Influential Hezbollah leader says the group does not want the government to resign but raises voice against new taxes.
Beirut, Lebanon – The Lebanese armed group Hezbollah is in a “difficult and delicate” situation as protests continue to paralyse Lebanon for the second week, analysts say.
The rising cost of living, alleged corruption by officials and high unemployment have reached a peak, Lebanese protesters say, demanding the resignation of all political leaders and an end to the sectarian system of governance.
Protests began on October 17, following the government’s plans to impose new taxes on tobacco, petrol and WhatsApp calls, as public anger spilled on to the streets.
The government hurriedly reversed its tax proposals but it was too late to stop the protesters from coming out on the streets in opposition to new taxes being imposed while Lebanon was in the midst of economic crisis.
Chants of “all of them means all” and “the people demand the fall of the regime,” were heard on the streets.
Analysts remarked on the fact that these protests were seen across the country for the first time – spreading to southern Lebanon, the stronghold of Hezbollah, seen as the most powerful force in the country.
While protesters voiced their anger against the government, Amal Saad, political science professor at the Lebanese University, told Al Jazeera the Lebanese in Shia-majority areas have also been criticising Hezbollah for not doing enough to confront the government.
“The overwhelming majority of Shia have been accusing [Speaker of Parliament Nabih] Berri, Amal [Movement] leader, of a lot of corruption of stealing public funds. His wife is extremely wealthy, as wealthy as Hariri,” Saad said.
“They criticise Hezbollah for not stopping corruption, because Berri is a main Hezbollah ally and Hezbollah has done nothing to hold him to account or to hold other partners in government to account.”
But there is little Hezbollah can do to confront the government due to “crucial” alliances which are forged to preserve stability and security, Saad added.
The Shia duo Hezbollah and Amal, and its allies, were the biggest winners in the May 2018 parliamentary elections.
Hezbollah emerged as a major political force, winning 13 seats and securing three cabinet posts.
It has been in an alliance with Maronite Christian President Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, for over a decade, helping him to win the presidency in 2016.
Fears of a political, security vacuum
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke up in support of the government, on October 19 opposing the resignation of the government.
He warned that if the government resigned, it would take one or two years to form a government which would again be made up of the same political forces, while the crisis would worsen.
On Friday he made a second speech, warning that the resignation of the government would cause the country to fall into chaos, conjuring fears of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that came to an end in 1990.
Saad said it would take too long to agree on an electoral law for early elections, given that what was proposed for the last elections was less than ideal.
“The ideal would be proportional representation in Lebanon as a single constituency. But Christians don’t want it. They say it will marginalise them,” Saad said.
Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, viewed Nasrallah’s speeches as an attempt at discrediting the protest movement.
“When statements like this are made, warning of political vacuum and chaos and civil war, they point out not at real expectations but more a discomfort on Hezbollah’s part,” Khatib said.
“It’s beginning to feel threatened by protests on the streets because Hezbollah is part of the ruling elite in Lebanon and the protesters are not budging in terms of saying they are against everything in the political class in the country, including Hezbollah.”
Formed in 1982 following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah (Party of God in Arabic) is the only movement in Lebanon not to have disarmed after the 1975-1990 civil war.
The Shia movement liberated South Lebanon from Israeli occupation in 2000 and defended the country in a month-long war against Israel in 2006, a military success for the Iran-backed group fighting against a state army.
In areas where it dominates, Hezbollah has filled in for the government’s inactivity by offering citizens a variety of public services, including in education and health.
In recent months, however, there has been an increase in Israeli drones violating Lebanon’s airspace.
On Wednesday, a Lebanese man shot down an Israeli drone with a rifle near the border village of Kfar Kila, while Hezbollah said it shot down an Israeli drone in September near the southern town of Ramyah, the first such incident since 2006.
Saad believes there is “genuine” concern that a political and security vacuum can be exploited by the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which would affect Hezbollah and its resistance.
“Hezbollah’s resistance has always dictated its political choices. It has always subordinated its political gain for the resistance,” Saad said.
“And that’s why it’s always made alliances with Amal [with whom it used to clash in the civil war], for example. In 2005, it joined this government. It never joined any government in the past because it knew people would hold it to account for its economic policies and they didn’t want to be responsible for that. It’s ironic because it’s happening now.”
When polarisation formed over Hezbollah’s arms in 2005, the group joined the government to attain veto power over any strategic decision to disarm it, Saad noted.
The Shia movement has come under increasing financial pressure as US President Donald Trump’s administration ramped up its sanctions against the group to unprecedented levels.
In July, it placed two Hezbollah legislators under sanctions, the first time it designated members of Lebanon’s parliament. This was followed by sanctions on a Lebanese bank accused of having ties with Hezbollah in August.
According to The Associated Press, two US officials visited Beirut in September and warned sanctions would increase, aiming to deprive Hezbollah of its sources of income.
In March, Hezbollah asked its popular base for donations after the UK announced it would seek to ban Hezbollah’s political wing as a “terrorist organisation”.
Whether the government resigns or not, Saad said Hezbollah would be the least affected by a change of political leaders, as the group would probably win the same number of seats in early elections.
“They’ve won more seats than ever in the elections. It’s [the group] the least tarnished by these protests so I don’t see any problem for Hezbollah,” Saad said.
However, Khatib believes Hezbollah has a lot to lose from the protests as it is Lebanon’s most influential political party and [Nasrallah is] de facto ruler of the country.
“Hezbollah has the most to lose from the kind of political change demanded by the protesters which is calling for a civil state that is accountable and transparent,” Khatib said, adding that the only way the political system can be “shaken” is if disagreements start to occur between different political parties in the ruling class about what to do next.
“For now, it is clear that the political elites are trying to get together on one side against the Lebanese protesters but it’s not clear as to how long the show of unity will last,” Khatib said.