It has been already eleven days since the country-wide protests have started in Lebanon and the public is carefully watching how all this is going to play out. The popular unrest all over Lebanon, came as a dynamic reaction, sparked by several tax increases announced by the government, in accordance with the 2020 federal budget. The protests have been gaining momentum day-by-day, highlighting long-time social and economic grievances within the highly fragmented country. Even though the government promptly publicized a series of economic reforms, in order to limit public anger and President Aoun claimed that he would meet with the protesters and hear to their demands, the situation has hardly improved. These demonstrations are not unprecedented in terms of scope or size -remember the 2006-2008 protests; the most intriguing fact about them is their substantial non-sectarian nature, establishing a much larger in scale and significance movement than the 2015 “YouStink” group. A movement calling for an overall reform of the current Lebanese system, tackling the problematic aspects of Sectarianism.
In a televised speech, on Friday 25 October, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, addressed the party supporters and Lebanese people. This speech indicates the importance of the protests for Hezbollah; this could be seen as a turning point for the party, that has been designated as a terrorist group by many Western countries, since it is probably the first time in its history that it is being openly criticized not only by other religious or political groups but also by the Shia community, which is fundamentally its popular base. It should be noted though that many western media are trying to overstate this criticism against Hezbollah and specifically Nasrallah, missing some crucial points, as we will analyze. In this context, it is worth looking into the mid-term potential of this massive -albeit currently leaderless- anti-government movement and the impact it could have on the country’s most influential political entity.
Starting from the semiology of Nasrallah’s Friday televised presence, it could barely go unnoticed that the Hezbollah leader has chosen just a Lebanese flag, as the background setting for his speech. In this instance Nasrallah, who rarely uses the national flag in the scenery, has tried to portray himself as a leading figure not only for the Shia community but for all the Lebanese people, subsiding his role as the Secretary-General of the party. Opposed to the initial statement shortly after the protests began, Nasrallah’s appearance this time has been much more insightful and well-positioned. He made clear that Hezbollah does not want to interfere with the protesters; therefore, he called the party members and advised Hezbollah supporters to abstain from the public gatherings. Being proactive, Nasrallah understands that an organized Hezbollah presence in the protests, where critics of the party are participating, could easily raise the tension even further and escalate rapidly. Given the fact that clashes between protesters and Hezbollah supporters have already been reported, the Secretary-General has purposefully chosen to distance himself from the demonstration, minimizing the risk of violent incidents where Hezbollah could be depicted as the government strike force. The significance of this decision is even higher when considering that protests are ongoing in some of the de facto Hezbollah strongholds around the country, like the cities of Bint Jbeil, Nabatiyeh and Tyre.
Nasrallah has also sympathized with the people’s grievances and admitted that the country has been through rough economic conditions, but he stressed that the protests have already achieved enough and the government has backed down in some critical public demands; any further delays in the implementation of the updated and transformed agenda would cause serious problems to the country, he mentioned. The party leader has also highlighted the disruption that is being caused by the protests impacting thousands of everyday people, like workers and students, and suggested that life should come back to normal shortly.
The most crucial point of Nasrallah’s speech though, leaving significant implications for the in-country and regional security apparatus, has been his reference to the involvement of dubious foreign actors in the mobilization of the people amidst the very birth of this popular movement. He stated that external powers -not surprisingly naming Israel- are seeking to exploit the wide-spread unrest in order to destabilize the country and undermine the position of Hezbollah. Although there is no evidence of any foreign involvement so far, it goes without a doubt that local rivals -especially Israel and Saudi Arabia- would warmly welcome any in-country developments that could weaken Hezbollah’s power grip. The Secretary-General warned that similar traction in neighboring countries, where foreign involvement has been apparent, has led to civil wars and failed states; but his afterword has been even more determined – if not worrying. Nasrallah, pointing his finger to the audience, emphasized that the strongest group in Lebanon now is Hezbollah, not clarifying if he was speaking about political achievements or military capabilities.
Where Hezbollah standing now
Since the coalition of the government in Lebanon on January 21, 2019, Hezbollah has strengthened even further its political presence; two of the most influential Ministers in the country, Jamil Jabbak -Ministry of Health- and Ali Hassan Khalis –Ministry of Finance- have been affiliated with the party and Hezbollah has aggressively lobbied in order to secure for them the respective positions. Over half of the MPs belong to the political coalition, where Hezbollah holds a prominent position, and most of them are maintaining ties with the party.
From a military aspect, the long-time participation of Hezbollah fighters in support of the Assad regime in Syria has significantly upgraded the capabilities of the party’s armed wing. The number of fighters that had a steady presence in Syria is estimated at approximately 8,000; the fighters have been rotating throughout the duration of the war, but this number is indicative of the typical Hezbollah manpower in the country since 2012-2013. The casualties account for almost ten percent of that number, however, this fact has hardly impacted the capabilities of the group, compared to the ensuing advantages from their involvement in the war. According to a 2018 Bloomberg report the group holds around 150,000 missiles, ten times their missile stockpile prior to the 2006 war with Israel. Also, the role that thousands of Hezbollah fighters have played in Syria, supporting the regime forces, has dramatically enhanced their operational background and experience. Most of these soldiers have now returned to Lebanon, and are ready to be activated any time, in case of a confrontation with Israel, or an in-country conflict.
On the other hand, it is probably the first time that the group is facing such harsh financial problems. The US sanctions on their primary foreign patron, Iran, has created several economic difficulties which impacted Hezbollah domestic activities, in terms of recruitment and day-to-day operational needs, but also with regards to the social work of the party, an aspect that has been vital for its popularity, especially within the Shia community. Those developments pushed Hassan Nasrallah last March to address the popular base of the party, calling for funding and donations. The US aggressive sanctions policy not only to Iran but also to individuals associated with Hezbollah has made things even worse for the group.
Albeit the financial hardship, Hezbollah seems ready to face decisively the ongoing challenges in Lebanon. A potential escalation of the ongoing protests, leading to full-scale confrontation among the in-country competing groups could eventually benefit Hezbollah rather than marginalize it. Even though the party does not wish the tension to increase further as per Nasrallah’s latest speech, it is a solid fact that Hezbollah has been always able to remerge after wide-scale conflicts, and politically capitalize on the alleged military gains.