As the uprising in Lebanon has continued against the political elite and its corruption and mismanagement of power, a surprising victim of the popular unrest has been Hezbollah. Protests have taken place in Shi‘a areas of Lebanon, despite efforts by the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, to undercut the demonstrations. This has only cast light on how the Hezbollah of today is not the same party that took on a central political role in Lebanon in 2005.
Hezbollah’s decision to enter the first Lebanese government after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005 transformed it into a full-fledged partner of the country’s failed political class. The image last week of Hezbollah-backed thugs and loyalists attacking peaceful protesters will long stain the party’s self-professed reputation as the protector of Lebanon against Israeli aggression and an “outsider” with regard to the political elite. Indeed, Hezbollah in the past two weeks has stood as a main defender of this elite, whose system protects the party, with Nasrallah repeatedly trying to demobilize the protest movement.
A historical look back at Hezbollah’s recent history helps to better understand why many in the Shi‘a community joined the protest movement, after a long record of disciplined involvement in Hezbollah’s political gatherings. How has the party reached this stage, after a period when “the resistance” was considered above the petty maneuvering of internal Lebanese politics?
The questions is more striking given that the party was never a full participant in the formative postwar period after 1990. That is when Lebanon’s current economic model was defined, empowering Lebanese warlords to extend their clientelistic networks and sectarian partisanship into government institutions.
During that period, the Syrian regime compartmentalized the roles of its clients and cronies in the country. Hezbollah was focused mainly on combating Israel’s occupation until 2000. Throughout those years the party’s participation in parliamentary and political life was relatively limited, in comparison to the Amal movement, which was the main representative of the Shi‘a in government. While Amal gained by rewarding its loyalists, its behavior was marred with accusations of corruption, undermining its popularity.
Back then, Hezbollah, as a resistance movement, accumulated military achievements and was perceived as having stayed clear of corrupt Lebanese politics. Within the Shi‘a community, the party was respected and was regarded as pious, while Amal appeared to embody greed and a lust for power.
Hezbollah’s standing in elections expanded as a consequence. For the critical mass of Lebanese Shi‘a, Hezbollah’s success in forcing an Israeli withdrawal in 2000 sanctified the organization as a liberator. The death of Hassan Nasrallah’s son while fighting against the Israelis in 1997, meant that he was viewed as being of a different cloth than most other Lebanese politicians. This helped Hezbollah to portray itself as the antithesis of Lebanese politics.
The party hesitated at first to enter Lebanese politics in 2005, when the Syrian army and security forces withdrew from Lebanon after the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri. The party defined its new government role as complementary to its resistance. Given the Syrian pullout, Hezbollah sought mainly to safeguard its weapons by bestowing legitimacy on its own resistance role by anchoring this in a new government. Hezbollah forged close ties with Amal, which remain in place to this day. The former enemies and competitors became the “Shi‘a duo,” inseparable in politics. The party also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Michel Aoun in 2006, paving the way for deeper ties with his political heir Gebran Bassil, who now heads the FPM and is a main target of the protesters.
Regional conflicts only intensified these alliances. The 2005–2015 decade was a highly volatile one for Hezbollah, as it faced many crises. This included the Syrian withdrawal and accusations that the party was involved in the Hariri assassination, a war with Israel in 2006, a short-lived domestic conflict in 2008, when Hezbollah and its Amal allies took over western Beirut, and the party’s entry into the war in Syria in 2013.
Hezbollah survived all these events with little discernible impact on its Shi‘a base of support. Sectarian polarization allowed the party to keep its constituency mobilized. By overstating alleged internal and external threats to the party and to Lebanon’s Shi‘a, Hezbollah enjoyed a wide margin of maneuver.
All this changed in 2016. A year after Russia’s intervention in Syria, the Assad regime was gaining ground and Hezbollah found itself on the winning side there. This is when the party decided to translate such gains inside Lebanon. Hezbollah played an integral role in sustaining a vacuum in the presidency as a means of putting pressure to pave the way for Michel Aoun’s election as president. In return, Aoun and the FPM helped Hezbollah secure the passing of a favorable electoral law that allowed the party and its allies, including the FPM, to win a majority in the 2018 elections. To secure a large turnout in the Biq‘a and South Lebanon, Nasrallah pledged to personally oversee the party’s efforts to fight corruption. At the time the Lebanese Shi‘a shared the nationwide fatigue with the slowing economy, rising inequality, the youth bulge, and unemployment.
Nasrallah’s anticorruption promise did not materialize, and given the United States’ rising pressure against Iran and Hezbollah, the party prioritized its external conflicts yet again. However, the mandate the party had gotten from Lebanon’s Shi‘a in 2005 is today overstretched. The idea of external conspiracies, existential in nature and seemingly never ending, is increasingly less believable. If the ruling elite fails again, the economic crisis will drive people into the streets with even more force than what we’ve seen until now.
Nasrallah and his patron, the Iranian supreme leader ‘Ali Khamenei, have already attempted to demonize the demonstrators, a tactic that was used to justify some of the violence used against protestors. Yet this triggered criticism from within pro-Hezbollah institutions. Journalists at the Al-Akhbar newspaper, for example, have resigned in protest against the publication’s efforts to tarnish the protestors.
That explains why Nasrallah’s most recent speech was more about damage control. Hezbollah’s secretary general was conciliatory toward the protestors, praising them and their role, while explaining how his previous remarks on how the protests hid external conspiracies were taken out of context. Even if the party tries to pose as a reformer, little might stop the snowballing perception that Hezbollah is now a pillar of the failing and resented ruling class.