Bleak prospects for Hizballah

By: Kai Kverme, University of Oslo.

Lebanon has been governed by a caretaker government for nearly a year, and this during one of the most difficult periods for the country in decades. When Najib Miqati was nominated as prime minister three years ago, it came following maverick Druze leader Walid Jounblats withdrawal of support for then premier Saad Hariri. This was not least due to the intense pressure put on him from Hizballah. Back then it was the question of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which concerned the Party, as four Hizballah members were charged with being behind the assassination. Moreover, the Party did not want Lebanon to pay its share of the funding for the STL, thus withdrawing official Lebanese legitimacy for the Tribunal. The hope then was to establish a government which would not question the role of Hizballah as a “national resistance”, and shield the Party from accusations of being involved in the assassination of Hariri.

This proved more difficult than expected, not least due to the demands of Michel Aoun for ministerial portfolios which brought him at odds with other components of the 8.March alliance, in particular AMAL leader Nabih Berri. In the end Hizballah managed to convince Berri to relinquish one of the Shiite portfolios to Aoun, and the government was formed in June 2011.

But the tensions within the government continued, and the escalating conflict in Syria was reflected within the cabinet with Jounblat on the one hand supporting the uprising against Asad and Hizballah on the other hand sending its forces there to fight on the side of the regime. Eventually Miqati resigned, and Lebanon has been ruled by a caretaker government ever since (that is, since March last year).

From then on, developments have gone from bad to worse for Hizballah, not least due to the policies it has adopted towards Syria. That it supported the Asad regime was a well-known fact, but that the party chose to involve itself militarily on the side of the regime came as a surprise to many, including its own supporters. There are numerous reports of party officials being attacked by families of slain soldiers, questioning why their sons were sent to fight and die in Syria when they were supposed to fight Israel.

The official line of the Party is that this is an existential battle for Hizballah, but the narrative that they are in Syria to protect Lebanon from a conspiracy where Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar uses al-Qaida to destroy their Islamic Resistance, is proving hard to sell. It could have become easier with the increase in terror attacks in areas of Lebanon under Hizballahs control, but instead,  these attacks have given rise to potentially dangerous sentiments among the mainly Shiite population in these parts of the country. As “security” in these areas is the prerogative of Hizballah, not the Lebanese state, the failure of preventing these attacks could have serious consequences for its hegemony over the Shiites.

On other fronts the future looks troublesome for the Party as well. The STL has started in Hauge, where the prosecution will present evidence linking it to the assassination of Hariri. Another member of the Party, Mahmoud Hayek, is charged by the Lebanese judiciary of attempting to assassinate the Christian MP Butros Harb, but like the  case with the accused in the Hariri trial, the Party refuses to hand him over and face trial. On top of this comes scandals involving close relatives of Hizballah leaders. The brother of its MP Mohammad Fneish, Abdel Latif, is charged with fraud in a case of imported drugs, two brothers of MP Husayn Moussawi, Jihad and Hisham, are accused of manufacturing Captagon, a narcotic similar to amphetamine. Then there is the case where journalist Rami Aysha, the head of Time Magazine’s Beirut bureau, was severely tortured by Hizballah members in one of its prisons as he was uncovering corruption within the Party. This story involved local Hizballah commanders selling arms to Syrian rebels, where the motive was profit, nothing else.

Add to this the factors that all the Lebanese, including the Shiites, are facing; an economy on the verge of collapse, and a million and a half Syrian refugees. The result is a situation where Hizballah finds itself in a corner.

A possible way out, at least temporarily, would be to establish a government with a broader legitimacy than the previous. However, several parties have refused to participate in such a government as long as Hizballah is still fighting in Syria. The prospect of a prolonged crisis is more than likely, further cornering the Party of God.