Why power-broker Hezbollah is still rocked by Beirut blast

Why We Wrote This

“With power comes responsibility” sounds like ad copy, but means something in politics. With Lebanese demanding reforms, especially after the port blast, Hezbollah is now tarnished as an insider, even among its rank and file.

Felipe Dana/AP
Anti-government protesters burn a barricade on Aug. 11, 2020, next to a wall installed by security forces to block access to the Parliament building, during a demonstration following the massive explosion that devastated Beirut.

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As Lebanon’s key power-broker, Hezbollah has been widely blamed for its role in the country’s misery. After anti-corruption protests last fall, it was the chief backer of a caretaker government that failed to bring reforms and has now resigned after the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port.

There appear few easy solutions to decades of entrenched sectarian rule. An image of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, was among those hung by a noose by Lebanese protesters furious about the blast. Protesters have for months called for the toppling of the entire political elite, chanting “‘All of them’ means all of them,” in a dig that deliberately includes Hezbollah.

“We are living in the worst chaos ever witnessed in Lebanon. People are accusing Hezbollah more than ever,” says a veteran Hezbollah fighter disillusioned with the Shiite movement.

“Hezbollah has been tarnished,” says Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based fellow at the Atlantic Council. “About 25 years ago they were aloof from the political bosses running the country. They were fighting the Israelis in south Lebanon,” he says. “Now they are associated with a political mafia ... wheeling and dealing with all the others, with their corrupt allies.”

For the veteran Hezbollah fighter, there was one silver lining – but only one – in the massive explosion at Beirut’s port that devastated swathes of the Lebanese capital Aug. 4.

Overnight, the price of an AK-47 assault rifle quadrupled from $200 to $800.

But for the mechanic-turned-gun dealer, that scrap of relatively good news is far outweighed by what the demand for weapons signals about spreading insecurity in Beirut, and the challenge now faced by Hezbollah amid popular demands to reform a corrupt and sectarian ruling system in which the Shiite movement has become deeply entwined.

“We are living in a very, very dangerous time. ... Everybody is buying a gun to protect his family,” says the Hezbollah fighter, a former unit commander in Syria who devoted his life to the Shiite “Party of God.” He survived multiple tours in Syria but has become disillusioned as quality of life for all Lebanese has deteriorated.

Public anger over systemic corruption and incompetence erupted last October in protests nationwide that included traditional Hezbollah strongholds. But even as Beirutis replace windows and doors smashed by the blast – their anger grown even deeper – there appear few easy solutions to decades of entrenched sectarian rule that most recently has been brokered by Hezbollah.

An image of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, was among those hung by a noose by Lebanese protesters furious about the blast and the collapsing state of their nation. Protesters have for months called for the toppling of the entire political elite, chanting “‘All of them’ means all of them,” in a dig that deliberately includes Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s warning

In a speech soon after the blast, Sheikh Nasrallah warned Lebanese not to blame Hezbollah, or it would “start a battle” that the militia would win – and that Lebanese demanding reforms, presumably, would lose.

“We are living in the worst chaos ever witnessed in Lebanon. People are accusing Hezbollah more than ever,” says the veteran fighter, speaking in his cramped workshop in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Many of Iran-backed Hezbollah’s thousands of core fighters no doubt remain devoted to the cause of “resistance” against Israel and against American influence.

But this officer – who is not alone in his disenchantment – refused last fall to return to Syria, where Hezbollah and Iran have helped support President Bashar al-Assad, citing to the Monitor leadership “corruption,” fighting on too many front lines across the Middle East, and a fury that “we drowned with their lies.”

Sharif Karim/Reuters/FIle
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (2nd right), escorted by his bodyguards, greets his supporters at an anti-U.S. protest in Beirut's southern suburbs in Lebanon, Sept. 17, 2012.

Analysts say the Shiite militia had only limited influence at the Beirut port and had no apparent active interest in the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored there that yielded one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, killing nearly 200 people, injuring 6,000, and causing an estimated $15 billion in damage.

But as Lebanon’s key political power-broker, with armed forces more capable than the national army, Hezbollah has been widely blamed for its role in Lebanon’s misery. It was the chief backer of the technocratic caretaker government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which failed to bring reforms and resigned after the blast.

Dwindling now are memories of decades of Hezbollah support for Lebanon’s once-disenfranchised Shiites, through patronage and social services that often outshone government efforts.

