Diana Moukalled | Lebanese journalist and co-founder and editorial secretary of the Daraj website
The state that was recreated around Hezbollah after the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990 has reached the brink of collapse. This state was built around the party’s weapons, with some seats left for smaller partners. That is the simple explanation for why the party is expressing fears that the current uprising aims to target its weapons. It also explains Hezbollah’s relentless efforts to undermine it at all costs. But so far it has utterly failed to do so.
The party will soon find itself faced with the reality that those whom the party has pushed into the streets to intimidate protesters and chant “Shi‘a, Shi‘a” are equally hungry, helpless, and unemployed, even as fundamental rifts are beginning to be visible in the party’s ranks. There are people who used to believe in Hezbollah who are declaring their support for the uprising. The Lebanese have discovered that their state—its financial system, central bank, and banking sector—has stolen their savings by various means, including through massive corruption. Hezbollah and its regional sponsors are at the core of this system.
‘Ali Hashem | BBC Iran affairs correspondent
Hezbollah had a great opportunity to build on the popular protests at the very start of the Lebanese uprising. Among other members of Lebanon’s political elite the party’s track record was clean when it came to state corruption.
However, Hezbollah’s reaction to the popular movement began with extreme skepticism and evolved into hostility. This created a gap between Hezbollah and part of its popular base, those who decided to stay in the streets. The party faced a crisis of priorities that became sensitive in terms of its appeal, as Hezbollah sent conflicting messages. Yet until this moment I don’t see the uprising as having become a threat to the party, as it has been able to push its narrative among a majority of its supporters, who themselves began dealing negatively with the protestors. What’s at serious risk, however, is Hezbollah’s credibility when it comes to its own anti-corruption campaign announced before the 2018 elections.
Aurélie Daher | Assistant professor at Université Paris-Dauphine and Sciences Po in Paris, author of Hezbollah: Mobilization and Power (Oxford University Press, 2019)
As the Lebanese took to the streets in protest in October, it was hastily advanced that Hezbollah had to deal with an unprecedented questioning of its popularity within the Shi‘a community, its natural breeding ground. However, this questioning by the community of the legitimacy and integrity of some Hezbollah leaders is not new. Mention should be made of the party’s parliamentarian Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, who was heckled during the 2018 parliamentary elections. The same goes for Wafiq Safa, the party’s security chief and head of relations with state institutions or Sheikh Mohammed Yazbek’s son, accused of selling weapons to Syrian rebels in 2012.
But criticizing is not deserting. It should be noted that the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, even at the beginning of the protests was never insulted. At best he was challenged and invited to address the people’s concerns. But in no way was he considered by Shi‘a as one of the politicians condemned by protestors. And the fact is that as soon as he called for an end to protests, this was widely followed among his own. The bond of trust and obedience still works.
For the past fifteen years or so Hezbollah has occupied a central place in the national political game. This centrality is based on two pillars: First, the exceptional relationship that a vast majority of Shi‘a have with the party’s leadership, especially Nasrallah. No other denomination has such a strong bond, directing admiration, trust, and affection at its main political representative.
Second, it is based on an effective system of alliances with actors outside the community. These alliances have enabled Hezbollah to broaden the levers of power it can employ in the apparatus of the state; and they have allowed it to establish a support base that extends beyond the Shi‘a community. So far, these pillars seem to be holding up very well. In the medium term, Hezbollah should therefore not have to worry about its centrality being challenged nationally.
Mohanad Hage Ali | Director of communications and fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, author of Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam: Hizbullah’s Institutional Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)
For financial and political reasons, the Lebanese uprising represents the most serious challenge to Hezbollah’s future since the 2006 conflict with Israel. Financially, the party is facing deadlock as its community, along with the whole country, is quickly slipping into poverty, with little options or a capacity for relief. This is new. After the destruction of 2006, the party was quick to provide cash from Iran for thousands of Lebanese Shi‘a to avert an angry reaction on their part. Oil-rich Gulf states also provided reconstruction assistance. Today, the level of economic pain in Iran and the antagonism with the Gulf states do not allow for a repetition of the lucrative assistance available in 2006. Hezbollah’s allies in Syria and Iraq face similar challenges and are incapable of providing assistance.
Politically, Shi‘a alternatives to Hezbollah and the Iranian-dominated sphere are beginning to emerge. The party stands today as a prime protector of the corruption-ridden status quo, playing an active role in repressing protests in Beirut and also in Shi‘a-majority towns in the South and the Beqa‘ Valley. Hezbollah’s conspiratorial thinking now has a weaker impact than ever, and is less effective in persuading Lebanese Shi‘a to abandon the protests, especially as the economic situation is only deteriorating.
The Iraq connection is also significant. Lebanese Shi‘a have religious and cultural connections to their brethren in Iraq, many of whom have joined the protests to condemn Iranian influence in Baghdad. The impact is most visible in the religious field. Prominent Lebanese clerics such as Ja‘far Fadlallah, the son of the late Sayyid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, have joined the Lebanon protests, undermining Hezbollah’s attempts to demonize the movement. This is a new trend that will have an impact on Hezbollah’s and the Amal Movement’s duopoly over representation of the Lebanese Shi‘a.