Hezbollah is known for holding a monopoly on Shiite political representation in Lebanon. Along with its sometimes ally, the Amal party, it is seen as the obvious voice of the Shiite community. Following the organization’s success in the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah was hailed as a hero throughout the Arab and Muslim world – particularly by economically marginalized Shiites and Islamist hard-liners. Meanwhile, Amal enjoyed the support of moderate and wealthy Shiites, while gradually coming to act as a mouthpiece and adjunct to Hezbollah’s rising star. The leader of Amal, Nabih Berri, has been the speaker of the Lebanese parliament since 1992, and is frequently said to have bloated the state bureaucracy with his clients.
However, this political dynamic may be starting to change. In recent years other Shiite organizations that resent the dominance of Hezbollah and Amal have emerged to question the direction of their leadership. This defection began almost immediately after the 2006 war. While hard-liners hailed Hezbollah’s resilience in the face of the Israeli onslaught as a “divine victory,” others questioned the human and material cost of the group’s intransigent stance. Skepticism continued to grow in the following years – after a 2008 invasion of Sunni areas in Beirut intended to consolidate Hezbollah’s political power, after a 2009 corruption scandal that brought into question the altruism of the group’s leaders, and most especially, after 2011 when it became apparent that Hezbollah was intervening in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the repressive Assad regime.
In May 2013, Nasrallah officially admitted that Hezbollah was fighting in Syria. By some accounts more than a thousand of its members have died defending the regime, with many more wounded in the conflict. Increasing rumbles of discontent are now heard in Shiite circles. Most members of the community do not question the organization openly, fearing Hezbollah’s accusations of “treason” or collaboration with the enemy. The current state of affairs, however, has led to a rise of parties offering an alternative Shiite voice. Though still marginal in the overall political schema, these newer groups indicate cracks in Hezbollah’s monopoly. They are most strongly supported by traditional Shiite feudal elites who have been marginalized first by Amal then by Hezbollah’s populist approach, as well as by aristocratic religious leaders from traditional clerical families who have seen their role diminish with the rise of the Supreme Shiite Council and the appearance of new religious elites educated in Iran, and by liberal, middle-class Shiite intellectuals and professionals who do not see a reflection of themselves in the hard-line Islamist ethos of Hezbollah.
One new Shiite voice is a group called the Lebanese Option Party, founded in 2007. The head of the organization is Ahmad al-Asaad, whose father, Kamel al-Asaad, was a prominent politician and speaker of parliament during the pre-Lebanese Civil War era. The Lebanese Option Party has openly criticized the direction taken by Hezbollah and has staged protests against the Syrian regime. This group is not very influential, but it is a good representation of the state of mind among Shiites who have been sidelined by the political dominance of Hezbollah.
Shiite religious leaders have also spoken out in support of this alternative direction. Much as Amal and Hezbollah owe their existence to Musa al-Sadr (a famous cleric who helped the Shiite community to voice its political and social rights in the 1960s), today’s emerging Shiite organizations are finding legitimacy through the boldness of a new generation of religious leaders, including Ali al-Amine and the late Hani Fahs. Both of these clerics are sayyeds – recognized descendants of the Prophet Mohammed – which gives them automatic legitimacy and credibility in the community.
Following the 2006 war with Israel, Amine questioned the right of Hezbollah’s leadership to bring disaster on Lebanon’s Shiites by dragging them into an ill-considered adventure that they had never wanted, about which they were never consulted, and which was motivated primarily by the interests of a foreign power (Iran). Prior to these events, Amine had been close to Hezbollah, so his rebuke of the organization’s leaders was important. In the following years he continued to criticize Hezbollah’s actions and its monopoly on Shiite political consciousness. This was especially clear after the May 2008 attacks on Sunnis in Beirut when Amine published the pamphlet “Religious Political Parties” that did not name Hezbollah but implicitly disparaged its power craving. Eventually these critical outlooks led to Amine’s removal from his prominent position as the Mufti of Tyre and Jabal Amel, though he still remains an important religious figure for many Shiites. His attempts at rapprochement and conciliation with the Sunnis, which he describes in his book “The Sunnis and The Shiʿa Are One Nation,” might be the salvation of the Lebanese Shiites after Hezbollah has alienated them from their Sunni milieu in its Syrian adventure.
Fahs is another cleric who, prior to succumbing to a long-term illness in 2014, had the courage to speak out openly against Hezbollah. Such was Fahs’s stature in the Shiite community, and the strength of his insight and his moderate stance, that Hezbollah felt compelled to discredit him by calling him a U.S. agent, and a Wahhabi, which in its view is tantamount to an accusation of religious treason. Fahs was adamant in his support for the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, and in his rejection of Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict. Before his death, he wrote an open letter to the Hezbollah leadership urging it to rethink its stances in Syria and to broker a historic compromise to end the war.
Shiite intellectuals have also refrained from allying with Hezbollah. Their voices are rarely heard, but they do make a splash when they speak out. For example, in August 2006 while the war with Israel was ongoing, Mona Fayyad, a Shiite professor at the Lebanese University, published the essay “To Be a Shiʿa Now” in the leading Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. The article questioned Hezbollah’s alliance with Iran and Syria, suggesting that the party was serving foreign interests, and it stirred a great deal of public debate. Fayyad also spoke out against Hezbollah’s knee-jerk tendency to label any critics of the organization as traitors or collaborators with imperialism. Along with the work of journalists and intellectuals such as Hanin Ghaddar and Ziad Majed, Fayyad’s writings give expression to the frustration that is growing among many Lebanese Shiites. Their voices offer an alternative outlook that was previously silent in the Lebanese political scene. This trend continued in August of 2012, when about 50 Shiite clerics and intellectuals came together to sign an opinion piece in support of the Syrian people, bucking Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime.
The Shiite community in Lebanon is still mainly pro-Hezbollah, seeing in the party a protector of its interests both in internal Lebanese politics and against the prospect of Israeli aggression. However, cracks are emerging in the monolithic support that Hezbollah has previously enjoyed. The party seems out of step with parts of its own community, especially with middle-class Shiites, who resent their sectarian alienation from other Lebanese citizens of the same socioeconomic status. These individuals are increasingly questioning the value of Hezbollah’s leadership in advancing Shiite interests. Though they are as of yet a limited constituency, their voices indicate the potential for political change and diversification within the Shiite community.
Rola el-Husseini is a researcher with the Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern American Center at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. She has previously held positions at Texas A&M University and Yale University. Her first book “Pax Syriana: Elite Politics in Postwar Lebanon” was published by Syracuse University Press in 2012. She is currently preparing a new manuscript on the Lebanese Sunni Islamists in the age of the Islamic State.