“The people who support Hezbollah are tired of Hezbollah because their lifestyle went downhill, because the money lost value, because we went to Syria and lost all those people,” says the fighter, whose Hezbollah salary was recently cut in half, to $300 per month – a fact that he says has “upset many families.”

“People are very frustrated. There are a lot of crimes on the street, robberies and shootings,” adds the fighter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to Hezbollah restrictions on contact with media. “I can guarantee you there is a lot of corruption inside Hezbollah, and Hezbollah became corrupt like those inside the government.”

Now part of the system

The result is that the force in Lebanese politics that once may have been most capable of pushing for revamping the discredited sectarian structure – and imposing the type of financial reform necessary to attract critical Western financial bail-out funds – has itself become a part of it.

“Hezbollah has been tarnished,” says Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel.”

“About 25 years ago they were aloof from the political bosses running the country. They were fighting the Israelis in south Lebanon, they were a much smaller organization,” says Mr. Blanford. “Now they are associated with a political mafia. Now they’re up there backing the government, wheeling and dealing with all the others, with their corrupt allies.”

Sworn followers of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Hezbollah has been instrumental in furthering Iran’s regional reach on the front lines of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and beyond.

A United Nations-backed tribunal last week convicted a Hezbollah operative for his role in the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a car bomb, but cleared three other Hezbollah suspects, and the leadership of Hezbollah and Syria, citing lack of evidence.

After the assassination, which led to protests and the departure of Syrian troops after 40 years, Hezbollah “inched themselves deeper and deeper into the morass of Lebanese politics,” says Mr. Blanford.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP/File
Hezbollah militants stand at attention during a memorial service for Hezbollah's assassinated top commander Imad Mughniyeh in his home village of Tair Debba, south Lebanon, Feb. 17, 2008.

Just as Hezbollah is often described as a “state within a state” that has its own global network, the militia is beset now by a crisis within Lebanon’s national crisis.

“I don’t think Hezbollah has an issue per se with reforms, so long as it doesn’t affect their ‘resistance priority’ and their core interests,” says Mr. Blanford. But for their domestic allies, the reforms demanded by Western governments and global lenders are “existential” because “the political mafia here would lose their stranglehold on the state’s coffers.”

If Hezbollah pushed for the reforms, it might break apart its system of alliances, he says.

Blaming outsiders

Still, the war in Syria is largely over, so Hezbollah’s need to control the Beirut airport and use the port is likely to be less, and the blast itself has created a new dynamic, says Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“I think there is wiggle room for them to accept a more restricted role, provided that they don’t feel directly threatened,” Mr. Salem told a recent webinar for the Carnegie Middle East Center. “But we have to stand up and say, ‘The country is dying, this kind of injection of a group allied to a foreign power – we get it, we cannot remove it – but its takeover of the state has killed the state, killed the economy. It’s in no one’s interest.’ … There’s got to be a new deal.”

Sheikh Nasrallah has warned that Israel would “pay an equal price” if Hezbollah’s archenemy were found responsible for the Beirut blast. No evidence has been found suggesting an Israeli role, and Hezbollah has instead found itself rejecting rumors – equally unsupported, so far – that it had stored weapons or been responsible for the stockpiled ammonium nitrate at the port.

That doesn’t wash with this Hezbollah fighter, who says he is tired of hearing outsiders blamed for Lebanon’s problems.

“You can’t tell me, ‘Everything that happens, blame Israel, blame Israel,’” says the fighter, who wears jeans and a black T-shirt in his workshop, not the camouflage gear he favored months ago.

He says Sheikh Nasrallah’s speeches these days “make no sense.” The bar is high to make a case for continued resistance, since Hezbollah has not fought a major battle with Israel in 14 years, and Israeli troops withdrew from Lebanon almost entirely two decades ago.

“My son is supposed to go to Syria. I prevented him from going,” says the fighter. “We are tired of [Hezbollah]. We felt betrayed by the party. We are fighting for a better country, not to destroy it.”

Which is why support for Hezbollah is dwindling, he says, even among the rank and file, who have seen the Lebanese currency lose two-thirds of its value since last fall and now are grappling with surging insecurity and crime.

“There is no money. ... If people want to buy milk for their kids, they can’t,” says the stocky veteran fighter. “If we stay at the same pace, we are going for starvation. ... Because of all the sanctions, Hezbollah is [also] barely eating right now.”

A translator in Beirut facilitated reporting.

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