Untouchable No More: Hezbollah’s Fading Reputation
As Hezbollah sides with Lebanon's political elite, protesters in Beirut are increasingly willing to criticize it.
BEIRUT—It was the sort of chant that, only a month or so ago, would have been all but unthinkable in Lebanon. “Terrorists, terrorists, Hezbollah are terrorists,” yelled some of the hundreds of anti-government protesters who stood on a main road in Beirut early Monday morning, in a tense standoff with supporters of Hezbollah and another Shiite party, the Amal Movement.
Other protesters told the chanters to stop, but as widespread economic discontent and anger engulf Lebanon—and with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah defending the government—the sanctity around Hezbollah’s reputation is clearly broken.
“Hezbollah is being seen as part and parcel [of] the main hurdle to change in Lebanon,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
The demonstrations have been mostly peaceful and unilaterally against the whole ruling class—all sects, all political parties. And until recently Nasrallah, who doesn’t have an official government position, was seen as above the endemic corruption that has helped push the country toward a collapse, particularly among Hezbollah’s Shiite support base. Hezbollah’s expulsion of Israeli troops from Lebanese territory in 2000 earned the group the moniker “the resistance” among Lebanese of all sects and political affiliations. Even after the 2006 war, which left swaths of Lebanon in ruins, the group enjoyed popular support for what many here saw as a victory against Israeli aggression by defenders of the country. In May 2008, Hezbollah fighters took over central Beirut after the government threatened to shut down the group’s telecommunications network and remove an ally in charge of airport security, pointing their weapons inside rather than toward the border for the first time.
And as Hezbollah sent thousands of fighters across the border to fight in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad in 2013, more people questioned exactly whom Hezbollah was defending. The group’s reputation has been fading further since the first days of protests in mid-October, which saw large crowds take to the streets in primarily Shiite areas such as Tyre and Nabatieh. Suddenly, with demonstrators there shouting similar anti-government slogans as protesters in Beirut—who want all the current sectarian political leaders gone and new elections under a new system—Hezbollah found itself part of the targeted establishment. The protests are seen as a direct challenge to the gains made by Hezbollah in the 2018 elections and a threat to the organization’s foreign-policy agenda, said Hage Ali.
This week, facing down two thick rows of Lebanese army and riot police on pavement littered with rocks and sticks, some demonstrators complained that Hezbollah’s agenda is not really about building up Lebanon; instead, it goes through Damascus to Baghdad and on to Tehran. Like some of the rising protests in neighboring Iraq, the often youthful demonstrators are intent on calling out Iranian influence in particular.
“Here is Lebanon, not Iran,” some protesters chanted on Monday.
When Nasrallah insisted the Lebanese government should not step down, amid the early demonstrations in October, to many protesters it felt like he was part of the problem.
“It was a ‘reality bites’ moment,” Carnegie’s Hage Ali said. “For Lebanese Shiites who joined the protest movement, it was a shock—why is Hezbollah standing on guard for the status quo that is extremely corrupt and taking the country to a financial and economic crisis?”
Nasrallah attempted to discredit the protesters, implying they were funded by foreign embassies. The protesters laughed it off, and several journalists resigned from Al-Akhbar, a publication usually supportive of Hezbollah’s position.
“They are just trying to keep the system,” said a protester named Baha Yahya, as he waited on a side road for a barrage of tear gas, fired by the army, to clear. “And all we want is to remove the system. That’s what this is all about.”
In the past Hezbollah has managed to avoid most direct criticism of its ties to Tehran and Syria. For decades, Lebanon’s warlords, then political elite, have been propped up by regional and international powers, and the protesters have railed against this foreign meddling in their country. But the protesters have been careful not to single out any one group, and until recently there has been scarce mention of Hezbollah’s Iranian-supplied weapons, which outgun the country’s national army—ironically now holding back the group’s supporters.
Last week, as thousands of people took to the streets of Iran after a hike in the price of fuel there, protesters in downtown Beirut sought some common cause with them, chanting: “From Tehran to Beirut, one revolution that won’t die.”
And Hezbollah supporters are fighting back. Hoisting the flags of Hezbollah and Amal, counterprotesters this week shouted sectarian slogans like “Shiite, Shiite, Shiite” and affirmed allegiance to Nasrallah and Nabih Berri, the head of the Amal Movement and speaker of the Lebanese Parliament.
The anti-government protesters responded with chants of “the people are one”—and then broke into the national anthem.
It’s not exactly clear how the confrontation started on Sunday night, but what is clear is that it has raised fears of a violent escalation to Lebanon’s 6-week-old rebellion against poor sectarian governance and put a further stain on Hezbollah’s image as the country’s defender.
This same bit of road was the front line for much of Lebanon’s civil war. Everyone here knows that, but most of the protesters are too young to personally remember the snipers and checkpoints that controlled it.
Some of the Hezbollah and Amal supporters managed to break through the line, charging the protesters and sending them running down side streets, past buildings still pockmarked from civil war fighting.
“They can reach us if they want,” Yahya said of the Hezbollah and Amal supporters as he waited on a side road. “But they don’t want that. They just want to scare us.”
The mostly male protesters returned with tree branches and sticks. Both sides tried to lob rocks across the no man’s land created by rows of security forces.
Hezbollah blamed a car accident early Monday morning on the protesters’ roadblocks. A video of the incident shows a car hitting an obstacle in the middle of seemingly empty road. There is not a protester in sight. Some saw it as an attempt to portray the protests as a security threat. Hundreds of people turned out for a vigil on Monday evening hoisting Hezbollah and Amal flags and chanting party and sectarian slogans. Thousands of other supporters came out in more overt political rallies. Some sped around scooters honking and again shouting “Shiite, Shiite, Shiite” as they passed anti-government protesters.
“The more Hezbollah attacks them using these sectarian tactics, the more Hezbollah is exposed, and the more Hezbollah will lose,” said Hage Ali, adding that part of the strategy of the counter-revolution is turning it into a sectarian conflict.
If Nasrallah or other Hezbollah or Amal leaders thought a gentle show of force would scare protesters off the street and restore calm, it may have been dangerous miscalculation.
On Monday night, things escalated further with gunfire and clashes, this time with supporters of the Future Movement of the Sunni caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In the southern city of Tyre, party supporters attacked and burned down a protest camp. Attacks and clashes continued Tuesday.
Many of the anti-government protesters call the party-supporting counterprotesters “brainwashed”—referring not just to Hezbollah and Amal supporters but also to those who have come out in less confrontational shows of support for the country’s president, Michel Aoun, and other parties in recent weeks.
Another protester, Yahya’s friend Nader Issrawi, said he believes that in the end, they all want the same thing.
“What they want is like what we want,” Issrawi said. “We are living a life that is such a shit. We all just want to live in freedom, to eat and build our future.”
But it seems they see different paths to that goal. Issrawi and Yahya were home when the clashes started late Sunday night. “I called him and said, ‘Baha, let’s get to the [street]. Our revolution is in danger,’” Issrawi recalled.
Like many here, Yahya is becoming fearful about where the unrest is heading but says he agrees with Issrawi and that it’s a matter of changing the minds of those standing on the other side of the road. “One day,” Yahya said, “everyone will be convinced.”