I’m shocked when Karim shakes my hand.
I’ve known the Hezbollah fighter (whose name has been changed for this story) for some time now. But he’s never touched me before, because many religiously observant Muslim men—particularly those in Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shia militia and political party—consider it haram (forbidden) to have any physical contact with a woman who isn’t their wife or close relative. This time, though, he reaches for my hand without hesitation. My surprise must show, because Karim offers a brief, grim smile.
“I don’t believe in any of that anymore,” he says. “I’ve finally woken up. I think the Lebanese people are all waking up now.”
Increasingly large demonstrations over a worsening garbage crisis in Beirut have rocked Lebanon’s capital since late July. People are taking to the streets in the tens of thousands under the banner “You Stink,” which expresses their disgust at the trash piling up in their city and the sectarian politicians who can’t even agree on a company to dispose of the refuse as they argue over how to divide profits from the waste management. Last week, security forces brutally cracked down on the protesters, unleashing water cannons and shooting live rounds into the crowds, which numbered in the thousands, further fueling public outrage and swelling the demonstrations.
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Although Hezbollah announced public support for the protests, the declaration is perceived by most as insincere and politically motivated, and the Shia party has become a target for the protesters’ anger. As they suffer increasingly high casualties battling the Islamic State, it appears that Hezbollah, which typically enjoys diehard loyalty from its followers, is shedding some of its supporters. Members say the protests were triggered by foreign governments, and it’s true that Lebanon has a long history of other countries meddling in its affairs, both publicly and covertly. But mounting frustration at the paralyzed government, mired in squabbling to the point where it hasn’t been able to elect a president for 15 months, is very real.
The Lebanese government is divided between four major sects: Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, and Druze. Although other factions such as the Sunni-dominated March 14 coalition have been feeling the heat of the protests, Hezbollah has the most to lose if support wanes. They’ve been expecting trouble from neighboring Israel on the country’s southern border since 2006, when the Jewish state invaded in a short-lived but bitter conflict—the worst since Lebanon’s devastating 15-year civil war ended in 1990. Hezbollah has also been fighting the Islamic State in Syria and along the northeastern Lebanese border; this has put them in an alliance with Bashar al-Assad’s notoriously ruthless regime.
But in addition to being a well-armed militia, Hezbollah is very much part of the Lebanese government. Led by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, the party holds a third of the cabinet seats in the current, temporary “unity government,” formed after the last government collapsed in 2013. The parliament has extended its own term twice because of infighting over presidential candidates. As a result, the group has become a target of the protesters’ anger—which in addition to the costly battle in Syria, is causing some Hezbollah supporters to express disillusionment with their leadership.
Karim says he’s become so frustrated that he’s trying to defect and flee to Europe with his family—and that others in the group are starting to doubt their leaders. “Our fighters are beginning to smell the coffee now,” he tells me bitterly. “I’m not the only one. Many of my friends are talking about defecting… Hezbollah is going crazy.”
Hezbollah provides a number of crucial social services in its territory, including medical care and education. But Karim claims the group’s concern for the welfare of its citizens is actually socioeconomic exploitation. “We’ve started to understand that we are poor and the poverty in our neighborhoods is created by Hezbollah, so we’ll stay with them, so we have to ask them for food and electricity,” he explains.
According to Karim, the primary reason Hezbollah is losing followers is because the war in Syria has cost its fighters dearly. He says his defection opens him up to possible retaliation from the group’s leadership.
“I don’t want to go to Syria again because I don’t want to die,” Karim says. “But my life is in danger because I’m defecting. If I don’t leave soon, they’ll kill me. As long as you’re with them, they give you everything you need, but the minute they smell that you’re doubting them a little, you’re an enemy.”
Bilal Saab, senior fellow for Middle East security at the Atlantic Council, a DC-based think tank, says that Hezbollah is extremely sensitive to any loss in popularity, and the protests are a likely sore spot for the group. “Any type of Shi’ite political activism makes Hezbollah nervous,” he writes in an email. “Anything that might shake their support base is a source of anxiety for Hassan Nasrallah. Protecting the core at a time when overall Shi’ite support is damaged due to Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is a must. The demonstrations are potentially an annoying distraction for the group.”
