In the face of the revolution, Hezbollah seems entangled in its contradictions

Lebanon’s protests pose a new kind of challenge for Hezbollah, causing a dichotomy between its different identities.

Hezbollah militants listening to a speech by Hassan Nasrallah the first of November 2019 in the southern suburb of Beirut. Photo AFP

From its founding in the mid-1980s, Hezbollah has gone through several lives and identities. It became the incarnation of the resistance against Israel, the organization that provides welfare to vulnerable citizens in place of the state, the Lebanese political party that restored self-confidence to the historically marginalized Shiite community and, of course, the militia that serves Iran's interests. Hezbollah, or the Party of God, depending on circumstances and the party’s own interests, has tended to give priority to one of these facets, allowing it to prevail for a period of time, without suppressing the others. However, never have the party’s various identities appeared so at odds with one another as from the beginning of the Lebanese revolution. Never before has the Shiite party been confronted with a threat so difficult to identify, and therefore counter, as it has now.

"Hezbollah is continually working on three fronts; juggling geopolitical considerations, domestic politics and strictly communitarian affairs. This explains why it does not know exactly how to position itself today, in the face of the uprising", sums up a former minister who wished to remain anonymous.

The protest movement that began on October 17 in Lebanon, calling for a change in the political class and improved living conditions, poses a new kind of challenge for the Shiite party. For the first time in Lebanon’s history, the Shia street has joined the popular demands, breaking the barrier of fear and the myth that they are a community apart from the rest of the country. "Young people from Hezbollah and people from working-class backgrounds who are close to the party have taken to the streets," confirms Kassem Kassir, an analyst close to the Shiite party. "Hezbollah is not insensitive to the demands of the protesters," adds Faysal Abdel Sater, another analyst, also close to the party.

In the broad Lebanese political context, the Hezbollah has always presented itself as a revolutionary party. However, today it is positioned as the main defender of the system and stands against the revolution. If, at first, the party had stood to one side, perhaps believing that the movement was working in its interests, it has quickly changed its attitude by opposing the resignation of the government and threatening to cause chaos. Why adopt this attitude when the resistance, and all that it implies, has not been directly targeted by the waves of popular discontent? Why is such a powerful organization so afraid of the anger of the street, especially its own, and the changes that could result?

"Hezbollah is not afraid of anything. It does not feel targeted by a revolution directed against corruption and clientelism, a plague that does not concern the party", says Faysal Abdel Sater, but he admits that the party "was embarrassed after the resignation of Saad Hariri" on October 29th. Hezbollah was the party that most strongly opposed the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister and rejects any attempt to change the status quo. "The party believed that the government should remain in place after the resignation of the Lebanese Forces because it feared a vacuum and the unknown," says Kassem Kassir. "They are afraid of losing control over their own community and that the transformation of the Lebanese system would lead to a change in the political equation," said AUB professor of political science Hilal Khashan.

"The relationship between Hariri and Hezballah was excellent"

Prior to the protests, the situation was almost ideal for Hezbollah. While retaining the "privileges" of the "resistance", it had a sufficient, though far from complete, hold over state institutions to block any decision that would run counter to its strategic interests. Better still, thanks to its coexistence with Saad Hariri, that bridged the gap between the March 8 and March 14 forces, it obtained for itself a form of legal cover, at a time when Iran and its allies are in the line of fire of the United States. "It controls the majority in parliament, has a friendly president who has never refused it anything, and a Minister of Foreign Affairs who also defends its interests. This status quo is favorable to the party and any fundamental change in this balance weakens its hold over Lebanon," according to the former minister’s analysis. "The situation had the advantage of giving the impression that it is not Hezbollah who runs the country," said Moustapha Allouche, a former MP and member of the political bureau of the Future Movement.

