The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hezbollah faces toughest challenge yet after devastating Beirut explosion

A United Nations peacekeeper stands near a poster depicting Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, right, in Lebanon’s Adaisseh village near the Lebanese-Israeli border on Aug. 7. (Karamallah Daher/Reuters)
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BEIRUT — Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement is facing the biggest challenge yet to its outsize influence as the massive explosion at Beirut's port earlier this month brings the group's pervasive role in the country under scrutiny.

There is no evidence that Hezbollah was connected either to the highly volatile ammonium nitrate stored at the port or the fire that ignited it, setting off a blast that killed at least 177 people, injured more than 6,000 and devastated a large swath of the city.

But as Lebanon’s most powerful political and military force, Hezbollah is now at the center of the outrage being leveled against the country’s ruling class, including from an increasing number of the group’s traditional Shiite Muslim constituents.

Protesters raging against the corruption and negligence faulted for the explosion have hanged an effigy of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah in Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square, the first time he has been so publicly maligned. His name and that of the group have been emblazoned on banners and included in chants, along with those of other top figures blamed for the vast corruption and mismanagement that have bankrupted the economy and propelled hundreds of thousands into poverty, even before the blast.

“Hezbollah are in a corner and the noose is tightening around them,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “It’s a dilemma. They don’t know what to do. They know the mood in Lebanon does not really support them.”

Hezbollah's warnings

In a speech Friday, Nasrallah addressed what he termed the “hurtful words, the hurtful practices” and made veiled threats against his critics. He asked his supporters if they were angry, then told them: “Hold onto that anger. We will need that anger some day, to end once and for all the attempts to drag the country to civil war.”

It’s not only those in the Christian and Sunni Muslim communities that have long chafed at the group’s role who are openly criticizing the party. Faith in Hezbollah’s infallibility is also fading among some Shiites, who have long regarded the party as their protector from both Israel and a Lebanese state that historically discriminated against them, according to residents of Hezbollah-controlled areas.

“I am a mother in pain because of them,” said Nina, a Shiite who lives in the southern town of Nabatiyeh, describing the difficulties she faces in feeding and caring for her family amid the dire economic circumstances. She, like most of those interviewed, spoke on the condition that their full names would not be published for fear of the consequences.

“Brainwashing us with talk of resistance [to Israel] is not going to feed us or secure our children’s future,” she said. “They are the cause of everything that’s going on in our country.”

The country’s economic and social collapse had already stirred an unprecedented, if muted, level of discontent among Lebanese Shiites, according to a former staunch supporter of the group who lives in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut and still has close ties to it.

“Even before the explosion, two-thirds of the people were angry. They are hungry and they do not have money to eat or buy medicine,” said the man. “No one can dare complain. They rule with iron and fire,” he added.

Parallel state

Hezbollah may now struggle to sustain the clout it has amassed since it was formed in the 1980s as a guerrilla movement dedicated to dislodging Israeli troops and U.S. influence from Lebanon, analysts and diplomats say.

Since then, the Iranian-backed militant group has built what amounts to a powerful parallel state with its own private army and an independent arsenal. Nasrallah frequently boasts that Hezbollah has extended its influence to Yemen, Iraq and Syria, where his fighters played an instrumental role in ensuring the survival of President Bashar al-Assad.

At the same time, Hezbollah has injected itself into mainstream Lebanese politics to the extent that the presidency, the parliament and the caretaker government — which was forced to resign last week amid public anger — are now controlled by the group’s allies.

Hezbollah still commands the loyalties of a huge number of Shiites, sustained in part by its extensive patronage networks and the provision of social services that surpass those of the government.

Hezbollah continues to fund those networks and pay its fighters in dollars, a rare commodity in Lebanon these days, said Rabih Tlais, a Shiite activist and journalist from the Bekaa Valley, who says he has received death threats for his outspoken criticism of the group.

