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