Lebanon’s sustained anti-regime protests pose a growing problem for its political elites. Hezbollah is a pillar of the establishment and the most powerful defender of the Lebanese political status quo. This reflects how important the country’s formal institutions have become to Hezbollah, even as its geopolitical environment grows more complicated and its regional legitimacy comes under pressure. While Hezbollah is not the target of the protests, all the realistic scenarios for Lebanon’s protest movement amid deepening economic woes will leave the party worse off.
Lebanon is no stranger to civil unrest, but the current wave is distinct in its geographic breadth, cross-sectarian character, and targeting of the multi-confessional political elite and its commercial partners (a cluster of favored developers, financial firms, traders, and others benefiting from the rentier economy) as a whole. This partnership has ruled Lebanon since independence, but Hezbollah is its newest entrant. Understanding the current crisis’ impact on the party requires briefly tracing its evolution in Lebanon’s politics.
Hezbollah in the Lebanese Political System
At its founding in the 1980s, Hezbollah’s ideology embraced the ideals of the Islamic Revolution in Iran — a blend of Shiite Islamism, socialism, populism, and anti-imperialism — with the parochial grievances of Lebanon’s marginalized Shia. Hezbollah came to be known for its successful asymmetric war against Israel in Lebanon and its terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s. However, it owes much of its local legitimacy to its championing of socio-economic justice and rejection of corruption, which established its role as ‘voice of the oppressed’. Hezbollah also created a new, assertive Shiite politics and robust social welfare infrastructure, yet limited its participation in Lebanon’s formal politics. Although it eventually fielded candidates in parliamentary elections in 1992 and won a dozen seats (out of 128), it eschewed a role in the Cabinet — partly because the Syrian occupation of Lebanon already afforded it political cover, allowing it to focus on fighting Israel.
The 1980s and 1990s were Hezbollah’s era of ideological purity in which it stood apart from Lebanon’s venal, parochial politics and sectarian jockeying. This era ended with the 2005 killing of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Lebanese and Western governments accused the Syrian regime and Hezbollah of the crime, and Syria withdrew from Lebanon. Without the Syrian regime and with much public anger directed at its Lebanese allies, Hezbollah found itself isolated, its weapons the target of a hostile Cabinet controlled by Sunni-led rivals. In May 2008, Hezbollah responded by seizing its Sunni rivals’ territories in Beirut, ending the latter’s attempts to disarm it. It used its military victory to secure veto power in the Lebanese Cabinet, where it sought to block anti-Hezbollah policies. Hezbollah was now firmly committed to the Lebanese political system and, for the time being, safe.
However, just as Hezbollah’s domestic position improved, its regional strategic environment began to deteriorate starting with the Syrian conflict in 2011. The Syrian regime was an important source of supplies and strategic depth for Hezbollah in its ongoing conflict with Israel. It was also Iran’s most important regional ally. By entering the war on the regime’s side, Hezbollah cemented a role as an expeditionary force fighting a sectarian civil war in conjunction with — if not under orders from — Iran. This ugly war shattered Hezbollah’s reputation among regional Sunnis as a force that transcends sectarianism, protects populations, and focuses on fighting Israel. Israel has exploited Hezbollah’s exposure in Syria by launching constant air strikes.
Syria is not the only source of Hezbollah’s problems. More recently the U.S. administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign appears to have weakened Iranian and Hezbollah financially. This has affected the party’s Shiite constituency, which is already suffering from Lebanon’s economic problems (as evidenced by protests in core Hezbollah areas). At the same time, mass protests have broken out in Iraq, targeting a political system that Iran has invested a great deal in. This places pressure on Tehran, which must balance between supporting Hezbollah and the proliferating challenges related to Iraq, Israel, and the United States.
Hezbollah is more powerful than ever but also more exposed. Its priority is always securing its position in Lebanon; without that, it cannot meet other challenges. From Hezbollah’s perspective, embedding itself within Lebanon’s institutions through compromises with the sectarian elites is its safest strategy. This allows the party to control security policy by setting the ministerial agenda and exerting influence over the armed forces. This strategy also offers access to patronage networks that it needs to shore up Shiite support in troubled economic times (the private sector economy is one of the few things in Lebanon that Hezbollah has struggled to dominate). Hezbollah’s participation in a Cabinet with Sunni rivals also mitigates Sunni-Shia tensions, while allying with ministers from the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (its main Lebanese ally) allows it to present itself as a cross-confessional party rather than a sectarian one.
These important advantages explain Hezbollah’s immediate hostility to the anti-regime uprising in recent weeks. The leader of the Lebanese Shiite movement, Hassan Nasrallah, quickly rejected demands for Cabinet resignation, and Hezbollah partisans repeatedly attacked anti-government protesters. Hezbollah criticized Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation and welcomed subsequent efforts to name a prime minister promptly. Hezbollah prefers that this prime minister (who must be Sunni) enjoy Sunni support and has declined to nominate its own candidate lest this provoke sectarian tensions.
Hezbollah and the Protests
Hezbollah cannot afford a broad anti-regime movement in Lebanon. It likely recognizes the seriousness of Lebanon’s problems and the need for reform and perhaps even sympathizes with the general popular sentiment. Some Hezbollah members retain the anti-establishment, populist values in which they were honed. However, none of this will lead Hezbollah to embrace radical change. To preserve the home front, a corrupt sectarian oligarchy that respects an inter-sectarian balance of power that favors Hezbollah needs to continue dominating Lebanese politics. It also calculates that government collapse will precipitate economic collapse, which would gravely harm its Shiite constituents.
Contrary to policymakers’ unfounded insistence, the Lebanese protests are not about Hezbollah, its weapons, its wars, or its political power. But this does not mean the goals of radical reform would not profoundly affect Hezbollah. It is quite possible the protests will precipitate systemic economic and political collapse that would cause Hezbollah to lose all that it has painstakingly built in and gained from the Lebanese system. There is the highly unlikely event that the movement will achieve profound reforms, including a non-sectarian state governed by the rule of law and accountable to the public. Hezbollah cannot survive such a transformation without open-ended opposition and coercion that would leave it exhausted and isolated. Hezbollah can live with neither regime collapse nor meaningful reform.
The ideal scenario for Hezbollah would include the formation of a new Cabinet headed by a legitimate Sunni leader and including Hezbollah’s Christian allies. This Cabinet would undertake targeted macroeconomic reforms that stave off currency collapse, a banking crisis, and fiscal calamity. Protesters are placated and a sense of normalcy returns to the country. International donors extend credit and aid packages. Macroeconomic fundamentals improve amid limited austerity measures, buoyed by goodwill among Hezbollah’s Shiite constituents. No meaningful political reforms are enacted.
Even if this scenario transpires — and that is far from certain — it is unlikely to address the drivers of Lebanon’s protests. The country’s economic weaknesses are too complex to list here but can overwhelmingly be traced to a dysfunctional political economy dominated by an extractive political class that manipulates sectarian tensions to limit access to an oligarchy. Enabling this is systemic corruption made worse by the dominance of the financial sector, which is controlled by influential families and perpetuates an unsustainable fiscal model.
In other words, Lebanon’s economic problems are really political problems. They cannot be solved through narrow fiscal or monetary reforms — and political elites are understandably unwilling to reform themselves out of power. There is probably too little goodwill among the population to bear the pain of serious economic change under an unpopular regime. Thus, even Hezbollah’s ideal scenario would bring only temporary relief.
Current U.S. policy is constantly looking for new pressure points on Iran and its most prominent proxy group. In Lebanon, however, organic local politics are already hurting Hezbollah. The United States has the luxury of a simple low-risk policy: rhetorical support for the protesters while pressuring the Lebanese armed forces to protect them. This has the secondary benefit of building goodwill among a new constituency and protecting civilian lives.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario that does not leave Hezbollah weaker or more exposed. Indeed, just as the Hariri killing ended Hezbollah’s “era of purity” in 2005, it is neither the Israeli military nor the Syrian insurgency but the failings of the regime it worked so hard to co-opt that has ended another era for the party.
Faysal Itani will be joining the Center for Global Policy (CGP) as the deputy director of the Non-state Actors in Fragile Environments (NSAFE) program. Itani is also an adjunct professor of Middle East politics at George Washington University. Follow him at @faysalitani.