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memri
December 3, 2019 No.
1492

Lebanese Protests Place Hizbullah In A Bind – Part I: Hizbullah's Hostility To The Protests And The Reasons Behind It

Introduction

The mass protests in Lebanon over the economic crisis and government corruption, which broke out in October 17, 2019, have placed Hizbullah in a difficult position, because the organization, which for years has been presenting itself as the defender of the oppressed and fighter of corruption, is now an integral part of the government. Hizbullah initially tried to contain the protests, taking a very cautious position regarding them and expressing sympathy for the demonstrators rather than attacking them. This was evident in Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah's speech on October 19,[1] and in statements by other Hizbullah officials.

Hizbullah maintained this cautious line for some ten days, apparently in hope that the protests would abate. However, when this failed to occur, the organization changed tack. In a speech he delivered on October 25, Nasrallah presented three No's: no to deposing the president, no to deposing the government and no to holding  early parliamentary elections, thus effectively rejecting the protesters' three main demands. Nasrallah also claimed that the protests – in which several hundred thousand and perhaps even millions of people have participated, from every part of the country and from all social sectors – are neither authentic nor spontaneous, but are funded by foreign intelligence apparatuses and embassies. He called on the Lebanese not to attend the demonstrations, and urged the protesters to stop blocking roads and allow the country to go back to normal, warning against a possible slide into "chaos."[2]

Since delivering this speech, Hizbullah, by means of its officials and media, has continued to spread the narrative that the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia are encouraging the protests and even controlling them in order to sow chaos in Lebanon and topple its government, in which Hizbullah is a member, and in order to incite against this organization and its weapons. Things came to a point where, on several occasions, Hizbullah activists violently attacked protesters on the streets.

In the past week, the demonstrations have taken a more violent turn, with clashes breaking out between the supporters of rival parties, resulting in the death of two people and the wounding of dozens.[3] In addition, Hizbullah has begun coming out against the protesters for blocking roads, describing them as "militias of chaos" that are driving the country to civil war, and accusing all those who call for the establishment of a government of technocrats of succumbing to U.S. dictates.[4]

This report describes the bind in which Hizbullah finds itself since the outbreak of the protests, and the reasons for its hostile position towards them.

 


Mass protest in Lebanon (Source: lebanon24.com, November 11, 2019)

Hizbullah's Difficult Position And The Reason For Its Hostility Towards The Protests

From the very start, the protests in Lebanon created a problem for Hizbullah that made it difficult for the organization to determine its position on them. Having presented itself as a the champion of the undertrodden and standard bearer of the fight against corruption, especially since the May 2018 parliamentary election, the organization felt the need to express solidarity with the demonstrators, who were protesting the difficult economic situation and demanding to punish corruption and restore stolen public funds. Moreover, the Shi'ites in South Lebanon have taken part in the protests, and demonstrations were held even in strongholds of Hizbullah and its Shi'ite ally, Amal, such as Al-Nabatieh and Tyre. The Shi'ite support for the protests and their demands is another factor that makes it difficult for Hizbullah to oppose them.

However, once it realized that many of the demonstrators' demands – specifically the demands for the resignation of the president and government and the holding of early parliamentary elections – threatened the organization's interests and the stability of the government, of which it is a central component, Hizbullah changed its attitude and began attacking the protests.

Hizbullah has several reasons to oppose the current wave of protests:

1. The organization dominates the current parliament and government, and is therefore uninterested in early parliamentary elections

In the May 2018 parliamentary election, the May 8 Forces, comprising Hizbullah and its allies, won the majority of seats. These results are also reflected in the makeup of the government, in which Hizbullah's faction – which also includes the Shi'ite Amal movement and the Free National Current led by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil – has 18 ministers, as opposed to only 11 ministers from the rival March 14 Forces and one minister who is considered independent. Controlling nearly two thirds of the government ministries is the major achievement of the March 8 Forces, which allows it to veto any decision it opposes. Another achievement is that, despite American opposition, Hizbullah received the large-budget health portfolio, with Jamil Jabaq, formerly Nasrallah's personal physician, serving as minister of health. Yet another achievement was the appointment of Elias Bou Sa'ab, who has been criticized as "identifying with Hizbullah," as defense minister.[5] Hizbullah is therefore uninterested in early parliamentary elections, which may cause it to lose these achievements.

2. Hizbullah fears the ouster of President 'Aoun, Foreign Minister Bassil and Prime Minister Al-Hariri, Who Back ItThe political arrangement that lasted for several years, until the outbreak of the protests, whereby Michel 'Aoun, a Christian, is president and the Sa'd Al-Hariri, a Sunni who is considered a rival of Hizbullah, is prime minister, actually benefited Hizbullah. In fact, this may be the optimal arrangement, as far as Hizbullah is concerned. President 'Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, head of the Free National Current, which is the largest party in parliament, are both allies of Hizbullah. These two figures lend the organization absolute support, backing its decisions and granting it freedom of action – both in the domestic arena and in the international diplomatic arena vis-à-vis the U.S., which has imposed sanctions on Hizbullah for its terrorist activity. 'Aoun and Bassil, both of whom are Maronite Christians, effectively serve as a Christian "fig leaf" for Hizbullah and its actions.

Paradoxically, the appointment of Al-Hariri, considered to be a rival of Hizbullah, as prime minister likewise worked in this organization's favor. Regarded by the international community as an experienced and moderate statesman, Al-Hariri lent the Lebanese government a fairer guise, blurring the reality whereby Hizbullah effectively controls the country and imposes its position in nearly all matters. Al-Hariri thus served as the address for any complaint by the international community, and enabled the international community to continue cooperating with Lebanon, signing agreements with it, and extending aid to it.

