In early January 2021, a statue of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was erected in the –predominantly Shiite - southern suburbs of Beirut. This memorial, meant to commemorate the commander’s death anniversary, has vividly divided – the already fragmented - public opinion. Feared and revered, Soleimani was the mastermind behind Iranian foreign influence and headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force when he was killed in Baghdad by a U.S. airstrike in January 2020. Today, the bronze bust’s shadow hangs over a shattered country, and echoes the peculiar relationship Lebanon entertains with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
With nearly 18 sects officially represented, sectarianism is not a new phenomenon and most Lebanese have, at least once in their lives, come across ostentatious celebrations of factions’ and parties’ heroes or martyrs. Since Beirut, to name but a few, is unofficially divided into clan neighbourhoods, each territory displays its own propaganda. Nonetheless, Hezbollah’s symbolism is to be deciphered as it specifically highlights Lebanon’s political malaise. While sectarianism itself, as an institutional model will be briefly addressed as a factor explaining the country’s current crises, this article’s aim is to demonstrate how Souleimani’s sculpture’s fallout is a symptom of a larger and metapolitical problem: Lebanon’s sovereignty’s exhaustion.
Reducing Lebanese political insecurity to mere clashes of incompatibles dogmas is misleading. For instance, Hezbollah and Amal could both be described as Shiite parties and gather an important portion of the Shiite population. Yet, their founding ideology is drastically different; the former has always adopted a secular approach while the latter was born out of an institutional ideal, an aspiration designed in 1979 by distant revolutionaries willing to expand and export their model in demographically alike areas.
One must never forget that the militia, established in 1982, was initially – and openly - meant to export the Iranian Revolution in Lebanon. As Musa Fakhr Rouhani, the IRI’s former ambassador to Lebanon, stated: “Lebanon is the best region in which to create our revolution. If we act cautiously, we will succeed […] the chances of an Islamic revolution in Lebanon are the same as the chances that existed in Iran in 1979.” At the core of this framework to be spread, the welayat-i faqih – custodianship of the jurist. This theological concept, outlined and institutionalised by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, legitimates the Iranian model’s propagation and the Republic’s global leadership over the ummat - Shiite community.
On many occasions, Hassan Nasrallah has demonstrated his allegiance to Iran’s Rahbar, and Hezbollah, its commitment to enforcing the welayat-i faqih locally. While the Party of God’s secretary- general is believed to have refrained his initial ambition and appeared to be a political pragmatist rather than a convinced religious fundamentalist, Hezbollah’s military supremacy and Iran’s growing influence suggest hegemonial ambitions.
Souleimani’s memorial is a striking example – and comprises multi-layered interpretations that are to be thought in the realms of symbolism and political philosophy. This bust does not portray Soleimani, nor a general, nor a man; it represents a substantial ideology – statues are not meant to depict individuality, they translate a society’s state of mind, and attest the macropolitical narrative that brings together a nation. Indeed, the Black Lives Matters movement, while not directly related, has highlighted the symbolism of statues.
In Lebanon’s case, the 3-meters tall monument was erected and publicly financed by Ghobeiry municipality – which confers it an official dimension. It is located in Qasem Soleimani street’s roundabout, linking to a highway also named after an Iranian prominent figure: ayatollah Khomeini. Its commemoration has split public opinion in two sides: one saw it as a form of “Iranian invasion,” the others, composed of pro-Iran supporters, argued that it was their legitimate right to celebrate whom they chose since many streets and places were named after French generals (dating from the time where Lebanon was a mandate). Nevertheless, such arguments are counterproductive: they contradict their primary purpose as they endorse insidiously a reversed colonial perspective. By revering a foreign general or naming places after remote figures, who are unrelated to your country’s history and culture, you do not get independent, you only get to choose your coloniser. Is such a choice liberating? It is hardly convincible.
Putting aside the fact that the Lebanese republic is not federal and should be, in principle, indivisible; cynics could say that every community can admire the figure of its choosing as long as it is limited to the known-by-all territorial boundaries of its ideologically-gated community. It is a fact that Souleimani’s bust is located in an area that is quite unfamiliar to anti-Hezbollah citizens. Yet, the “Iranian invasion” - as referred to by protestors - is enabled by one single actor who unilaterally imposes it to the rest of the country. For instance, one noticeable feature when landing in Beirut is to see that the country’s main and most crowded highway, linking the airport to the capital, is full of Hezbollah’s iconography. Whether you embrace it or not, you can not escape from the public manifestation of the group’s propaganda.
In a sense, Souleimani’s bust erection is one of the many indicators of Lebanon’s sovereignty’s vulnerability. Ultimately, this vicious circle is becoming self-sustaining: Lebanese sectarianism hinders the establishment of a meritocratic civil state, obstructs the sustainability of an effective democratic framework, and favors the intrusion of foreign actors in its local affairs. Hence, the national sentiment is weakened, and parties are able to mainly rely on their sectarian affiliations: “people align themselves along sectarian lines in elections, completely ignoring competing parties’ political programs.”