoun who was accused of embezzlement by his deputy in 1988 — “when President Amine Gemayel nominated him at the end of his mandate and with no elected successor to take over the country as a caretaker.” Michel Aoun filled the post until he fled to France after a Syrian invasion of the Christian enclave.

Alleged instructions for transferring money Aoun received from Saddam Hussein in 1988.
Alleged instructions for transferring money Aoun received from Saddam Hussein in 1988.

According to General Issam Abou Jamra,20 Michel Aoun received in 1988 from Saddam Hussein 30 million dollars which were earmarked to pay the salaries of the army members. Aoun immediately took five million and transferred the funds to his wife’s account in France, while he took 12 million dollars for his personal use. When he was elected president in 2016, the minister of finance, Mohammad Safadi, unblocked the remaining 13 million in Michel Aoun’s personal account. Ghada Aoun’s critics point at Michel Aoun’s embezzlement and ask why she is not concentrating on that issue instead of harassing the banking sector. A complaint was filed at the appeals court of Mount Lebanon asking for an investigation into the corruption involving former president Michel Aoun as revealed in revelations by his former deputy.

Hizbullah’s Dirty Hands

Hizbullah also has its share of setbacks in this chaotic atmosphere where everyone is fighting everyone. At the end of February 2023, the United States succeeded in putting its hands on one of Hizbullah’s financiers, Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi, in Bucharest and is in the process of extradition. In addition, the U.S. State Department has offered a reward of up to 10 million dollars for information leading to the disruption of the financial mechanisms of Hizbullah.21 This development occurred when there was growing criticism in Lebanon of Hizbullah’s bank, “Al-Qard al-Hassan” (AQAH)” which continues to expand with no control at all from the Central Bank of Lebanon, while the judges concentrate on investigating “legal banks.”

AQAH was registered as a social organization in 1987 at the Ministry of Interior. Today, it is the long financial arm of the “resistance,” with more than 1.9 million people as its clientele who benefit from its services, such as the distribution of almost 4 billion dollars in loans. AQAH has developed from a social organization into a huge financial institution that functions without being registered at the Central Bank of Lebanon. Branches are opening, and ATMs are being installed in almost all of Lebanon. AQAH offers its clientele loans at exceptionally low interest to be reimbursed over long periods, but the primary mission of the” bank” is to finance Hizbullah’s open and covert activities. AQAH has 31 branches all over Lebanon, 15 in Beirut, 10 in South Lebanon, and six in the Bekaa valley — with 500 employees.22

Aware of the American sanctions against Hizbullah, AQAH has no accounts in Lebanese or foreign banks and does not invest in Lebanon or abroad. The only link is with Iran. However, from time to time, the United States penetrates Lebanese banks to discover illegal activities conducted with Hizbullah. Such was the case in 2019 with the “Jammal Trust Bank,” which offered services to Hizbullah’s executive council and the Martyrs Foundation.23

At this junction in time, Lebanon is in chaos. The revelations about the monies stolen, transferred, and disappeared fuel the Lebanese’s anger, despair, and dissatisfaction. The plunging Lebanese pound, which has lost more than 90% of its value since October 2019, the galloping inflation, and the deeper poverty combined with the lack of any alternative translate to many that Lebanon as a state is no more. The dollarization of the economy is moving fast. All prices in supermarkets and other commercial entities are displayed in dollars. Electricity is almost inexistent. Hospitalization costs are out of reach. Teachers have no money to fill their gas tanks and cannot reach the schools where they teach. A third of Lebanon’s students in the public sector and a third of the teachers have not seen schools for the last two months. Medicines are brought individually from visitors from abroad or bought at pharmacies selling Iranian or Syrian-made dubious medication. In this dire reality, the Lebanese, aware of the profound differences between the different political camps, have lost hope of seeing a solution soon.

The ones that survive are those who receive remittances from abroad. All the rest have become dependent on the state for their physical survival. Without the estimated 8 billion dollars a year injected into Lebanon by the Lebanese diaspora, Lebanon would cease to exist.

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  2. Ibid↩︎


  4. Ibid↩︎










  14. Ibid↩︎








  22. Ibid↩︎

  23. Ibid↩︎