UN­DER PRES­SURE FROM WITHIN AND WITHOUT, THE MIL­I­TANTS OF HEZBOL­LAH NOW FACE A TOUGH CHOICE

▶ Los­ing pop­u­lar­ity among its sup­port base, the group is fall­ing back on its his­tory of fight­ing Is­rael

The National - News - - NEWS - AYA ISKANDARAN­I Anal­y­sis

Sup­port­ers of Hezbol­lah, which has tra­di­tion­ally been shielded from much of the crit­i­cism directed to­wards Le­banon’s po­lit­i­cal elite, are be­gin­ning to ques­tion their al­le­giances.

De­spite com­ing to­gether against sec­tar­i­an­ism and cor­rup­tion, pro­test­ers who sym­pa­thise with Hezbol­lah are di­vided as to the group’s role in a fu­ture civil state. They want to see the end of cor­rup­tion and sec­tar­i­an­ism in Le­banon, yet they see the Shi­ite group as an es­sen­tial bul­wark against Is­raeli in­cur­sions.

Nader Dergham, a for­mer Hezbol­lah sup­porter turned civil rights ac­tivist, told The Na­tional that the group is faced with a tough choice as pro­test­ers refuse to back down: be­tray Le­banon, which would in­volve a bloody con­fronta­tion with demon­stra­tors, or fall in line with pro­test­ers’ de­mands and be­tray Iran.

Mr Dergham said a men­tal shift is tak­ing place as Le­banese peo­ple from all sects de­mand that their coun­try – rather than the party they sup­port – looks out for their in­ter­ests.

This makes it more dif­fi­cult for Hezbol­lah to use force against voices of dis­sent without risk­ing the back­ing of its sup­port­ers.

Le­banon is one of the world’s most in­debted coun­tries. Over the past decade, its cit­i­zens have ex­pe­ri­enced fall­ing stan­dards of liv­ing, high un­em­ploy­ment and a lack of the most ba­sic pub­lic ser­vices. At the source of their dis­con­tent lies a deeply en­trenched sec­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that has failed to pro­vide solutions to the coun­try’s woes for the past three decades.

Pro­test­ers want to see the end of cor­rup­tion and sec­tar­i­an­ism in Le­banon, but the rul­ing class does not want to en­dure the col­lapse of a sys­tem that has en­riched it for decades. If the pub­lic ceases to be afraid of the ag­gres­sion of Hezbol­lah’s well-armed mili­tia, the old guard will find it­self in a vul­ner­a­ble po­si­tion and dis­sent­ing voices in the move­ment’s sup­port base will play a piv­otal role in the shap­ing of a new Le­banese iden­tity and pol­i­tics.

Af­ter Hezbol­lah’s sec­re­tary gen­eral, Has­san Nas­ral­lah, in­structed his sup­port­ers not to take to the streets in a tele­vised ad­dress last month, many have steered clear of the protests. The pub­lic spa­ces of Beirut’s south­ern sub­urbs, where the group has its head­quar­ters, have stayed calm.

But Nas­ral­lah’s in­struc­tions have not stopped sup­port­ers from tak­ing to the streets of Shi­ite-ma­jor­ity cities, in­clud­ing Baal­beck, Tyre and Na­batieh, to call for change. How­ever, many say that they will not fully with­draw their sup­port from the group.

Beirut pro­tester Reem Haidar, whose tat­toos, un­cov­ered hair and out­spo­ken na­ture make her an un­con­ven­tional Hezbol­lah sup­porter, said that she saw join­ing the demon­stra­tions as a duty to her coun­try.

“Hezbol­lah is now part of a cor­rupt gov­ern­ment and is par­tic­i­pat­ing in that cor­rup­tion, whether di­rectly or in­di­rectly, by cov­er­ing up for their al­lies,” she said.

“If I wasn’t on the streets to­day, I know that on judg­ment day God will ask me what I was do­ing. He will ask me why I did not stand up to op­pres­sion and in­jus­tice.”

Ms Haidar said Hezbol­lah is part of a po­lit­i­cal class she wants to see gone, yet she still con­sid­ers its role as a re­sis­tance move­ment against Is­rael sa­cred.

Al­though the group is con­sid­ered a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion by the US and Arab League, many Le­banese peo­ple see it as hav­ing lib­er­ated the coun­try from Is­rael in 2000.

Sami, a Hezbol­lah sup­porter and in­te­rior de­signer from Tyre, whose name has been changed for se­cu­rity rea­sons, said he recog­nises the party’s cor­rup­tion, but be­lieves that

the might of its mil­i­tary wing eclipses the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the Le­banese army and so is nec­es­sary to pro­tect the na­tion.

“As a south­erner, I can­not ask for Hezbol­lah to lay down their weapons,” he said.

“They are the ones who lib­er­ated and de­fended the south. I do not join other pro­test­ers in this de­mand be­cause if Hezbol­lah is no longer armed, war will surely erupt.

“ISIS will come at us from the north and Is­rael will in­vade us from the south. It will be World

War Three, with Rus­sia and Iran bat­tling the US on Le­banese soil.”

His words echo the dooms­day sce­nar­ios that have fea­tured in Nas­ral­lah’s speeches since the protests first broke out. The Hezbol­lah leader has ac­cused for­eign pow­ers of fund­ing pro­test­ers to wreak havoc in the coun­try.

Sim­i­lar con­spir­acy the­o­ries have spread widely on­line, bring­ing fear to com­mu­ni­ties still haunted by mem­o­ries of the na­tion’s 1975 to 1990 civil war, when Le­banese mili­tias acted as prox­ies for re­gional pow­ers.

While such rhetoric is of­ten dis­sem­i­nated on pro-Hezbol­lah me­dia, it is now be­ing chal­lenged from within as at least five jour­nal­ists from Al Akhbar news­pa­per have re­signed since the start of the protests, in­clud­ing co-founder Mo­hamed Zbeeb.

In a Face­book post pub­lished on Novem­ber 1, for­mer Al

Akhbar jour­nal­ist Joy Slim an­nounced her de­ci­sion to quit the pa­per, at­tribut­ing it to “dis­ap­point­ment in the news cov­er­age of the rev­o­lu­tion”. She said the news­pa­per had joined the ranks of the “counter-rev­o­lu­tion” and has spread lies and con­spir­a­cies about the protest move­ment.

Hezbol­lah has not been re­spon­si­ble for any deaths dur­ing the un­rest. How­ever, its fol­low­ers have at­tacked peo­ple on the streets – on Oc­to­ber 29, a mob ran­sacked en­camp­ments and beat up demon­stra­tors in down­town Beirut while the over­whelmed Le­banese se­cu­rity forces stood by.

The army’s role has been piv­otal to keep­ing Hezbol­lah from more vi­o­lence. But as pro­test­ers con­tinue to take to the streets, and Hezbol­lah’s dom­i­nance con­tin­ues to be chal­lenged from within, there are fears that more clashes will erupt.

AFP

Le­banon’s protests have crossed all sec­tions of the coun­try’s di­verse so­ci­ety

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