Increasingly, however, a “class rift” is emerging between those who receive salaries in dollars from Hezbollah and the ordinary Shiites whose earnings in Lebanese pounds have collapsed because of the collapse in the value of the local currency, he said.

“There’s a significant and noticeable rise in criticism toward the party,” he said. “People say that Hezbollah is a partner in the corruption process and also a protector of those who are corrupt.”

Most Shiites continue to support Hezbollah “not because they’re scared, but because they still trust them to solve this crisis,” said another former supporter, Ali, a student who lives in the southern suburbs.

Yet even the most die-hard loyalists found it hard, he said, to accept Nasrallah’s insistence in an earlier speech that Hezbollah had no presence at the port. Hezbollah and other factions maintain their own trading networks that use port facilities.

“Honestly, I don’t know how stupid they think we are,” he said. “People who support Hezbollah did have a change in attitude toward the party” after the explosion.

'Very difficult situation'

The tragedy has also refocused international attention on Lebanon after a long period of neglect, contributing to a dawning realization among many Lebanese that Hezbollah has become an impediment to the country receiving the international assistance needed to stave off further economic collapse, said Khashan, the political science professor.

“This puts Hezbollah in a very difficult situation because everyone knows Lebanon is on hold until the issue of Hezbollah is dealt with once and for all,” he said.

The many countries worldwide that have rushed humanitarian aid to Lebanon have made it clear that the much larger amounts of financial assistance required to bail out the bankrupt economy will not be forthcoming until the country embarks on serious political reforms to ensure it won’t be diverted by corrupt politicians.

Among the foreign dignitaries who have toured the devastated areas and promised help is David Hale, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. He stressed in his meetings that while the United States is willing to send humanitarian aid, there will be no further help without fundamental political reforms, including the restoration of state control over the country’s ports and borders — a clear dig at Hezbollah.

“We can never go back to an era in which anything goes at the port and the borders of Lebanon,” Hale told reporters during a visit to the destroyed port on Saturday. “That had to contribute to this situation.”

Dual role under pressure

Hezbollah cannot be blamed for the corruption and mismanagement that have bankrupted Lebanon, said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. The wealthy families who have shared power since Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990 are primarily responsible for the billions of dollars that have gone missing from the banking system, depriving ordinary Lebanese of their savings, he said.

But Hezbollah has become intertwined with the state and with the fate of the corrupt politicians recruited by the group as allies to further its political ambitions. Hezbollah “has become part of the Lebanese political equation. Hezbollah is trying to maintain the status quo, not replace it,” Gerges said.

Hezbollah’s dual role — as a leading part of a Lebanese government allied with the West and an Iranian-backed paramilitary force that rivals the state — may not survive the new scrutiny. “They wanted to have their cake and eat it,” said a regional diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive subjects. “It’s always been unsustainable.”

The group’s international and domestic rivals appear to smell blood and “see this as a moment they can seize on to pressure the group into some kind of corner or compromise,” said Kim Ghattas of the Carnegie Middle East Center. But, she added, “groups like Hezbollah have an incredible capacity to bounce back and thrive in chaos.”

How Hezbollah responds to the challenge is one of the key questions now confronting Lebanon. Nasrallah’s threatening words revived memories of Hezbollah’s military takeover of West Beirut in 2008 in response to an attempt by the government to curtail its power.

But the dynamics now are different, and Hezbollah is in a far weaker position, said Imad Salamey, a professor at the Lebanese American University.

“No one doubts the ability of Hezbollah to take the country militarily, but it is a different thing to be able to rule the country and sustain a military takeover,” he said. “Lebanon is very diverse, and its economy is strongly tied to the West and Arab states.”

The resignation last week of Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his government, the first to be composed entirely of Hezbollah allies, demonstrated “that Lebanon cannot be saved by Iran alone,” Salamey said. “It has to revert back to a balance struck with different regional players.”

Haidamous reported from Washington. Nader Durgham in Beirut contributed to this report.

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