Lebanon protests test Hezbollah supporters' allegiances

Protesters divided as to group’s role in future civil state

epa08022041 A protester holds a picture of late Hezbollah commander Imad Munghnyeh as he takes a selfie during a protest against the US policy next to the US Embassy at Awkar north of Beirut, Lebanon, 24 November 2019. Protests in Lebanon are continuing since first erupted on 17 October, as protesters aim to apply pressure on the country's political leaders over what they view as a lack of progress following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 29 October.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER
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Supporters of Hezbollah, which has traditionally been protected from much of the criticism directed towards the country’s political elite, are starting to question their allegiances.

Despite coming together against sectarianism and corruption, protesters who sympathise with Hezbollah are divided as to the group’s role in a future civil state.

They want to see the end of corruption and sectarianism in Lebanon, yet they see the group as an essential protection against Israeli incursions.

Nader Dergham, a former Hezbollah supporter turned civil rights activist, told The National that the group is faced with a tough choice as protesters refuse to back down coming into the second month of demonstrations.

It could betray Lebanon in a bloody confrontation with demonstrators, or fall in line with protesters’ demands and betray Iran.

Mr Dergham said a mental shift was taking place as Lebanese people from all sects demanded that their country, rather than the party they supported, looked out for their interests.

This makes it more difficult for Hezbollah to use force against dissent without risking the backing of its supporters.

Lebanon is one of the world’s most indebted countries. Over the past decade, its citizens have experienced falling standards of living, high unemployment and a lack of the most basic public services.

At the source of their discontent is a deeply entrenched sectarian political system that has failed to provide solutions to the country’s woes for the past three decades.

Protesters want to see the end of corruption and sectarianism in Lebanon, but the ruling class does not want to endure the collapse of a system that has enriched it for decades.

If the public ceases to be afraid of the aggression of Hezbollah’s well-armed militia, the old guard will be a vulnerable position and dissenting voices in the movement’s support base will play a pivotal role in shaping a new Lebanese identity and politics.

After Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, in a televised address last month instructed his supporters not to take to the streets, many steered clear of the protests.

The public spaces of Beirut’s southern suburbs, where the group has its headquarters, have stayed calm.

Lebanese Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah is cheared by his suppoters as he speaks through a giant screen on the occasion of the group's "martyr's day" in the capital Beirut's southern suburb, on Novemebr 11, 2019. / AFP / -
Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is cheered by his supporters as he speaks through a giant screen on the occasion of the group's "martyr's day" in the capital Beirut's southern suburb. AFP

But Nasrallah’s instructions have not stopped supporters from taking to the streets of Shiite-majority cities, including Baalbek, Tyre and Nabatieh, to call for change.

Many say, however, that they will not fully withdraw their support from the group.

Beirut protester Reem Haidar, whose tattoos, uncovered hair and outspoken nature make her an unconventional Hezbollah supporter, said joining the demonstrations was a duty to her country.

“Hezbollah is now part of a corrupt government and is participating in that corruption, whether directly or indirectly, by covering up for their allies,” Ms Haidar said.

“If I wasn’t on the streets today, I know that on judgment day God will ask me what I was doing. He will ask me why I did not stand up to oppression and injustice.”

She said Hezbollah was part of a political class that she wanted to see gone, yet she still considered its role as a resistance movement against Israel sacred.

Although the group is considered a terrorist organisation by the US and Arab League, many Lebanese people see it as having liberated the country from Israel in 2000.

"Sami", a Hezbollah supporter and interior designer from Tyre, said he recognised the party’s corruption but believed that the might of its military wing was greater than that of the Lebanese army and so it was necessary to protect the nation.

“As a southerner, I cannot ask for Hezbollah to lay down their weapons,” Sami said. “They are the ones who liberated and defended the south.

"I do not join other protesters in this demand because if Hezbollah is no longer armed, war will surely erupt.

“ISIS will come at us from the north and Israel will invade us from the south. It will be World War Three, with Russia and Iran battling the US on Lebanese soil.”

His words echo the those of Nasrallah’s speeches since the protests broke out. The Hezbollah leader has accused foreign powers of funding protesters to wreak havoc in the country.

Similar conspiracy theories have spread widely online, bringing fear to communities still haunted by memories of the nation’s civil war from 1975 to 1990, when Lebanese militias acted as proxies for regional powers.

While such talk is often disseminated on pro-Hezbollah media, it is now being challenged from within as at least five journalists from Al Akhbar newspaper have resigned since the start of the protests, including co-founder Mohamed Zbeeb.

In a Facebook post published on November 1, former Al Akhbar journalist Joy Slim announced her decision to quit the paper, attributing it to "disappointment in the news coverage of the revolution".

Slim said the newspaper had joined the ranks of the “counter-revolution” and spread lies and conspiracies about the protest movement.

Hezbollah has not been responsible for any deaths during the unrest but its followers have attacked people on the streets.

On October 29, a mob ransacked encampments and beat up demonstrators in downtown Beirut while the overwhelmed Lebanese security forces stood by.

The army’s role has been pivotal in keeping Hezbollah from more violence.

But as protesters continue to take to the streets and Hezbollah’s dominance continues to be challenged from within, there are fears that more clashes will erupt.