“We’ve come to a point in Lebanon where things are just intolerable.” –Joey Ayoub
Joey Ayoub is one of the founders of the You Stink protest movement, which, in addition to demanding a resolution to the garbage crisis, has also called for immediate elections so that a new, permanent government might be formed. Over lunch at a cafe in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut, he explains that it was not the protest leaders’ intention to particularly target Hezbollah, but that was a side effect that couldn’t be avoided.
“Other entities and people are taking advantage of the situation to weaken Hezbollah, certainly,” Ayoub tells me. “But we’re not saying, ‘Don’t vote for Hezbollah, don’t vote for Aoun [Hezbollah’s Christian ally].’ That’s their choice. We just want them to have the chance to vote at all. Personally, we are secular, but we have supporters on the ground who say they are members of Hezbollah or the Lebanese Forces or whatever. But they will say that the members of their party in Parliament do not represent them. They believe in the overall ideology of the party but they don’t believe in the men who are in the government.”
Considering the security situation and external threats like IS and Israel, I ask Ayoub if now might not be the best time to weaken Hezbollah, since they are much better equipped militarily than the Lebanese army to combat the country’s enemies.
“This is weakening Hezbollah only because they are a part of the government,” Ayoub insists. “The whole issue regarding Hezbollah and how they deal with the army is not even remotely relevant to what we’re doing. That’s something that is dividing the Lebanese public in general, but it’s not at all what we’re focusing on.”
But it does have that effect, I point out.
“Yes, it does,” he concedes. “But we can’t not ask for justice because of something that might not happen. We’ve come to a point in Lebanon where things are just intolerable; we’re losing even the basic social support from the government that people used to think they had in the past… and there’s a lot of fear-mongering happening as well. We’re not asking for a power vacuum, we’re just asking for elections. We want to give the people back their voice.”
Members of the Internal Security Forces in the Ministry of Environment compound, where You Stink protesters held a sit-in on September 1
In Dahiyeh, the Shia southern suburb of Beirut, a hard-eyed Hezbollah commander I’ll call Hassan looks around uncomfortably.
“Let’s go inside,” he tells me. “I don’t want anyone to see us talking.”
“Hezbollah is not involved in these protests at all,” he says, once we have some privacy. “There is an order that no member is allowed to participate in them. Even their relatives are forbidden from taking part in the demonstrations.”
Hassan tells me that although he believes that the majority of the protesters are sincerely motivated by frustration with their government, he’s convinced that the demonstrations were triggered by Western governments and their allies. “I can assure you that these protests were not born in a minute,” he says. “They were well-prepared for some time, and the culprits behind them are known. They come from foreign embassies… It seems like they’re taking the right opportunity at the right time. Yes, I truly believe the Lebanese people are angry and protesting on their own. But at the same time, we have to understand who is provoking them behind the scenes, without them knowing. These people are taking the opportunity to instigate instability in Lebanon.”
“Do you think the US has something to do with it?” I ask.
“No,” he says with a sarcastic chuckle. “Maybe it’s Yemen.”
Although there is historical precedent for the idea that America would covertly prompt internal conflict in another nation to achieve its own ends, tangible evidence to support the accusation has yet to emerge.
But Hassan says it’s easier to pinpoint other, locally generated attempts to keep tensions high. “I know the people who paid money to the thugs who caused the violence at the protests,” he tells me. “I know them by name, but it’s not in my best interest to say it. All the people who caused violence are on video and in photos, and we all know exactly who they are. These thugs came straight from the cabinet building. They were asked to throw Molotov cocktails at security forces.”
According to Hassan, even the members of security forces who shot live rounds at protesters last week did so purposefully. “The Information Branch changed their clothes into ISF [Internal Security Forces] and fired into the crowd,” he explains. “I can assure you that the people who were responsible for the shootings will be brought to justice, and Hezbollah will support this process.”
“Most of the people who are protesting are calling for a secular state, which is something that Hezbollah will definitely refuse.” –Assaad Thebian
But Assaad Thebian, another You Stink leader, maintains that Hezbollah is throwing these accusations around because they’re nervous that their power as a religious institution in the government is being threatened by the protests.
