Hezbollah can only be removed from Lebanon’s politics at the grassroots

Hezbollah can only be removed from Lebanon’s politics at the grassroots

Hezbollah is a part of Lebanon’s political process, and, like all other Lebanese parties, it freely and openly ran in the country’s first parliamentary elections in nine years, winning almost all seats it was contesting. However, for U.S. policymakers, acknowledging Hezbollah’s place in the Lebanon’s political pantheon cannot mean accepting it. Instead, it must serve as a basis to understand and reverse the source of the Shiite group’s political power: not its arms, but its popular support. 

Since its inception, Hezbollah has considered popular and grassroots support — “the interaction of the masses with a party,” in the words of its 1985 Open Letter — more important than even military gains or controlling territory. It therefore rejects the traditional closed-party format in favor of a populist mass party model, a broad “nation of Hezbollah” where everyone has a role in the various levels of the group’s activity.

Hezbollah wanted as broad a support base as possible, and therefore rejects imposing either religious observance or its Iranian-modeled theocracy by force. Doing so would have confined the group to Lebanon’s relatively few religiously and ideologically committed Shiites, who now form the hardcore of its membership, but a minority of its supporters. For the meantime, the group is content with cultivating soft support by offering its dependents a better-quality version of the Lebanese state’s services. In the wake of Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from south Lebanon, for example, Hezbollah outpaced the Lebanese government in providing essential social and security services to the area’s residents, festooning the region with its flags and symbols for good measure.

Through these mundane benefits, Hezbollah aims to showcase the superiority of its system, and draw its secular supporters into deeper religious and ideological commitment. In the long run, Hezbollah hopes this method of “preaching through deeds” will convince the overwhelming majority of Lebanese to willingly wholly replace the secular Lebanese system with its own.

In the meantime, however, these “soft supporters” insulate the group and its arms from hostile action, either from unfriendly Lebanese governments or political opponents. Hezbollah thus forces its opponents to concede to its demands, since confrontation would not merely be a clash with its armed cadres, but also a sizeable portion of Shiite Lebanon which views the group as their sole protector and provider. 

This broad support attracts political allies to Hezbollah, even Christian groups like the Free Patriotic Movement which share neither its ideology nor end goals. Through this alliance and others, Hezbollah punches above its relatively small governmental representation, projecting outsize influence over Lebanon’s decision-making.

With this outsized political heft, Hezbollah obstructs the Lebanese government, preventing it from siphoning away its followers through competing initiatives. The group then uses artificially created failures to further its narrative of and inherently broken secular Lebanese republic, as it did with Beirut's trash crisis and the two-year presidential vacuum preceding the election of its preferred candidate Michel Aoun. Both situations ended in a win-win for Hezbollah: It forced its opponents to adopt its preferred course of action and, for as long as each crisis lasted, it eroded the public’s trust in the Lebanese republic. 

However, Hezbollah’s popular support — based as it is largely on financial incentives rather than deep ideological or religious commitment — is also its Achilles’ Heel. In fact, nothing terrifies the vaunted Party of God more than Shiite dissent. It realizes that, as an Islamist group, it is not the natural choice for the largely secular Shiite Lebanese, and criticism could spread to loss of support.

Hezbollah demonstrated its fear of dissent with its forceful reaction last October to unprecedented criticism from destitute Shiite shopkeepers in Hay al-Sullom, a neighborhood in its southern Beirut stronghold. The shopkeepers attacked Hezbollah on national television for inspiring a slum clearance and redevelopment project that deprived them of their meager livelihoods. This criticism cut to the heart of Hezbollah’s carefully-crafted image as the caretaker of the traditionally downtrodden Shiite community.

In response, Hezbollah brought down the full weight of its vast apparatus — even apparently exploiting the Lebanese legal system — to silence the shopkeepers. In the end, the intimidated merchants buckled under the group’s weight. All lined up for staged photo ops apologizing for offending and opposing the party.

More recently, Hezbollah sought to intimidate and discredit Shiite competitors in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections. It reportedly framed Sheikh Abbas al-Jawhari — an anti-Hezbollah Shiite cleric — for drug possession to force him out of the competition, and gunmen later fired on his car. Shortly after, a group of thugs attacked Ali al-Amine, the Shiite editor-in-chief of Janoubia — a news site critical of Hezbollah — running for election in south Lebanon.

Hezbollah didn’t enter Lebanon’s government by force. It was democratically elected by a sizeable portion of Lebanese Shiites, a legitimate constituency who lacked any alternative credible care-giver to secure their legitimate needs. This peaceful grassroots takeover is actually more dangerous than an armed coup. Toppling the secular Lebanese republic by force would, at least, leave some opposition behind. Instead, Hezbollah intends to eventually destroy the system organically through a thousand small paper cuts, with the enthusiastic support of all Lebanese, not just Shiites.

Absent its popular base, Hezbollah will lack this democratic means to subsume and eventually replace the Lebanese state, reverting it to a finite armed group. Its disappearance from the Lebanese political scene will then be a matter of time. 

David Daoud is a research analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).