On 17 October 2019, a massive popular uprising erupted in Lebanon, with protestors demanding economic and political reforms and a change in the ruling regime, which is based on religious quotas that entrench sectarianism and corruption. Protestors also demanded a stop to foreign interference in the country, which has long been a major cause of deteriorating economic social and economic conditions. At the heart of all this was the position of Hezbollah, the powerful Shia Islamist political party and militant group whose structure and goals are governed by its strong ties to Iran and Iran’s own regional activities.
Hezbollah and the protest movement
Hezbollah initially dealt cautiously with the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets. However, that caution quickly turned into confrontation because Hezbollah is unwilling to change a political situation where it enjoys significant power and influence in partnership with its allies, the most prominent of which is the Shia Amal Movement and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement.
At the same time, Hezbollah feared a repeat of 7 May 2008, when it took control of Lebanon by force in response to a government move to shut down Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and remove Beirut airport’s security chief over alleged ties to the party. Following this incident, Hezbollah lost much of its support and its weapons became subject to criticism over accusations that these had been used to influence internal politics instead of protecting the country’s security, as Hezbollah claimed.
Hezbollah also had concerns about appearing hostile towards the protest movement for fear of alienating its social incubators, namely the Shias, a significant number of whom took to the streets in areas controlled by Hezbollah such as the governorates of Nabatiyeh and Tyre. On the other hand, the party saw an opportunity to use the protest movement to fight corruption without having to involve itself directly and compromising its political partnership with certain blocs, parties and forces.
However, Hezbollah’s discourse on the protest movement has evolved over the past months. It initially and explicitly rejected some of the protestors’ demands, such as holding early parliamentary or presidential elections, warning these could spark civil war. The party then accused the movement of receiving foreign funds and called on Hezbollah’s grassroots to withdraw from the protest once and for all. The movement remained silent about the repeated assaults carried out by Hezbollah supporters against the demonstrators, which many considered to be driven by the fear of demands for Hezbollah to disarm. In addition, Hezbollah backed Hassan Diab, a former education minister and university professor, as the new prime minister, which the protest movement and many political forces see as giving the party – and by extension Iran – potentially greater control over the government in Beirut.
In an interview with Fanack, Fawaz Trabelsi, a historian and professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, explained, “The issue of Hezbollah’s weapons was not raised directly by the popular protest movement; rather, the movement has been against the policies of Hezbollah, the secretary general of which [Hassan Nasrallah] has said since the early days of the protest movement that he would hold on to the regime and the existing authority and government. [Nasrallah] also suspected the protest movement was influenced by Western and American sites and called on his masses to clear the streets. His followers did not complain less about poor living conditions, unemployment and corruption, and they expressed their grievances in the most violent terms during the early days of the uprising. The main concern of Hezbollah’s leadership was that Lebanon could experience what happened in Iraq in terms of public anger and disengagement between major segments of Shiites and the ruling parties.”
He continued, “It is difficult to accuse Hezbollah of involvement in the kinds of corruption that the rest of the ruling class has practised. However, the party is certainly responsible for covering up those policies over the long years of participation in power. Moreover, the party has not placed any significant obstacles to the neoliberal measures that have been taking place so far, and its voice has been the quietest when it comes to holding the banking sector accountable. Hezbollah’s agenda on the social level has so far been limited to two slogans: no taxes should be imposed on the poor – although taxes affect wide-ranging groups of low-income and middle-class people – and pillaged state funds should be returned.”
He concluded, “Most importantly, Hezbollah’s media arm has launched campaigns against the uprising, accusing it of ‘serving external agendas’ and the US agenda in particular. Also, Hezbollah and its allies, which make up a parliamentary majority, have designated the vice president of the American University of Beirut [Hassan Diab] to form a new government.”
Hezbollah and Iran
At the same time, one cannot ignore the impact of Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran on Lebanese affairs. Nasrallah announced publicly that the party’s funding, including the money to pay for its fighters, missiles and other military equipment, comes from Tehran. This dependency on Iran is affecting Beirut and the protest movement in several ways. Firstly, one of the protest movement’s demands is ending foreign interference in Lebanon. Secondly, the sanctions imposed by the United States on Hezbollah and a local bank that Washington claims has ties to the party is further deepening the country’s economic crisis. Thirdly, and most importantly, Lebanon is involved in conflicts in which Iran is engaged with Iraq, Syria and Israel. This involvement can have devastating consequences at home, as evidenced by the destruction in Lebanon during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Qassem Soleimani, former commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, said in an interview before he was assassinated by a US airstrike on 3 January 2020 that he was the key supervisor of the 2006 war.
The overlapping interests of Iran and Hezbollah became clear following the assassination. Nasrallah announced during a speech at a memorial service for Soleimani that Hezbollah and the other forces loyal to Tehran – which Nasrallah called the resistance forces – were responsible for responding to the assassination. Although Iran itself retaliated by firing missiles at two US bases in Iraq, Hezbollah’s bias was obvious as it continues to act as Iran’s military arm in Lebanon and prefer dependency on Iran to domestic political and security interests, even if the party has not yet been directly involved.
Many Lebanese believe that Hezbollah’s weapons are the only guarantee of Lebanon’s security against Israel, given the party’s role in forcing Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Others, however, see Hezbollah’s weapons, and Iran’s backing, as a threat to security and stability in Lebanon because they fear that the weapons will be used internally, as they were on 7 May 2008, or externally, such as to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has had impact on Lebanon through operations and attacks by armed groups crossing the Lebanese border. Although Hezbollah does not officially or militarily oppose the protest movement, it has made it clear that it will side with Iran if the protest movement conflicts with Iranian interests.