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How Hezbollah Lost its Grip on Power

Lebanon’s parliamentary elections shook up the country’s complex political landscape.

Words: Hunter Williamson
Pictures: Hunter Williamson
Date:

A day after pivotal national elections shook up Lebanon’s political landscape this month, a group of men riding motorcycles and waving Hezbollah flags descended on an iconic statue in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square. Footage shared widely on social media showed the men burning a cardboard cutout of a fist with the word “Revolution” written on it, an installation that had been constructed during widespread anti-government protests in 2019. Amid one of the worst economic collapses in modern history, the incendiarism appeared as a symbolic rejection of the May 15 elections that saw Hezbollah — an Iranian-allied paramilitary political party considered the most powerful force in the country — lose the parliamentary bloc majority that it had led for four years.

Once widely supported as a self-made resistance force protecting the country from Israeli aggression, Hezbollah has seen its popularity decline in recent years due to controversial activities in the region and participation in a political establishment widely perceived as corrupt and responsible for the economic crisis that has driven much of the population into poverty.

Yet, for all the headlines Hezbollah’s loss garnered, it was a setback years in the making.

Lebanon’s Political Landscape

Situated along the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon is a country renowned on one hand for its beauty and on the other for a host of complicated political issues disproportionate to its tiny size. Surrounded by Syria to its north and east and Israel along the southern border, the Mediterranean country of some 6 million people is populated by an array of sectarian groups, including Christians from several denominations, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Druze, a religious offshoot of Islam. Throughout its history, these sectarian groups have found themselves regularly opposed to one another and aligned to varying degrees with differing — sometimes polarizing — ideologies and foreign allies. To manage such diversity and the tensions that it has provoked, Lebanon has a sectarian power-sharing political model, in which parliamentary seats are allocated on a representational basis among the country’s 18 different religious sects.

Hezbollah is a Lebanese political party with a military wing independent of the country that makes it the most powerful non-state actor in the world.

Since October 2019, the country has witnessed a wave of anti-government protests and a devastating economic collapse that has pushed 80% of the population into poverty. Many Lebanese blame establishment leaders — including Hezbollah — for the collapse, pointing to widespread corruption and mismanagement. A series of crises including political gridlock, a devastating explosion at the capital city’s port, armed clashes, and violent protests exacerbated the situation and reinforced demands for new leaders in the run-up to the recent elections.

In the midst of this, parliamentary elections took place on May 15. Though Hezbollah and its key ally Amal — the second most powerful Lebanese Shia party — retained all of the parliamentary seats allocated to Shiites by Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing political model, its allies across other sects faced setbacks. The most significant losses involved President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which fell from its position as the premier Christian party. It now sits more or less tied with the Lebanese Forces, another Christian party and staunch rival of Hezbollah.

This shakeup has left the parliament sharply divided. Civil society figures opposed to the political establishment broke through in the elections, with 13 gaining seats. Hezbollah and its allies still retain a sizable bloc, but their power is contested by a loose coalition of parties and figures opposed to the group. Such division does not bode well for the trouble-stricken country; cooperation is crucial to pass vital reform policies needed to restore the economy.

Hezbollah’s Origins

Though today many lump Hezbollah into the despised political establishment, the party has long sought to distance itself from other elite rulers and parties. The group started as an independent militia in eastern Lebanon with Iranian support in the early 1980s. In its efforts to liberate Palestine and defend Lebanon, it launched deadly attacks against Western peace-keeping forces and Israeli troops who had invaded Lebanon to fight Palestinian militants based in the country.

Hezbollah also began providing social services soon after it started. As it grew into a more well-rounded entity, it sought to fill the gaps in government services to historically disenfranchised Shiites, and built systems providing health and education. Such care led constituents to depend on Hezbollah for their wellbeing and livelihood and emboldened support for the party.

The group first entered Lebanon’s formal political scene somewhat reluctantly three decades ago when it fielded 12 members in parliament. Hezbollah “joined the parliament in 1992 only in order to serve their community by using the government’s resources,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “They understood the nature of Lebanese politics whereby the resources of the system are dispensed indirectly via sectarian leaders.” Those parliamentary gains were followed in 2005 with ministerial positions in the cabinet, progress that gave the party representation in the legislative and executive branches, and wider access to state resources.

Hezbollah has “gotten into the nitty-gritty and mud of Lebanese [politics],” according to Aram Nerguizian, senior advisor of the Program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center. “With that comes the price of losing the veneer of being above the political fray and being apart from this ruling class.”

By the early 2000s, Hezbollah had grown into the entity it is today — a Lebanese political party with a military wing independent of the country that makes it the most powerful non-state actor in the world. This position and strength has stirred deep controversy both in Lebanon and abroad, especially as Hezbollah increases foreign military and drug smuggling operations in the Middle East and beyond.

In 2000, Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon, bidding Hezbollah a burst of popularity and legitimacy to its credentials as a resistance force. Six years later, it entered a month-long conflict with Israel, stirring up another wave of support. But the valor of war would not last.

Hezbollah’s Decline

The decline of Hezbollah’s popularity and the collapse of its parliamentary bloc majority cannot be traced to a single incident. Rather, it was the result of an ongoing accumulation of missteps and miscalculations the party made over the last several years.