Although Hezbollah has the power to form a government with its March 8 allies, since combined they hold a majority in parliament, it seems to want to salvage its agreement with Saad Hariri, provided that the latter, now in a position of strength, remains a “conciliatory" partner. "Saad Hariri remains the bridge between Hezbollah and the West. The outgoing Prime Minister can then bring international financial aid," said Amale Saad, professor of political science at the UL and who is close with the party. "The relationship between Hezbollah and Hariri was excellent before the revolution," Kassem Kassir confirms.

"It does not want to lose Lebanon"

Hezbollah is not only afraid of change. It worries any significant change will be exploited by its opponents in order to weaken its power. In his last two speeches, Hassan Nasrallah made a distinction between the people who protest spontaneously and legitimately, and those who, allegedly helped by foreign powers and Hezbollah adversaries on the local scene, took the opportunity to change the balance of power in Lebanon and in the region in favor of the enemies of Iran.

"As a regional player, Hezbollah does not want to lose Lebanon," the former minister said. "The Shiite party is afraid that the country would collapse, from an economic and security point of view, and that Lebanon would be placed under international trusteeship," notes Moustapha Allouche, adding that "the situation, be it in Iraq - boiling today - or in Syria, where the Russians now have a grip over the country, is currently unfavorable to the Iranian axis.

The pro-Iranian party sought to carry out its own counter-revolution by increasing the number of speeches it delivered aimed at dividing the street and sending its ‘black shirts’ to scare off the protesters. This strategy is not unanimously supported within the party. "Several voices within Hezbollah believed that the party made a mistake and that it was not the way to behave with the protesters," Kassem Kassir said. Four journalists in the daily newspaper al-Akhbar, which is close to the party, resigned to oppose the newspaper’s editorial line, which usually presents itself as the defender of the oppressed but that has alternated between positions of support and condemnation of the revolution.

"Many young people and intellectuals around the party have been discussing the party’s positioning in relation to the revolution at the moment," notes the analyst.

Hezbollah is aware that it cannot appear, especially in the eyes of its own base, as the protector of the system. "The protest movement is not insignificant in the south and it is largely spontaneous," admits a source within the party, who requested anonymity. "Hezbollah is caught between a rock and a hard place," says Moustapha Allouche. "The party has very few options. It has the ability to crush the uprising, but the cost would be extremely high, "says Hilal Khashan.

Early elections?

Using its weapons against the Lebanese on the street, as it did during the events of May 7, 2008, is certainly the best way to turn a large segment of public opinion against them and to increase international pressure on the party. The scenario of a new May 7th has been dismissed by all those we interviewed. "The party has no interest in being dragged into armed clashes. That's the trap it is trying to avoid," assures Kassem Kassir.

What can Hezbollah do to preserve its ability to control the direction of the country?

"It's all about Hezbollah's calculations of profit and loss, which Hezbollah calculates every morning," the former minister said. Blocking the political process is a dangerous game, especially when the country is on the brink of economic collapse. Accepting early elections, which it has for the moment opposed for reasons including the impossibility of agreeing on a new electoral law, would be the most effective way to calm the street. "The Shiite party is not afraid of elections. It has an electoral base that is still strong. The Shiite forces that appeared during the demonstrations in Baalbeck, Nabatiyeh and Tyr do not weigh heavily in the polls," Kassem Kassir states. But this is not the real issue. While Hezbollah itself probably does not have much to lose by holding new elections, this is certainly not the case with its Free Patriotic Movement allies, whose leader is a favorite target for those on the street. The collapse of this political bloc, one that currently holds a parliamentary majority, would upset the balance of power at the expense of Hezbollah, which is a risk that the party is clearly not ready to take.

(This article was originally in French published in the 9th of November)

From its founding in the mid-1980s, Hezbollah has gone through several lives and identities. It became the incarnation of the resistance against Israel, the organization that provides welfare to vulnerable citizens in place of the state, the Lebanese political party that restored self-confidence to the historically marginalized Shiite community and, of course, the militia that serves Iran's...

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