Hezbollah does not seem to be satisfied with the current grip it has on Lebanon. Despite winning the 2008 parliamentary elections and forming a majority government with its allies, Hezbollah still wants it all. They no longer want to tolerate critics or challengers, from the street or from the political class. Two recent developments in Lebanon indicate that Hezbollah is heading to silence – or at least weaken – all opposing voices. One is the intensifying campaign against Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and the other against Shia voices who dare to criticize Hezbollah’s practices within the Shia community.
THE CAMPAIGN AGAIN JUMBLATT
The crisis started in Mount Lebanon, where two supporters of pro-Assad Druze MP Talal Arslan, an ally of Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Hezbollah, were killed in clashes with supporters of Jumblatt, who heads the rival Druze Progressive Socialist Party. The shooting took place while Arslan’s ally Gharib’s entourage was passing through the town of Qabreshmoun.
Bassil, Hezbollah’s main Christian ally, used the incident to consolidate power. After the shooting, Bassil’s bloc demanded the issue be referred to the Judicial Council, an extrajudicial body that handles matters of national security. Jumblatt, along with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, stood in the way. Jumblatt's party says the incident was an exchange of fire initiated by Minister Saleh Al-Gharib's entourage in which two Jumblatt supporters were also wounded.
In an attempt to calm the tensions, Jumblatt handed two of his supporters, suspected of involvement in the shooting, to the authorities, and demanded that the other side do the same.
Hariri has refused to put the shooting incident on the cabinet agenda because Hezbollah allies had hinted that Jumblatt is culpable and wanted the case to go to a special tribunal. Having failed, they have been trying to have the case go to a military tribunal, also under their control.
Consequently, the cabinet has not convened since the incident on June 30, causing a paralysis of the discussions on the 2020 budget. In a recent television interview, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Jumblatt and other critics of Hezbollah of conspiring against their so-called axis of resistance. Nasrallah still cannot forget what Jamblatt had said in May 2019, when he challenged one of Hezbollah’s main justifications for keeping its weapons. He said the Shebaa Farms, disputed territory occupied by Israel, was Syrian and not Lebanese as Hezbollah claims.
Jumblatt is also a fierce critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and many observers view this campaign as part of a wider campaign to weaken his influence over Lebanon's Druze community. In addition, Jumblatt is often seen as a champion and protector of Syrian refugees, which both Nasrallah and Bassil are eager to deport. This campaign – for many - resembles previous strategies by Iran and the Syrian regime of branding critics as traitors and make their persecution justified. There are valid fears that if they manage to take the case to the military tribunal, Hezbollah might be able to use its influence to frame Jumblatt, in an attempt to break him, politically and personally.
In a less significant incident, but equally indicative, a Shia critic of Hezbollah has been kicked out of her home and out of the town of Debaal in the south of Lebanon where she lived.
Fadwa – a forty-year-old mother – has for weeks been critical of Hezbollah and their supporters from Debaal and her hometown of Majadel. It seems that after weeks of exposing some of these people – with names – she started to receive threats. Instead of stopping her criticism, Fadwa took to social media – mainly YouTube – and voiced more criticism over these threats. She also said that she had tried to go to the local police but nothing came out of it.
During one of her YouTube episodes, she said, “You (Hezbollah) are condemning me for swearing at Hezbollah while everyone else swears at them, but I was the one who dared to speak out.”
A few days later, Fadwa released a new video saying that she and her children have been forced out of their home in retaliation. She included footage that went viral on social media, showing furniture and other items scattered outside her rented house in the town of Debaal.
This incident – although small in comparison - has great implications as it reflects the extent of Hezbollah’s influence in the South, the scope of its power, and its authority over state institutions, such as police stations. However, this isolated incident also reflects the extent of unrest within communities in South Lebanon, due to payment cuts and Hezbollah’s financial crisis.
But for Hezbollah, not a single critic will be tolerated anymore. This increased intolerance towards individual critics is also due to the fact that Hezbollah is more pressured by its own community and is worried that this criticism and freedom to voice it will spread and cause more pressure. Therefore, kicking Fadwa out of her house and town – although drastic – was specifically made to send a message to the Shia community that anyone who dares to say anything against Hezbollah might face a similar – if not worse – fate. Fadwa’s story was a clear memo that Hezbollah’s redlines shall not be crossed.
Video footage showed furniture and other items belonging to Fadwa scattered outside her rented house in Debaal. (Social media)
Both these incidents show that Hezbollah needs more control over rhetoric and political life. So why isn’t the party satisfied with the power they have recently achieved – democratically through elections? Wouldn’t it be better to allow a few opposing voices who cannot really challenge or change the political equation?
That might be true if Hezbollah wasn’t facing its own challenges or are concerned about future ones.
One of these upcoming challenges is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s final decision, which is expected to come out by the year’s end, and is predicted to name certain Hezbollah members. Besides the domestic blow that this might produce, it will probably put Hezbollah under more scrutiny by the international community, mainly Europe, which has not yet listed Hezbollah’s “political wing” as a terrorist organization.
Hezbollah is also worried about more US sanctions on Iran – causing more financial problems for the party, and probable sanctions against its Lebanese figures, financiers, and allies. If Hezbollah’s allies are sanctioned – such as Aounists and Amal members – Hezbollah’s political balance might be shaken.
In addition to these two challenges, Lebanon’s economy is not doing well, and many are concerned of a serious financial collapse where the Lebanese Lira could fall and the government might not be able to pay salaries. Add to that the other pending issues such as electricity, pollution, the garbage crisis, public education, among others. Usually Hezbollah is very good at criticizing the government and encouraging others to speak up against corruption. But that was when Hezbollah was on the side of the opposition.
Today, Hezbollah is the authority and they will be blamed for the government’s shortcomings one way or another. Having Hariri as a PM will work for a while, but everyone knows that Hariri does not really control these decisions. Hezbollah cannot afford more criticism and exposure. Therefore, everyone will have to be silenced, from Jumblatt to Fadwa.
Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy