For Hezbollah to establish itself as the strongest faction in Lebanon, and then transform into a regional arm for Iran, a strategy of popular support had to be carved. The Iranian regime understood that without vast popular support and loyalty, Hezbollah will always be confronted with Lebanon’s shifting political dynamics and international pressure.
They also understood that this support base has to withstand regional and international storms, and therefore be immune to criticism or accountability. It has to be sacred, and unquestionable. Therefore, Iran helped Hezbollah by building its support base, centred on three main pillars, with a sacred component for each and every one of them.
HEZBOLLAH’S SACRED PILLARS OF SUPPORT
The first and most important pillar is the resistance, which the Islamic State in Iran created, funded and organized. Before Hezbollah’s resistance, Lebanon did have its own national resistance that consisted of leftist and liberal groups who came together to form a national resistance front, with the simple goal of liberating the occupied parts of Lebanon. When Hezbollah realized that this front enjoyed the support and admiration of the vast majority of the Shia community in Lebanon, they started an assassination spree against its leadership, until they were weakened enough for Hezbollah to take over and claim the resistance as their own creation and cause.
Eventually, resistance became Hezbollah’s main brand and Iran’s gift to Lebanon. But this was not possible if it wasn’t accompanied by Iran’s willingness to throw major sums of money and weapons on Hezbollah’s new brand.
This is why the second pillar is equally important; that is, the social services and jobs. Hezbollah created hundreds of service institutions and started catering its services to all the Shia community – and sometimes beyond – telling the constituency that they not only there to liberate the land, but also to protect and provide.
Hezbollah became the main job provider for the Shia community, with jobs and benefits that no one else in Lebanon could provide, including the state.
Hezbollah came to the Shia community and said: Forget about the state and its institutions. They failed to liberate you. They failed to protect you. And most importantly, they failed to provide for you. You do not have to be citizens of this state. You are my children, and I am your father.
But that too was not enough to gain the desired sacredness. Both the resistance and the services needed to be tied to something bigger and further than Lebanon. It wasn’t difficult to elevate the resistance to the sacred level. That was already considered a noble cause by many people in Lebanon, mainly the Shia community that was mostly under Israeli occupation in the south of Lebanon. But separately, the resistance cannot hold on its own
The two pillars had to be tied together with the third and most significant one – in Iran’s perspective; that is the Shia identity and its link to Wilayat Al Faqih in Iran. Because of the Wilayat al Faqih umbrella, Hezbollah’s resistance and services were now more tied to the Shia identity, with rhetoric and methodology that prioritized the Shia community. If you are a loyal Shia, who appreciate Iran’s fatherhood, Hezbollah will protect you, provide for you, and make sure that you are politically empowered and covered no matter how impertinent you are towards other Lebanese. The other Lebanese do not count. Only you – as a Shia citizen of Iran – count, and you will be guaranteed power and prosperity.
This worked magically. Many within the Shia community liked the idea of being part of something that is so much bigger than themselves and their inconsequential identities. They weren’t treated as citizens by their own state, so why not try another entity – or another identity. All they have to do is be loyal and appreciative.
Meanwhile, this loyalty - slowly but surely - morphed into sacredness. Refraining from criticizing Hezbollah’s Iranian affiliation or sectarian rhetoric, eventually allowed Hezbollah to take advantage of this trend and present itself as the most sacred entity for the Shia community. Between their rhetoric of victory as a resistance movement, the generosity of Iran, and their image as the only party in Lebanon that hasn’t been tainted with the civil war and corruption, Hezbollah became the ideal movement – the sacred one.
HOW HEZBOLLAH LOST ITS SACREDNESS
Unfortunately for Hezbollah, this image was shaken many times, and opportunities were brought into light.
It started to shake with the many reports and cases of corruption within its ranks. People started to realize that Hezbollah officials and politicians are as corrupt as other political figures in Lebanon, and that they flaunt their wealth in front of other poor Shia. It is not difficult for the Shia to realize this when Hezbollah’s officials’ wives drive the most expensive cares and when their children go to the most expensive private schools and universities.
Hezbollah also was exposed to be dealing in prostitution, money laundering and drugs productions. And to make things worse, it turned out that Israel’s best spies were recruited from within Hezbollah’s ranks.
All these were hard to accept by the loyal and by then brainwashed Shia community. Many believed Hezbollah’s counter propaganda, and many made excuses for Hezbollah. It is not easy to go after your protector – or you “father” in the symbolic sense of the situation.
But Hezbollah was still tainted, and despite all the attempts to clean its slate, things were no longer the same, although the small criticism that started to emerge from within the Shia community didn’t go to the public sphere.
Then came May 7, 2008, when Hezbollah used its arms for the first time against other Lebanese. Although the Shia community didn’t really oppose Hezbollah operations back then, many started to ask questions in private about Hezbollah’s real motives. The weapons were supposed to be used against Israel and to defend Lebanon, so what is Hezbollah really doing?
These questions amplified when the Shia community started to feel the isolation caused by Hezbollah’s 2008 actions. And this isolation drastically increased when Hezbollah marched to Syria and the rest of the region and used its weapons against Syrian Sunnis and anti-regime groups. The weapons of the resistance transformed, yet again, and on a much bigger scale, into tools to silence and oppress Arab citizens, help dictators, and serve Iran’s regional agenda.
What made it worse is that Hezbollah did not respond to any of the Israeli attacks against its positions in Syria. Israel did not spare Hezbollah and Iran in Syria and has been bombing their facilities for years, destroying almost half of it. But Hezbollah decided to put the resistance on hold, and – despite their continuing anti-Israel Rhetoric – people understood that resistance is no longer a Hezbollah priority.
The first pillar cracked.
Discontent increased when Hezbollah started facing a financial crisis, and started cutting many of its social services. They first focused on providing for their fighters’ community to make sure this part of the community will not abandon them when the battle is still going on.
However, Hezbollah’s financial issues are becoming more challenging today and they had to cut half of the salaries of many fighters. Without the services, jobs and salaries, the second pillar also cracked.
All is left is the Shia identity and the ideological connection to Iran’s Wilayat al Faqih. However, this alone is not going to put food on the table, send the children to school, or provide a sense of security amidst fears of another war between Hezbollah and Israel. And with the deteriorating economic situation in Lebanon, people’s priorities have shifted, and financial security is becoming more important than ideologies and loyalties to abstract causes.
Hezbollah is no longer the liberator, the protector and the provider for the Shia community. Hezbollah is no longer the father or the sacred umbrella that protects all its children.
Iran might recover from sanctions if the extreme pressure campaign changed with another administration, but in any case, Hezbollah’s image has changed, and the Shia community are no longer tied to it with a sacred thread that cannot be cut. If they are offered a sustainable and solid alternative, many would reconsider.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.