“Most of the people who are protesting are calling for a secular state, which is something that Hezbollah will definitely refuse,” he tells me after a sit-in at the Ministry of the Environment on Tuesday turned into another large-scale demonstration. We’re outside the American University of Beirut Hospital, where Thebian is waiting for medical updates on some injured protesters. “I don’t know if they have an interest in this or not, but we as organizers couldn’t care less about their interests or the interests of other political parties. Our interests are having less corruption in the state, having new Parliamentary elections, finding a solution to the garbage issue, the resignation of the Ministry of the Environment and an investigation into the security forces who opened fire on protesters.”
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I ask Thebian if he thinks it’s true that Hezbollah is losing followers.
“I don’t know,” he counters. “I’m not directly in touch with the Hezbollah base.”
“Can’t you see this weakening them, though?” I ask. “And perhaps this might not be the best time to do so? Maybe things will get worse.”
“What’s worse?” he asks rhetorically. “A new civil war? It’s not the decision of the Lebanese politicians to do this… If it is in the best interests of the international community to have war in Lebanon, it happens, and when it’s not in their best interests, we don’t. As long as there’s an agreement between the Saudis and the Iranians or the USA and other players, then we’re fine. When they don’t agree, then we pay the price.
“Let’s just say that all political parties have different types of followers,” he continues. “There are the most brainwashed followers who nothing will prevent from following them, and then there are the people on the margin, who shift—they go and come back. It depends on how much you reach them. So yes, a lot of people are coming to these protests, and although they have their own leaders and political agendas—they say, ‘We support Hezbollah’ or, ‘We support the Lebanese Forces.’—they also say they want a solution to all this political corruption. I don’t know if they are honest about it, and if they will wake up and say, ‘Fuck our political parties, we want to join another movement.’ Until now, it’s too early to judge.”
Protestors inside the Ministry of Environment in Beirut compound signal to fellow demonstrators on September 1
Meanwhile, tensions mount on the borders. There are media reports that Hezbollah has increased its alert level regarding a conflict with Israel in the south. When asked if he thinks Hezbollah weakening will prove detrimental to its ability to fight foes like Israel and the Islamic State, Saab, the Middle East fellow, says that’s unlikely.
“I wouldn’t discount this particular group’s military capabilities and desire to fight Israel one bit,” he writes. “On ISIS, I don’t see it posing an existential threat to Lebanon as a whole. The Lebanon-Syria borders might be turbulent for some time until Syria calms down, and Hezbollah will continue to closely monitor ISIS and other jihadi movements, but that’s the geographical scope and limit of that fight.”
But Timur Goksel, former spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the international peacekeeping organization charged with mediating border conflicts between Israel and Lebanon, says he thinks Hezbollah losing popularity will render it more vulnerable to external threats.
“A weak Hezbollah would please Israel,” he explains in an email. “Israel sees Hezbollah as the only true potential foe. A weak Hezbollah will enable Israel to focus more on its other key issues as Gaza and West Bank. Of course, it will also offer Israel a free hand in interfering in Lebanon. Daesh [a derogatory Arabic term for ISIS] will have similar benefits from any weakening of Hezbollah, but not immediately. Only if Daesh dominates the Syrian opposition scene will it be able to turn to Lebanon, not now. But a weak Shiite community in Lebanon will certainly facilitate whatever goals Daesh might have.”
So Goksel thinks waning support for Hezbollah isn’t exactly in Lebanon’s best interest. “It will make Lebanon more vulnerable to external pressures and intervention by outside forces,” he maintains. “Hezbollah, without Shiite popular support, is also a dangerous prospect internally because then the party will be more prone to use force to preserve its local standing.”
But disillusioned fighters and former party supporters like Karim aren’t thinking about the security situation right now, too frustrated with their leadership to consider the implications of their shift in allegiance.
“Why do the Shia always have to pay in blood?” he complains. “Why are we the only ones? [Hezbollah] wants to brainwash my kids and turn them into fighters…we’ve started to feel that something is wrong. They’re using us like goats.”
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