How did Hezbollah use Lebanon’s crisis to increase its popularity?

Since Lebanon’s new government was finally formed at the end of January this year, it became more than clear that the controversial Iran-backed Hezbollah group will have an even greater role on the country’s political scene.

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The 8-month deadlock after last year’s elections in Lebanon saw the only armed political party Hezbollah strengthening its positions by putting an immense pressure on prime minister Saad Hariri to include more of its allied political parties with ministerial seats. The results of the elections confirmed the significant gains Hezbollah has made lately, considering the political turmoil in the country during the last decade. Thanks to its alliances strategy, the Shiite formation not only achieved to secure more than the “obstructionist third” in parliament, allowing it to obtain the veto power, but it also got to pick the health minister. By doing so it gained control over the ministry with the fourth-biggest budget.

Hezbollah moving beyond the marginal role it played in past governments was not a lucky coincidence, it was the result of years of well-planned preparations for a moment like this one. There were many factors which lead to the best occasion for the armed group to rise as a political power on the current scene in Lebanon. One of the major reasons is that the country never saw a period of stability, mostly due to the fact that the main political figures now are the same people who draw the country into a catastrophe while trying to liquidate each other during the 15 years of civil war.

The same names have been governing the country for the last 30 years and that didn’t help bring the political change the country so desperately needs.

Last year’s elections were the first in almost 10 years. Since 2009, the Lebanese have watched their government collapse twice – in 2011 and 2013 – the presidency sat vacant for 29 months – from 2014 to 2016 – and their parliament extended its mandate several times. The chaos in the parliament was remarkably projected into chaos in the lives of regular citizens. The country has chronic power cuts, a rubbish management crisis, water collection and distribution challenges, environmental degradations and rampant corruption. The disappointment by the political crisis and the weakness of the ruling parties gave a convenient platform for Hezbollah to advance as the party of the ignored and unheard voices.

This is a role Hezbollah is very familiar with since it emerged exactly like this kind of a party in the 80s, acting as the defender of the underrepresented Shia population of Lebanon then.

Not only the populist rhetoric helped Hezbollah achieve that but also its financial independence. The armed group/political organization is receiving most of its assets from outside of the country – Iran, which makes it the only party unaffected by the economic crisis inside Lebanon. Thanks to that, Hezbollah has the resources to provide the populations with things that other organizations can’t, such as jobs.

“Unemployment has become very high in Baalbek (a Lebanese city near the frontier with Syria), and the young people can’t find work. So the alternative to finding work is to join Hezbollah for $400 a month, and go off and fight somewhere. … And then he comes back in a box, as a martyr.”, explains Ghaleb Yaghi, former mayor of Baalbek who ran against Hezbollah in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections.

During the elections’ campaign, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly highlighted his party’s intentions to keep this practice but in order to do so, it was “obvious” they needed a greater access to Lebanon’s budget. That’s why the thing its supporters were supposed to do was help Hezbollah gain a bigger role in the parliament. To Hezbollah, it is the best way to provide services for its base through state resources, and this goal was finally achieved with three ministers in the government and some more allies.

The civil war in Syria is another factor that contributed to Hezbollah’s popularity during the elections.

The conflict in the neighboring country presented a realistic threat to Lebanon’s sovereignty. When Hezbollah intervened in Syria in 2013, its primary aim was to maintain stability in the region as it fought what it perceived to be an existential war next door. Being the only militia that was allowed to keep its weapons after the 1975-90 civil war, the Shiite movement’s armed strength is still seen by many as the only true protection of the country from its enemies. There is also a general perception that the party has played a role in protecting Lebanon against ISIL (similarly to Shia militias in Iraq), a factor that made Christians less hostile to Hezbollah, assuring important support from them at the elections.

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But actually the real reason behind Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was the threat that was posed to the established by the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis status quo in the region. It is difficult to imagine Hassan Nasrallah abandoning his regional role, which would affect his relations with key Iranian benefactors. The feared overthrow of the Assad government, by potentially cutting off this assistance, could have weakened Hezbollah in Lebanon and the wider region, perhaps decisively. Such an outcome may have forced the party to adapt to a future without its weapons if the main route for them from Iran through Syria is closed.

If Hezbollah loses its weapons, it will also lose its image of Lebanon’s only resistance to the “constant threat” from Israel, a position which is one of the reasons for Hezbollah’s support from its traditional electorate.

Speaking about Israel, it is worth mentioning the fact that Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the city as Israel’s capital was another winning factor for Hezbollah’s rhetoric. After the Lebanese civil war, the US support for Israel is not very well perceived by the majority of Lebanese people who still see their non-Arab neighbor as the main enemy of their country. This is mostly due to the fact that Israel, together with Syria, occupied significant parts of the country and played a notable role in deepening the conflict. That is why in Lebanon any external interference or support for Israel is seen as a hostile move that highlights the importance of Hezbollah as a guardian of Lebanon‘s national interest.

On the other hand, any sway of Lebanese politicians toward foreign influence can be played very bad against them. That is what happened with Saad Hariri, who is being supported by the “West”. His incapability to balance his politics between the local and the foreign interests was the main reason for his party, Future Movement (FM), to suffer great losses at the parliamentary elections. And despite Hezbollah being backed by another foreign factor – Iran, as the main opposition of the FM, the Shia organization only won because of its rival’s weakness.

With all that said, indeed, the most important factor in Hezbollah’s victory, though, was growing sectarian rhetoric.

As the war in Syria draws down, Hezbollah was able to move its focus back to the local scene, reemerging as the only true protector of the Shia. Following Iran’s example in Iraq, “they аre using the sectarian card, they аre trying to bring all the Shia together to follow them,” added Ghaleb Yaghi when discussing Hezbollah’s undisputable role in his country with The Atlantic. Hezbollah understands well, that without a strong domestic front, it cannot advance its regional agenda. That is why the party has made everything possible to keep its dominance over the Shia population. The few independent Shiite candidates running against Hezbollah in the group’s southern Lebanese heartland last year complained of systemic harassment and intimidation by the group. A prominent Shiite journalist-candidate made the national headlines when he was beaten up by “Hezbollah thugs”.

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However, with its new bigger role in Lebanon’s politics, Hezbollah will be once and for all challenged to prove its allegiance to the Lebanese citizens putting them before Iran’s interests in the region. To tell the truth, the expectations for that to happen are not very high, since the party so far has been too consumed with fighting wars across the Middle East to develop a strategy for improving the lives of citizens. It’s more probably that Hezbollah will keep following the bad example of its “master”, Iran’s regime, and invest in wars and terrorist activities in the region instead of answering the needs of the struggling nation.

That’s the reason over half the Lebanese people reject Hezbollah and are now turning toward more dogmatic parties hoping they will finally bring stability and save Lebanon from foreign meddling – top priorities in a country that is still seeing the scars of an externally assisted civil war.