Hezbollah’s Old Tricks Won’t Work in Lebanon

The Shiite group has to decide whether it is a resistance movement or part of the establishment.

Supporters of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement, watch him speak through a giant screen at a mosque in Beirut on Nov. 1.
Supporters of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement, watch him speak through a giant screen at a mosque in Beirut on Nov. 1. AFP/Getty Images

Expectations were high for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Nov. 1, which arrived at the end of a tumultuous week in Lebanon that included widespread street violence in Beirut and Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation after two weeks of nationwide protests. But the militant group’s leader had little to say. Like in his previous speech on Oct. 25, Nasrallah stressed pragmatism over idealism and delivered bland criticisms of Lebanon’s politicians while echoing their calls for a speedy government formation process following Hariri’s departure.

“We call for dialogue between political parties, parliamentarians, and honest leaders of the protests,” Nasrallah said. “We must all get past the wounds that were created in the last two weeks.”

For the leader of a party that has branded itself as the vanguard of Lebanon’s grassroots resistance for decades, Nasrallah’s backing of the country’s corrupt establishment might seem odd. Yet for now—struggling to adapt to the sudden changes in the political system around it and on the ground beneath it—the group has left itself with few alternatives other than backing the current order and betting on the power of its brand and its ability to dispense violence and threats to keep its supporters in line.

Hezbollah will almost certainly be able to weather the growing storm and will retain its powerful position in Lebanese politics—but Hariri’s resignation, together with the social and political uncertainty that has resulted from the protests, has left the group looking unmoored.

Through careful deal-making, success at the ballot box, and calculated use of force over the last decade and a half, Hezbollah has played a key role in crafting a political reality in Lebanon that has allowed the group to maintain stability, expand its missile arsenal, and to use the country as a reliable base from which to wage a campaign in Syria on President Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s behalf. Although Hezbollah never dominated the state outright, it merged with it and had come to view former rivals like Hariri as vital guarantors of the order the group had helped establish.

But now that Hariri has jumped ship and Hezbollah ally President Michel Aoun is calling for a technocratic cabinet, its model has come under threat. Hezbollah seems well aware of the potential risks to its operational framework; prior to Hariri’s announcement on Oct. 29, a Hezbollah advisor had reportedly pressured the prime minister to reconsider his choice, telling him that the protests were nearing their end.

“What [Hezbollah] want[s] is a similar situation that used to be before; the same coalition, probably with some different names,” former member of Parliament Mustafa Allouch, who is part of the political bureau for Hariri’s Future Movement party, told me last week. “Everyone knows that renegotiation on the same terms that used to be in the previous three years will not work with people in the street.”

Members of the Future Movement have stated that Hariri should be renominated to form a new cabinet, but Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said such an outcome is unlikely. In the event of a technocratic government, what is important for Hezbollah is finding ways to maintain its influence in the cabinet, even if it plays by the Lebanese system’s pre-revolutionary rules.

“They will adapt to a certain extent,” Yahya said. “They will be using the old playbook, but what they will care about is whether their interests are protected, whoever is in government. That’s where their red line is.” Hezbollah’s media office and members of the party refused to comment for this story. But if the past is any indication, the party will do everything in its power as the most well-oiled political machine in Lebanon to pressure whoever is tasked with forming a new government, even if it is meant to be a technocratic one, to name candidates who will maintain Hezbollah’s position.

In order to deal with protesters in the street, meanwhile, Nasrallah, other Hezbollah officials, and their allies in the majority Shiite Amal Movement have voiced limited and cautious support for their efforts. In fact, they’ve tried to paint the protests as a boon for Hezbollah and its allies. “These demands are a golden opportunity for the Shiites,” said a senior Amal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In response to chants against the party in the streets though, the official added: “When you play politics, you expect that you will have sometimes an opposition. Sometimes you take a decision that is unpopular, but later people realize that it is a good one.”

Yet it remains to be seen whether the people will eventually come to appreciate the violence that party hard-liners have meted out against some protesters. Fueled by a new, nonsectarian national consciousness that has swept across the country, many of Lebanon’s Shiites have spoken out against Hezbollah and Amal in a number of unprecedented ways. In response, Amal supporters assaulted protesters in the southern city of Tyre on Oct. 19. Similar incidents took place in Nabatieh, a Hezbollah stronghold, the following week. Mohamad, a Tyre resident who took part in protests there and gave only his first name for security reasons, said party loyalists were threatening protesters with punishment or jail time for abandoning the party.

Days after the protests in Tyre subsided, it appeared that these were not empty threats. Authorities in southern Lebanon, which is dominated by Hezbollah and Amal, were accused of bias when they charged 12 people from Tyre with crimes related to the demonstrations that carry sentences of up to seven years in prison—but arrested none of the parties’ supporters who had carried out violence against protesters. Other instances of likely coercion by party elements surfaced, including a number of videos of people giving forced apologies for insulting Nasrallah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the head of Amal, during protests.

“Amal and Nasrallah are beginning to feel danger and can only face danger through violence,” the journalist Ali al-Amin said. Amin was attacked by suspected Hezbollah supporters after he ran against the group for a parliamentary seat in southern Lebanon last year. “This will shake confidence in them, leading to more and more opponents.”

In the last few days, Hezbollah has tried to correct course, including by reminding the Lebanese public that the group is a resistance force first and a political party second. Hezbollah announced that it had fired at an Israeli drone that had crossed into Lebanese airspace on Oct. 31, and Nasrallah concluded his speech a day later by boasting about the incident. According to Nicholas Blanford of the Atlantic Council, though, Hezbollah has had a hard time maintaining its resistance narrative amid a dragging conflict in Syria and its embroilment in Lebanese political fights.

But the idea of resistance still holds sway among large parts of the Shiite community.

“Hezbollah, as a government, of course they must leave,” the protestor Abbas Haidar said in Beirut on Oct. 19, during the early days of the protests. “But as the resistance against Israel, of course not.”

Amin admitted that the protests in Lebanon that had spurred the Shiite community into action were only the beginning—but in his view, the social shifts that have taken place so far are strong indicators that political changes await down the line.

As it fights to preserve what it has won in the political arena in years past, Hezbollah is likely to take further blows to its reputation, especially as it continues to employ nothing more than its old, timeworn playbook. Eventually though, Hezbollah will find its way as it always has, either by adjusting to its new surroundings or forcing its surroundings to adjust to it.

The group has engaged in a careful balancing act so far and will continue to do so as long as it knows its power won’t be shaken in the long run. But Lebanon’s political reality is changing at a breakneck pace. If credible threats emerge to its political position in Lebanon, either from the political class or from the streets, Hezbollah won’t hesitate to unleash its military might once again.

Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist.