Lebanese political opposition faces intimidation in Hezbollah-controlled South

Supporters of candidates running in the upcoming parliamentary assaulted near Sarafand

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Gunshots and violence in Lebanon’s South brought into sharp relief the danger facing opposition candidates last week. Canvassers, who hope to gain some seats in the region for the first time in postwar Lebanon, say they feel unsafe ahead of an upcoming parliamentary election scheduled on May 15.

Lebanese opposition candidates, including university professors, a surgeon and an Arabic teacher, had planned to gather with their supporters near the southern town of Sarafand on Saturday.

They had rented a restaurant – people are fasting because of Ramadan – down a side road off a coastal highway to officially launch their electoral list.

Nearly three years into its worst-ever economic crisis, the country is in deep turmoil, and the opposition hopes to gain a record number of seats in Parliament.

Opposition politicians had organised meetings in the same restaurant in the past few weeks without facing any problems. But this time, about an hour before the launch, a group of men gathered at the entrance of the road that leads down to the restaurant. They reportedly hit a cameraman, a DJ and a person there to set up the Lebanese flag.

They let a small number of attendees, including The National staff, enter the restaurant. But the mood soured again. Witnesses say that men attacked their cars and barred dozens of people in buses from joining the rally.

A dozen men homed in on two others as they walked down the side road, beating one to the ground. They escaped, bleeding and covered in scratches, before their attackers pelted the restaurant with rocks.

Those who could not make it waited beside the highway as the army tried to negotiate their access.

Among them was candidate Hisham Hayek. As he peered down past scrubby bushes to see what was happening, a man wearing a black T-shirt and jeans shot live fire towards him twice in quick succession, said Dr Hayek, a surgeon. No one was hurt.

A widely circulated video of the incident shows soldiers pushing the shooter away.

For a long time, the two beaten up young men, in their early twenties, sat under a tree, in shock. Fadia, a friend who had her phone ripped off her while trying to film the incident, watched over them. “They told us we couldn’t enter. I told them: Who are you to tell me I can’t?” she recalled.

Opposition members view the incident as proof that they are popular enough to cause worry among what is known as Lebanon’s powerful “Shiite duo”: Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally Amal, headed by Nabih Berri, who has been Parliament speaker since 1992.

Both parties pushed back against nationwide protests triggered by the country’s economic meltdown in late 2019. In the constituency of South 2, they are running together on a list that includes prominent MPs from both camps, including Mr Berri.

Irking parties in power is in itself is a victory for opposition candidates, who know they have little chance of winning more than one seat out of the seven in South 2. If they do, the most likely winner would be Dr Hayek, a Roman Catholic Christian who is running for the only non-Shiite seat.

Across Lebanon, all candidates, even those advocating for a secular state, must run on a seat belonging to their religious group due to the country’s sectarian-power sharing system. “We are a source of danger that they want to eliminate,” said Dr Hayek. “They don’t want us to open people’s eyes. We want a country in which citizens are equals and obtain their rights.”

In private, all those inside the restaurant on Saturday accused their attackers of belonging to Amal. One of the men blocking the restaurant’s entrance said that he opposed anyone against Mr Berri, but stopped talking when an older man shushed him. Amal later denied any involvement.

I’m very worried for the safety of those who will dare vote against the system
Candidate Hisham Hayek

Violence against opposition candidates is not exclusive to south Lebanon. The National recently reported on similar incidents in Beirut.

But south Lebanon is under more scrutiny because Hezbollah and Amal claim to represent all of its majority-Shiite population, yet try to muzzle dissenting voices. The region is Hezbollah’s historic heartland and where it built its reputation fighting Israel’s 1985-2000 occupation.

“If just a handful of opposition candidates make it to Parliament, that would represent a crack in their grip on the region,” said Naji Abou Khalil, political director of secular opposition party the National Bloc.

Branded as traitors

While Dr Hayek waited on the highway on Saturday, those who had made it inside gave speeches in which they accused political parties of trying to terrorise the local population. “We are not allowed to have free speech in this region,” Shiite candidate Ali Khalifeh told The National. “It’s really sad.”

Hezbollah routinely attempts to discredit its opposition as working for Israel, with which Lebanon is still technically at war.

While criticism of Amal is common, opposition figures have to navigate a fine line between not directly attacking Hezbollah’s so-called historic “resistance” to Israel while also questioning their economic and social choices since they joined the government in 2005.

“They fought to free the country and now they are into the whole political game, which is corruption,” said independent Shiite candidate Hatem Halawi, a university professor in computer sciences from the southern city of Tyre.

The World Bank has described Lebanon as suffering from possibly one of the top three most severe economic collapses worldwide since the 1850s, which it described as “orchestrated by the country’s elite that has long captured the state and lived off its economic rents”.

Mr Halawi, 42, was cautious when talking about Hezbollah’s controversial arsenal – the party was the only one to keep its weapons at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war so that it could fight the Israeli occupation. “If you want to be against the weapons of Hezbollah, you have to bring an alternative. A country, an army that can protect us,” he said.

“We need to build a discourse that gives courage to people,” said Ali Mourad, a Shiite candidate in the neighbouring district of South 3 who belongs to a secular political party borne from the 2019 protests called the October 17 Commune.

“When Hezbollah said that the elections was their political July war, that means that everybody against them are traitors,” said Mr Mourad, referring to a speech by a top Hezbollah official in February in which he compared the upcoming parliamentary election to the brief 2006 war that pitted the group against Israel.

Mr Mourad, a 41-year-old law professor at the Arab University of Beirut, accused Hezbollah, alongside other sectarian political parties, of weakening the state while simultaneously claiming that they support a strong state to defend the country.

“It’s trying to evade its responsibilities. Public policies in the South have been a disaster. They ran clientelistic networks, built schools and hospitals that we don’t need, and oversaw vast thefts of public land,” said Mr Mourad.

Hezbollah’s media office did not respond to a request to interview the party’s candidates in the South. The group is labelled a terrorist organisation by several western countries, including the US.

No arrests, no accountability

Along with Amal, Hezbollah remains the most visible political party along roads and highways in South Lebanon. Hezbollah candidates’ yellow banners, with bold sentences reading: “We remain, we protect and build”, alternate with enlarged portraits of Mr Berri, Amal’s 84-year-old leader.

When Saturday’s meeting near Sarafand ended, attendees left by car by a back road. The army, which had deployed at least 15 military trucks, escorted those who exited on foot. Mr Khalifeh walked quickly through the crowd that minutes ago had attacked his supporters. The men watched him silently.

The army said on Wednesday that it has arrested the shooter, identified by his initials, A.K.

Before the arrest, Dr Hayek lamented the slow pace of action against the gunman.

“If someone who shoots at innocent people right in front of the army is not sanctioned, what do you expect during the elections? I’m very worried for the safety of those who will dare vote against the system,” said Dr Hayek, 54.

Fear remains coupled with defiance. The young man who was beaten as he tried to walk towards the rally declined to give his name. “If I make a big deal out of this, they’ll beat me up again,” he said.

But on May 15, he promised that he would vote. “Against the system,” he said, with a wave of the hand as he walked away.

This story was updated to reflect the arrest of the alleged shooter on Wednesday.

Updated: April 21, 2022, 1:58 PM