Hezbollah supporters defiant ahead of Lebanese election

Hassan Nasrallah defends his group’s right to weapons amid intensifying public criticism

Supporters of Hezbollah lift portraits of the group's leader Hassan Nasrallah as they attend his speech, broadcast on a giant screen, in the southern city of Nabatieh on Tuesday. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has doubled down on the group’s right to carry weapons and magnified the threat of an Israeli attack only days before Lebanon's parliamentary election.

Mr Nasrallah compared the coming elections to the war in July 2006 that opposed Israel and Hezbollah, a political party and regional militia which is considered a terrorist group by several western countries. “You must be victorious in this political July war,” Mr Nasrallah said.

His supporters told The National that Mr Nasrallah is focusing on what is most important in the face of what the party perceives as attacks against its right to be armed since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. “Unfortunately today, the focus is on the resistance and the fact that it should abandon its weapons," said Nabatieh mayor Ali Kahil. "But that would be the end of all hope.”

They need to make more efforts to remain in control
Opposition candidate Wafic Rihan

Yet, during an hour-long speech, Mr Nasrallah had little concrete solutions to offer the Lebanese, who are suffering from what the World Bank has described as one of the worst economic crises in the world since the 1850s. Three quarters of the population is now poor, the value of salaries has plummeted, and dozens recently died trying to make it by boat to Europe. Public anger exploded into nationwide protests in 2019.

Mr Nasrallah’s lack of focus on daily issues was seemingly not a problem for his die-hard supporters, who came to listen to him in Nabatieh for one of the first of many electoral speeches planned for this week. Thousands gathered for the event, which Hezbollah describes as festivals and was simultaneously broadcast on a giant screen in another party stronghold, the coastal town of Tyre.

The event, which brought the city to a standstill, opened with pro-Hezbollah chanting and the release of thousands of coloured balloons. The open-air space was so packed that dozens of attendees watched from the rooftops of a nearby building.

“We don’t vote with ink. We vote with blood,” said a young man who declined to give his name. In his arms, he carried a toddler. Like thousands of other attendees, the child held a yellow Hezbollah flag.

“People of the resistance in the south do not need material things,” said Ibrahim, who attended the rally with his wife Fatima. “If it’s cold, we’ll wear covers. If there’s no electricity, we’ll use a candle. The most important thing is to preserve your principles and your dignity.”

Monopoly of the 'resistance'

Yet cracks are appearing in Hezbollah’s support. Some locals have started to voice their exasperation with the inability of Hezbollah to address the country’s economic meltdown despite its power and control of Parliament with its allies.

Traditional sectarian parties have made no serious attempt at holding the banking sector accountable for illegal capital controls, which locked many Lebanese out of their savings and triggered protests and attacks against banks. In the region of Nabatieh, party opponents have formed a strong opposition list which could enable the election of south Lebanon’s first opposition MP.

Hezbollah is worried, according to opposition candidate Wafic Rihan, who said the party’s lavish electoral display in Nabatieh is a first. “They need to make more efforts to remain in control,” he told The National.

Mohamed Jaber, 35, who attended Hezbollah’s rally, shrugged off the opposition’s importance. “Isn’t this a democracy? If they win, what’s the problem?” he said, before adding: “I only trust the Sayed [Hassan Nasrallah]."

Personal criticism of Mr Nasrallah, who is also a Shiite cleric, remains taboo. Supporters call him “Hadi’s father”, in reference to the 17-year old son he lost in an Israeli ambush in 1997.

But many Shiites such as Mr Rihan, 67, a retired tax inspector, are exasperated by Hezbollah’s monopoly of the “resistance” to Israel, and more broadly, of its claim of representing all the country's Shiites.

Five people from his opposition list, including himself, were imprisoned by Israel during its 1978-2000 occupation of South Lebanon. “Hezbollah monopolises the resistance and exploits it for political purposes,” said Mr Rihan.

The biggest unknown is how many people will actually vote on May 15. Participation rates are about 45 per cent in south Lebanon, Mr Rihan says.

“There are three kinds of people," said Mr Rihan, who hopes to see voter participation increase this year. "Those with Hezbollah and Amal, those against them, and the biggest group: those who do not vote.”

Disenfranchised youth

Nabatieh’s younger generation is more concerned with the economy and lack of job prospects than Israel. “We need a change. We can’t stay like this,” said Rana, who asked for her name to be changed out of fear of retribution.

Supporters of Hezbollah's main ally, the Amal movement, attacked independent candidates in a nearby town in April, on the day it launched its electoral list.

Hezbollah followers argue the party is powerless to improve the economic crisis. “There are people bigger than them,” said Khadija Jabbour, 55. Asked who she was referring to, she declined to give names. “Don’t bother, they’re against us anyway,” said a woman standing behind her, referring to journalists. Ms Jabbour paused and smiled. “In the end, the resistance is the strongest,” she said. "God willing, it will stay triumphant."

The mood lightened when another woman, wearing a bright purple veil and lipstick, interrupted to praise Amal's leader, veteran Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, 84. “May he have a long life,” she said loudly and repeatedly. They all laughed.

Yet the idea of an international “siege” against Hezbollah and Lebanon remains pervasive among party supporters. Many point fingers at the US for blocking a World Bank-funded regional deal with Jordan, Syria and Egypt to provide Lebanon with six more hours of electricity a day – the state currently provides only two or three hours.

“They’re waiting for the American green light,” said Mr Kahil, Nabatieh's mayor. But sources with direct knowledge of the topic note that Lebanon has yet to conclude a commercial contract with Egypt, a prerequisite for a World Bank loan.

For Mr Kahil, only loyalty to Hezbollah can improve people’s lives. “We see more attachment to the resistance to before,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll see that loyalty translated into the ballot box on May 15.”

Updated: May 12, 2022, 5:11 AM