Why you should care
Because Hezbollah has damaged its brand as the party of the oppressed.
In a nationwide address on Oct. 25, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned that the mass protests against the Lebanese government that began that month were the result of a foreign conspiracy to weaken the country. As the leader of the powerful Shiite group — a force militarily stronger than the Lebanese army — Nasrallah’s speech resembled the lectures that Arab autocrats gave before cracking down on protesters during the Arab Spring.
Four days later, Hezbollah supporters and long-time Shiite ally the Amal Movement attacked protesters with sticks before burning down tents in downtown Beirut. The mob injured dozens of civilians, but Hezbollah’s image suffered the biggest blow.
Not long ago, Hezbollah enjoyed support across the Arab world for liberating south Lebanon from Israel’s 18-year occupation in 2000. The group’s war with Israel in 2006, which ended in a stalemate despite devastating large swaths of Lebanon’s infrastructure, burnished Hezbollah’s brand as the self-proclaimed “Resistance” and the “Party of the Oppressed,” even as many parts of the world came to see it as a militant — even terrorist — organization.
After the war, the group monopolized reconstruction efforts in Shiite communities while continuing to provide welfare provisions to its poorest supporters. In return, the group’s loyal base has propelled it into parliament since 2005.
Hezbollah has always prioritized its strategic alliance … at the expense of the public interests of the larger Shiite community.
Imad Salamey, lebanese american university
But in recent years, Hezbollah’s popularity has declined across the Middle East for helping Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime — a key ally — crush the Syrian revolt. Experts and protesters now say that the party risks alienating its broader supporters in Lebanon by repressing demonstrations within the Shiite community and defending a government embroiled in corruption.
In some respects, Hezbollah set itself up for backlash after Nasrallah personally promised to tackle corruption in order to secure a large voter turnout in the 2018 parliamentary elections. But his unwillingness to criticize his reputedly corrupt allies in the national unity government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri has resulted in growing sympathy for the protest movement in Hezbollah strongholds.
“Hezbollah has always prioritized its strategic alliance that protects its weapons arsenal and power at the expense of the public interests of the larger Shiite community,” says Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University.
Like people of all religious sects in Lebanon, the main concern for most Shiites is finding adequate work in a functioning economy. But earning a dignified living isn’t easy in a country that boasts the third largest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world and ranks 138 out of 180 on Transparency International’s corruption index. And with many households deprived of electricity or water for multiple hours a day, Hezbollah’s defense of the status quo angers many who once backed the group.
Earlier this month, several employees from the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al Akhbar resigned to protest coverage of the demonstrations. Joy Slim, one of the first reporters to leave, says the paper championed working-class struggles until it suddenly began repeating Nasrallah’s talking points days into the uprising. Some of Al Akhbar’s articles claimed that foreign funding and embassy staffs were behind the protests. “Our coverage suddenly changed to reflect the stance of Hezbollah,” Slim tells me.
Outspoken critics of Hezbollah have also told reporters that the group has repressed protests in southern Beirut, while Amal has attacked protesters in the southern cities of Tyre and Nabatieh. Hezbollah, for its part, hasn’t condemned the violence.
“It’s a tightrope,” explains Mohanad Hage Ali, a Hezbollah expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Damage control is necessary, but Hezbollah’s alliance with Amal has long paid off for the group.”
“If Hezbollah criticized Amal, then it would divide the Shiite community,” adds Jana Zein, a staunch Hezbollah supporter whose village in south Lebanon was devastated during the Israeli occupation.
As a Lebanese Shiite, Zein believes Hezbollah is unfairly criticized for the country’s woes. In her eyes, Hezbollah and the Shiite community assumed sole responsibility for liberating the country from Israel, which first invaded south Lebanon in 1978 to root out Palestinian guerillas. Zein also mostly blames Amal for attacks on protesters. But even if that’s so, Nasrallah’s accusation that Western embassies are behind the protests has given mobs in Hezbollah and Amal a pretext to attack demonstrators.
“It’s always been a game of good cop, bad cop,” says Sarah Sayeed, a 29-year-old former Hezbollah supporter. “Whenever the violence is barbaric, our community blames Amal. Whenever the violence is heroic, they praise Hezbollah.”
For now, fear of reprisal from Hezbollah or Amal hasn’t halted the momentum of the protests. Major demonstrations continue to take place in Hezbollah’s stronghold of Baalbek, a city in the Bekaa Valley. And days after the mob attack in downtown Beirut, Sayeed joined tens of thousands of protesters in calling for the resignation of every party in government — Hezbollah included.
Speaking to me among a sea of demonstrators, Sayeed told me that she stopped endorsing Hezbollah on May 7, 2008. That’s when the group turned its weapons against its own people after the government voted to take steps against Hezbollah’s telecommunications network, which operates independently of the state.
Eleven years later, she’s amazed that more young people from Hezbollah strongholds are defying Nasrallah. Yet she still supports Hezbollah’s resistance against Israel. The scars from the Israeli occupation run deep.
Nasrallah, meanwhile, has tried to correct his earlier remarks. On Nov. 1, he claimed that his statements were taken out of context and that any solution to Lebanon’s turmoil must come from the Lebanese people.
Most protesters agree. They just see Hezbollah as part of the problem.