Hezbollah will go to great lengths to protect the power it has won over decades

Like the rest of the political elite, the militia is being challenged but will not give up easily

Riot police intervene as an anti-government protester tackles an Hezbollah supporter during clashes with anti-government protesters in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. "I tried throughout this period to find a way out so we could listen to the people’s voices and protect the country," Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said hours after supporters of Iranian-backed Hezbollah attacked anti-government protesters in Beirut and destroyed their tents. Photographer: Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg
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"Dear Nasrallah, all of them means all of them, and you before all of them." So read a placard held by a woman from Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs – a nod to protesters' demands that Lebanon's entire political class should step down. The mass demonstrations that have swept through Lebanon for the past fortnight have targeted the ruling elite with widespread criticism – including Hezbollah. Like all of Lebanon's traditional political parties, it has seen rarely voiced dissent from within its traditional support base. Researchers say a taboo has been broken in Shiite communities, which now feel able to criticise their leaders.

With 13 seats in parliament and three cabinet positions, the party has not been spared accusations of corruption aimed at Lebanon's entire political elite

Lebanon’s dismal economy and US sanctions – part of Washington’s maximum-pressure campaign on Iran and its proxies – have affected Hezbollah’s ability to provide jobs and community services, which had won it loyalty historically.

And with 13 seats in parliament and three Cabinet positions, the party has not been spared accusations of corruption aimed at Lebanon’s entire political elite.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, at first appeared to support the demonstrations, saying they “surpassed sects, doctrines, regions and political orientations”. His party was not taking part only because doing so risked turning the popular movement into “a political conflict”, he reasoned.

Yet as criticisms of Hezbollah and its allies grew, media affiliated to the party began to portray demonstrations as foreign-funded conspiracies. Supporters instigated violence against protesters trying to change Lebanon's sectarian-based political status quo, from which the party benefits. Last Tuesday, men loyal to Hezbollah and its Shiite ally, the Amal Movement, attacked peaceful protesters in central Beirut. The same afternoon, prime minister Saad Hariri resigned, although he remains in a caretaker capacity as deliberations over a replacement continue.

In a speech on Friday – his third since protests began nearly three weeks ago – Nasrallah denied suggestions of an existential crisis. Hezbollah is "not at all worried or scared" about its future, he insisted. He appeared keen to present himself as a protector of Lebanon's best interests and as a keeper of peace.

Nasrallah also denied that the previous Cabinet – or any before that – was a “Hezbollah government”, but he emphasised the need for a swift government formation. That is probably because the party had been enjoying more power within the Lebanese establishment than ever before. Among the three government departments it controls is the health ministry. Its allies and significant cabinet presence have helped it to be at once both a non-state paramilitary and a state entity with power in government.

There is a parallel between the current state of Lebanon and Iraq, where demonstrators have widely denounced Iran-backed political parties and paramilitaries. Crucially, this is happening in Shiite-majority cities in southern Iraq, from where groups aligned with Tehran have recruited fighters and developed support bases. In Baghdad, protesters beat a poster showing powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Suleimani, who runs Iranian operations in Iraq, his face crossed out with a large red X. In an indication of his power in Baghdad, the commander has met Iraqi officials several times since protests began.

In response to the demonstrations, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, an Iraqi adviser to Mr Suleimani, said his forces were “ready, with the same care with which we confronted ISIS, to stand against this sedition”, claiming that the protests' intent was to “destroy Iraq”.

Back in Lebanon, the current juncture is undoubtedly a challenge to Hezbollah. But it will weather this. The past two weeks of protests do not spell its downfall, nor the end of many people in Lebanon supporting – or at least tolerating – its existence.

There are still enough people like those watching Nasrallah speak via televised links in Beirut’s southern suburbs last Friday who say they want reform but are not sure about wholesale change.

“I’m going to give the new government a chance,” engineering student Hassan Zaher told me. “With reforms, with popular pressure, maybe we’ll get good results.”

Analysts warn of conflict in Lebanon if Hezbollah feels so threatened that it uses more force to quell protesters' demands for change

Beyond those core supporters who attend its events and rallies, Hezbollah still has support for its anti-Israel stance. Even among protesters – many of whom openly dislike Hezbollah – the militant group’s disarmament is not one of the main concerns. When I interviewed her earlier this year, caretaker interior minister Raya El Hassan – from Mr Hariri’s political bloc, traditionally opposed to Hezbollah – said Hezbollah represented part of the Lebanese population: “I’m part of the cabinet and I have to deal with my colleagues,” she said in a resigned tone.

Hezbollah plays the long game. It disapproves of critical voices from within Shiite communities complaining about corruption and poor services. It will take measures to silence them. There has been at least one televised apology from a protester who has denounced Hezbollah. Another outspoken critic of the party told me attempts to protest in Beirut’s southern suburbs “had been suppressed” and that 10 demonstrators had been detained by the army in areas of south Lebanon where Hezbollah wields significant power.

But the group’s bigger concern is threats to its military might – its weapons arsenal – and its political sway. This is one reason behind its insistence on quick formation of a new government using the existing system. It is willing to go to great lengths to defend the power and influence it has won over more than three decades in Lebanon. This has enabled it to expand to Syria, Iraq and Yemen, where it sends fighters and senior commanders in training and strategy roles. Analysts warn of conflict in Lebanon if Hezbollah feels so threatened that it uses more force to quell protesters’ demands for change.

Hezbollah is being challenged by widespread calls for an end to the overall political system in which it has won legitimacy and power. But for the moment, it isn’t clear that there are enough people in Lebanon who are willing to jump into the unknown of a new, non-sectarian system, with all the uncertainties that would bring. It is not clear that others could provide the services upon which the current political elites – including Hezbollah – have built loyalty. Without viable alternatives who have the financial and political power to challenge it, the group will live on.