Moreover, if in the past Al-Hariri was a vociferous opponent of Hizbullah and expressed harsh criticism of it, in the past few years he has allowed this organization to do as it pleased in the domestic and international arenas, and mostly refrained from speaking out against it. Given this state of affairs, Hizbullah clearly has no interest in placing one of its allies in the role of prime minister, for this would only make trouble for it and attract criticism, making it easier for the international community to take a firm position vis-à-vis Hizbullah and Lebanon as a whole.   

3. Hizbullah fears it will be held responsible for the economic crisis in Lebanon due to the sanctions imposed on it

The protests in Lebanon were sparked by the government's intention to raise taxes despite the severe economic crisis in the country, including by taxing WhatsApp calls, a move that enraged many. Although the protests span all of Lebanese society and are not confined to any particular sector, many are convinced that Hizbullah bears much of the responsibility for the economic crisis, due to the U.S. sanctions on it. The crisis has grown even worse since the U.S. increased these sanctions, imposing them on more and more of the organization's officials and institutions, and on Lebanese banks, and even threatening to extend them Hizbullah's allies, such as Foreign Minister Bassil.

The most prominent expression of the crisis is a mammoth national debt of $100 billion (almost twice Lebanon's gross domestic product), which has forced the Lebanese government to enact radical measures and reforms, in order to qualify for the $11 billion international aid package pledged to Lebanon at the April 2016 Cedar Conference in France. Furthermore, in the weeks before the outbreak of the protests, the Lebanese pound plummeted and the market suffered a dollar shortage, which further destabilized the local economy.

In fact, even before the protests broke out, many accused Hizbullah of causing the economic crisis and driving Lebanon towards economic collapse through its activity in the service of Iran.[6] Thus, Hizbullah's opposition to the protests may also stem from its fear that they could generate further accusations of this sort, and could spark a debate on its status and the status of its weapons, and about its terrorist activity around the world which causes sanctions to be imposed on it and on Lebanon.

4. The protests have an anti-Iran dimension

Another reason, perhaps the main one, for Hizbullah's position is that the protests have an anti-Iran dimension. This aspect is hardly visible in the demonstrations themselves, but it is occasionally evident in articles by Lebanese journalists.[7] Furthermore, the wave of protest in Lebanon is concurrent with the one in Iraq, in which opposition to Iran's involvement in the country is openly expressed. This similarity between the protests in Lebanon and Iraq has been noted by many Arab journalists and analysts. Iran itself, Hizbullah's patron, regards the protests in both Lebanon and Iraq as an American conspiracy aimed at eroding its influence in these countries, as its officials have claimed, and it is reportedly even acting to stop them. It appears that Iran's position on the protests largely dictated that of its proxy Hizbullah. 

5. Shi'ites participate in the protests while criticizing Hizbullah and Amal

As stated, the protests have surprisingly involved even the Shi'ites of South Lebanon, who took to the streets voicing the same slogans and demands as the demonstrators in the rest of the country. Protests were held even in villages and cities where Hizbullah and Amal – Lebanon's second Shi'ite party, headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri – are dominant, such as Al-Nabatieh and Tyre. According to some reports, Hizbullah and Amal were surprised by the scope and violence of the protests in these areas. In Al-Nabatieh, dozens of demonstrators called out "Nabih Berri is a thief," and some attacked the offices of the municipality, which is associated with Hizbullah.[8] Dozens of protesters also came to the office of the chairman of Hizbullah's faction in parliament, Muhammad Ra'ad, and shattered the sign at the entrance, shouting, "The people want to topple the regime." Furthermore, protesters came to the home of Amal MP Yassine Jaber and burned a sign bearing his name,  and protesters also vandalized the office of Amal MP and political bureau member Hani Qobeisi.[9] In Bint Jbeil, a demonstration was held in front of the office of Hizbullah MP Hassan Fadlallah.[10] In Tyre, protesters torched a guest house belonging to Nabih Berri's wife, Randa Berri.[11]

Hizbullah presumably realized that the participation of the Shi'ite public in the protests, and the accusations of corruption made against it and against its ally Amal, may decrease its popularity among this public, which is its natural support base. Nasrallah therefore called on the supporters of the resistance not to participate in the protests, which indeed led to a significant decrease in their scope.  

 

It appears that all these factors, together, are behind Hizbullah's decision to oppose the protests and claim that they are funded by foreign elements hostile to the Lebanese state. Things came to the point where, on several occasions, Hizbullah and Amal activists on motorcycles arrived at the scene of demonstrations – especially in Shi'ite-dominated areas but also in Beirut – and tried to forcefully open the roads that the protesters had blocked.

 

*H. Varulkar is director of research at MEMRI; C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

 

[1] Alahednews.com.lb, October 19, 2019.

[2] Alahednews.com.lb, October 25, 2019.

[3] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 25, 2019; elnashra.com, November 27, 2019; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 27, 2019; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 27, 2019.

[4] Alahednews.com.lb, November 25, 27, 2019; almodon.com, November 25, 2019.

[7] See Al-Arab (London), November 17, 2019; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 22, 2019, November 12, 2019.

[8] Twitter.com/lebreine, October 18, 2019.

[9] Alarabiya.net, October 18, 2019.

[10] Alarabiya.net, elnashra.com, October 18, 2019.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 20, 2019.