“There’s been a lot of voter discontent, even from the Shia community, [towards Hezbollah and Amal],” said Georgia Dagher, a political researcher and data analyst at the Policy Initiative, a Beirut-based think tank. “It’s a general opposition feeling that has risen among the whole population.”

The popular anti-establishment protests in the fall of 2019 exacerbated already existing disillusionment and discontent with the party, spreading it further not only among Christians and Sunnis but also Shiites.

In the lead-up to the elections, Hezbollah and its arsenal of weapons became one of the most controversial topics in campaign discourse, with society divided over the importance of the issue and whether and how to force the party to disarm — a proposition that Hezbollah fiercely opposes. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah argues that the party’s arms are critical to defend Lebanon from further Israeli aggression.

Some see Hezbollah and its weapons as a secondary issue — if even a problem at all — something to be addressed after resolving the economic crisis and other pressing issues, such as an acute electricity shortage. Others view the party as the foremost problem, an uncontestable entity with the ability to enforce its agenda through arms and to protect what critics see as a corrupt political establishment.

“The level of acrimony towards Hezbollah and Iran is only going to increase because they are viewed as the political dark matter holding together the current political order,” Nerguizian said. He continued:

“That political order not only includes their allies, the visible alliances they have with groups like the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun or [Parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri’s Amal, it also includes the consolation of actors that are tentatively aligned against Hezbollah, like the Future Movement of (former prime minister) Saad Hariri, Lebanese Forces… even civil society groups. These are all in a system that for better or for worse depends upon the repressive potential of Hezbollah to maintain the system.”

All the while, the party’s regional activities, particularly in Syria and Yemen, continue to harm Lebanon’s foreign relations, especially with powerful Gulf neighbors.

Hezbollah’s Regional Force

Though a Lebanese entity, much of Hezbollah’s foreign operations have aligned with and advanced the interests of Iran — the Shia regional power fiercely opposed to Saudi Arabia, the region’s Sunni power. In Syria, Hezbollah fought alongside the forces of Iranian-ally President Bashar Al Assad against both Western-backed rebels and Sunni Islamist groups like the Islamic State. In countries like Iraq and Yemen, it has trained pro-Iranian militias.

Iran has been essential to Hezbollah from its very origin and the connection runs deep.

In the early 1980s, Iran’s nascent theocracy inspired the militants who would later start Hezbollah. Amid the turmoil of Lebanon’s civil war, which saw a mess of inter-sectarian violence and two Israeli invasions, the Lebanese Shiite militants formed a resistance movement opposed to Israel and the West that soon started to receive support from Tehran. When Hezbollah published its manifesto in 1985, it ascribed allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader under a concept known as wilayat al-faqih — guardianship of the Islamic jurist. Such ties and activities in recent years have led some critics to claim Lebanon is under Iranian occupation via Hezbollah and hardened international backlash against the party.

The tangled interweave between Hezbollah’s political aims and that of Lebanon’s has led to some sticky foreign relations. In October 2021, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Council Countries severed diplomatic ties with Lebanon and imposed trade restrictions after then-Information Minister George Kordahi made critical comments about Riyadh’s military efforts in Yemen’s civil war. The Hezbollah-backed official angered Saudi Arabia, which has been frequently attacked by Houthi rebels that it alleges are supported by Iran and Hezbollah.

The breakdown in ties exacerbated Lebanon’s woes, drawing further disdain for Hezbollah while prompting other senior officials like President Aoun and Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati to make desperate attempts to mend relations. Kuwait later put forward a 12-point proposal to repair ties, which included demands for the Lebanese government to implement a United Nations resolution calling for all militias — including Hezbollah — to disarm.

“It was unfair for the Gulf Arabs to make demands on Lebanon because the Hezbollah question goes beyond the ability of the Lebanese government,” said Khashan. “The Lebanese government cannot deal with anything, let alone such a huge issue as Hezbollah.”

Several months later, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait returned their ambassadors to Lebanon even though nothing had changed regarding Hezbollah’s position in government, a move that appeared to indicate just how entrenched the Shia party is in Lebanese politics and society.

The Impact of Elections

While Hezbollah and its allies no longer hold a majority in parliament, its alliance bloc is still the largest, Dagher and other experts note. Critics and some experts also point out that Hezbollah’s weapons could still allow it to pursue its interests through less democratic means, as it did in 2008 when it took over Beirut after the government sought to remove the party’s head of airport security and dismantle its private telecommunications network.

Whether it will resort to such drastic tactics again, however, is unclear. Speaking a few days after the elections, Nasrallah acknowledged the country’s new political reality in one of his usual televised speeches.“What happened is a great victory that we in Hezbollah are proud of,” Nasrallah said, praising voters for casting ballots in the face of sweeping criticism directed toward the party in the run-up to elections. Noting the seriousness of the issues facing the country, he called on all factions to unite and cooperate as the new parliament moves to choose a new speaker and form a new government. “When no one has the majority, this means that everyone is responsible, and no one is allowed to relinquish the responsibility,” he said.

With the ongoing economic collapse and a host of other acute issues facing the country, the most pressing question is whether Lebanon’s sharply divided parliament will be able to reach compromise to enact desperately needed economic reform, or if divisive issues like Hezbollah’s weapons will stir yet another wave of crushing gridlock and violence that will push the country deeper into collapse.

Hunter Williamson

Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He covers the Middle East and Asia.

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