Lebanon's Hizbullah under rare street pressure



Lebanese Shias watch a televised speech by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah during the Arbaeen religious festival in the city of Baalbek in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley on October 19th. [AFP]

When mass anti-government protests engulfed Lebanon, a taboo was broken as strongholds of the Shia Hizbullah movement saw rare demonstrations criticising the party and revered leader Hassan Nasrallah.

On live TV and in protest sites, citizens accused the party of providing political cover for a corrupt government that they say has robbed people of their livelihoods.

This shattered the myth of absolute acquiescence among Hizbullah's popular base, baffling even those who hail from the movement's strongholds.

"No one ever expected that in any of these areas in south Lebanon we would hear a single word against Nasrallah," or Amal Movement leader Nabih Berri, said Sara, a 32-year-old activist who participated in protests in the southern city of Nabatiyeh.

"It's unbelievable," the activist added, asking to use a pseudonym due to security concerns.

The popular Iran-backed movement is a major political player that took 13 seats in the country's May 2018 parliamentary elections and secured three cabinet posts.

It is the only political party not to have disarmed after Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, even though UN Security Council Resolution 1701 affirmed the need to eliminate all illegal weapons on the territory of the Lebanese state, including Hizbullah's weapons.

Popular dissatisfaction with the government peaked last week following protests over taxes, corruption and dire economic conditions.

South Lebanon, a Hizbullah bastion, was not spared.

Protests have been reported in the cities of Nabatiyeh, Bint Jbeil, and Tyre, where Hizbullah and its political affiliate the Amal Movement hold sway.

With the exception of Tyre, they were not as big as other parts of the country.

But "the novelty here is that some of these protesters are party loyalists," said Sara.

"They support Hizbullah, but they are suffocating."

Dissatisfaction with Nasrallah

In the past, Nasrallah's followers have mobilised against anyone who tried to criticise him.

But anti-government protests that started in Beirut on October 17th and quickly spread across the country left no politician unscathed, not even the Hizbullah leader.

"All of them means all of them, Nasrallah is one of them," protesters chanted in Beirut.

Criticism of Nasrallah even aired on the Hizbullah-run Al-Manar TV, in a scene that was previously unfathomable for watchers of the movement's propaganda arm.

In a live interview from central Beirut, one protester urged Nasrallah to "look after his people in Lebanon" instead of focusing on regional enterprises like Syria, where he has deployed fighters to defend President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Hatem Gharbeel, a protester in Nabatiyeh, said Hizbullah loyalists felt let down, adding that the criticism of Nasrallah has broken taboos.

"The barrier of fear has been broken," he said.

"It shows that people are not blindly following their political or sectarian leaders anymore."

Lokman Slim, an independent political activist and an outspoken critic of Hizbullah, said that resentment among Lebanon's Shia community "is not born out of a single event or a single moment".

"Frustration has been fermenting over the past few years over an economic crisis hampering not just the Lebanese state but also Hizbullah's statelet," he said.

Hizbullah has filled in for the weak central government in areas where it has influence, creating social welfare institutions and providing an array of public services, including education and health services.

But the group has come under financial strain due to tightening US sanctions, forcing Nasrallah to appeal to his popular base for donations earlier this year.

"The Shias have nothing to lose anymore," said Slim.

"This is why they are out on the streets."

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Hizbollah is terrorist