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Dispatch

Hezbollah Prepares for Its Next War: Against the Coronavirus

The militant group seeks to gain an edge on other parties in responding in Lebanon.

A volunteer wearing a face mask with the colors and logo of the Hezbollah flag
A volunteer poses for a portrait while wearing a face mask with the colors and logo of the Hezbollah flag while he works at a Social Security Support Center in Beirut on March 31. Daniel Carde/Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

BEIRUT—Dozens of journalists piled into a convoy of Hezbollah-arranged vehicles on Tuesday to be transported to the movement’s newest front line: the fight against the coronavirus.

Nearby, a line of dozens of paramedics stood ready but completely idle, posed in front of some of the 70 ambulances Hezbollah says it has prepared for epidemic. Trucks and men on foot from the Islamic Health Society sprayed the streets with disinfectant, filling the neighborhood of Borj el-Barajneh with the smell of chlorine.

“Hezbollah is the only one doing anything. The government isn’t doing anything,” said one bystander, Hussein Zaaiter, sitting on a cement step watching the crowd of journalists next to the long row of posed paramedics and ambulances. “You can see these ambulances. You can see them disinfecting the streets.”

Zaaiter sat just a foot from his friend. Neither was wearing masks or gloves. Many on the streets of Borj el-Barajneh lingered around without masks or gloves, and pairs of young men zipped by on scooters, pressed up against each other sharing the seat. Hezbollah has also launched a large-scale awareness campaign.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Others in the neighborhood seem split on who is doing what. Some say the Lebanese government is doing a good job of responding to the pandemic, but many complain of a complete lack of assistance from anyone as they face the double whammy of the coronavirus and a collapsing economy.

So far Lebanon has confirmed about 460 cases of the coronavirus and 11 deaths. The government, which includes Hezbollah, has declared a state of medical emergency, urged people to stay home, and sent the army to the streets to enforce it. But there is a very real concern that the country’s medical system will collapse under an outbreak. Lebanon has good doctors and hospitals, but the medical system is highly privatized, and the public system is poorly funded and suffers from the same sort of clientelism and patronage practices of most Lebanese institutions. Even in regular times, many Lebanese rely on the health services provided by political parties, rather than the government. The economic crisis has weakened it all. The government even put out a call to Lebanese expats to donate, including IBAN numbers for accounts in U.S. dollars and other currencies.

In this new crisis, Hezbollah and Lebanon’s other traditional parties have a fresh opportunity to fill a void left by the state. And Hezbollah is stepping into the breach. “We have shed our blood in resistance, and we will not surrender in front of this epidemic,” said Hussein Fadlallah, Hezbollah’s representative for Beirut District, as he outlined the steps his organization is taking to prepare for the virus.

The media tour led journalists through a tent where patients would be initially diagnosed, on to another where a man in a full protective suit was ready to swab nostrils, and inside to a room equipped for isolation, with oxygen tanks and trollies of disinfectants, masks, and gloves next to basic hospital beds.

Fadlallah said the facilities and tests are free for everyone in the area and meant to relieve pressure on hospitals.

“It is a real war that we must confront with the mindset of a warrior,” Sayyed Hashem Safieddine, the head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, said last week as the group first announced its plans, adding that “front-line Islamic resistance medics are taking part.”

Hezbollah, considered a terrorist group by the United States, was founded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and resisted Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon. It fought another war with Israel in 2006 and has dabbled in regional conflicts, but most recently it has fought in support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The war there is winding down even as a new one is emerging against the pandemic.

Hezbollah is now mobilizing 25,000 people, has rented hotels for quarantine, and is delivering basic food items to families in need—the sort of stuff governments do in other countries.

But in Lebanon, Hezbollah and other political parties have long filled the void of the country’s weak state. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception. Many of the country’s traditional parties have stepped up the patronage that many Lebanese rely on and sent flag-bearing disinfectant trucks to the streets. The Free Patriotic Movement, the rival Lebanese Forces Movement, and the Druze-led Progressive Socialist Party all sent their own disinfectant crews very visibly to the streets. The latter’s leader, Walid Jumblatt, told local TV he would donate $600,000 to the cause. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, head of the Sunni Future movement, announced he would personally contribute 100 million Lebanese Lira. All have been previously accused of corruption.

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Watching the scene in the Borj el-Barajneh neighborhood, Ali Toufaily pulled up a photo of his 5-year-old twins on his phone. An Uber driver, he’s lost almost all his income as most people stay home. He said he heads out a few hours each day but gets few hails. Even before the virus and the curfew, he was suffering, as prices of basic goods have shot up as much as 40 percent in recent months.

“No one is doing anything,” Toufaily said.

Jamil Mouawad, a professor of politics at American University in Beirut, said the state is responding—closing schools, putting the country on lockdown, and preparing hospitals and medical facilities the best it can. Civil society groups and charity organizations have also stepped up to address the crisis.

“The difference is, traditional parties can market what they do with convoys of vehicles and flags,” Mouawad said.

The Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war at the end of 1989 further entrenched the country’s sectarian political system and the power of the country’s warlords. Many of the country’s current party leaders rose to power during the war, gaining legitimacy and supporters in a time of conflict and crisis.

“They are offering food and services the same way they did in wartime,” Mouawad said of the parties. “Those that lived through the war know what it is to have a box at the door with a kilo of rice and oil.”

This patronage, paired with sectarian rhetoric, has helped keep Lebanon’s political parties strong. But months of anti-government protests have eroded their popularity and made some question the parties and system that have governed Lebanon for decades. The coronavirus is creating a timely opportunity for Lebanon’s traditional sectarian political parties to again build up support and legitimacy that was eroded by the protest movement.

“They want to be seen as the only actor offering services, consolidating their legitimacy,” said Mouawad, stressing this is being done by all of Lebanon’s traditional political parties. “Hezbollah just has more resources to respond.”

Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.

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