Beirut, Lebanon- The Lebanese armed group Hezbollah is in a “difficult and delicate” situation as protests continue to paralyse Lebanon for the second week, analysts say.
The rising cost of living, alleged corruption by officials and high unemployment have reached a peak, Lebanese protesters say, demanding the resignation of all political leaders and an end to the sectarian system of governance.
Protests began on October 19, following the government’s plans to to impose new taxes on tobacco, petrol and WhatsApp calls, as public anger spilled on to the streets.
The government hurriedly reversed its new tax proposals but it was too late to stop the protesters from coming out on the streets.
The plan to add a daily fee of $0.20 for Whatsapp calls turned the demonstrations into the country’s biggest mass protest in years.
Chants of “all of them means all” and “the people demand the fall of the regime” was heard on the streets.
Many analystsremarked that the mass protests have, for the first time, were seen across the country, with rare protests also spreading to southern Lebanon, known to be a stronghold of Hezbollah, seen as the most powerful force in the country.
However, while protesters have been voicing their anger against the government, political science professor at Lebanese University, Amal Saad, told Al Jazeera the Lebanese in Shia-majority areas, who have been protesting against the government, have also been criticising Hezbollah for not doing enough to confront the government.
“The overwhelmingly majority of Shia have been accusing [Speaker of Parliament Nabih] Berri, Amal [Movement] leader, of a lot of corruption of stealing public funds. His wife is extremely wealthy, as wealthy as Hariri,” Saad said.
“They criticise Hezbollah for not stopping corruption, because Berri is a main Hezbollah ally and Hezbollah has done nothing to hold him to account or to hold other partners in government to account.”
But there is little Hezbollah can do to confront the government due to “crucial” alliances which are forged to preserve stability and security, Saad added.
The Shia duo Hezbollah and Amal, and its allies, emerged as the biggest winners in the election.
Hezbollah is a major political force, having won 13 seats in the May 2018 parliamentary elections and securing three cabinet posts.
It’s been in an alliance with Maronite Christian ally President Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement for over a decade, helping him to win the presidency in 2016.
Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, backed the government and opposed its resignation in his televised addresses to the nation, most recently on Friday.
On October 19,Nasrallah said the protests were “a waste of time”.
Saad said it would take too long to agree on an electoral law for early elections, as the last time they came up with something in the last elections, it was much less than ideal.
“The ideal would be proportional representation in Lebanon as a single constituency. But Christians don’t want it. They say it will marginalise them,” Saad said.
In his second speech on Friday, Nasrallah warned that a government resignation would create a power vacuum which could lead the country into civil unrest, conjuring fears of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that came to an end in 1990.
“Lebanon has entered a stage of regional political targeting, and it is no longer just a popular movement,” he said.
Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, viewed Nasrallah’s speeches as an attempt at discrediting the protest movement.
“When statements like this are made, warning of political vacuum and chaos and civil war, they point out not at real expectations but more as discomfort on Hezbollah’s part,” Khatib said.
“It’s beginning to feel threatened by protests on the streets because Hezbollah is part of the ruling elite in Lebanon and the protesters are not budging in terms of saying they are against everything in the political class in the country, including Hezbollah.”
Formed in 1982, following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah (Party of God in Arabic) is the only movement in Lebanon not to have disarmed after the 1975-90 civil war.
The Shia movement liberated South Lebanon from Israeli occupation in 2000, and also defended the country in a month-long war against Israel in 2006, a military success for the Iran-backed group fighting against a state army.
But in recent months there has been an increase in Israeli drones violating Lebanon’s airspace. On Wednesday, a Lebanese man shot down an Israeli drone with a rifle near the border village of Kfar Kila.
In September, Hezbollah said it shot down an Israeli drone near the southern town of Ramyah, the first such incident since 2006.
Saad believes there is “genuine” concern that a political and security vacuum can be exploited by the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel which would affect Hezbollah and its resistance.
“Hezbollah’s resistance has always dictated its political choices. It has always subordinated its political gain for the resistance,” Saad said.
“And that’s why it’s always made alliances with Amal [with whom it used to clash in the civil war], for example. In 2005, it joined this government. It never joined any government in the past because it knew people would hold it to account for its economic policies and they didn’t want to be responsible for that. It’s ironic because it’s happening now.”
When a polarisation formed over Hezbollah’s arms in 2005, the group joined the government to attain veto power over any strategic decision that would decide to disarm it, Saad noted.
“It’s always made choices to preserve its resistance. That’s always been the priority,” Saad said.
The Shia movement has come under increasing financial pressure as US President Donald Trump’s administration ramped up its sanctions against the group to unprecedented levels, targeting lawmakers for the first time earlier this month as well as a local bank accused of having ties with Hezbollah.
According to The Associated Press, two US officials visited Beirut in September and warned sanctions will increase to deprive Hezbollah of its sources of income.
In March, Hezbollah asked its popular base for donations after the UK announced it would seek to ban Hezbollah’s political wing as a ‘terrorist organisation’.
In areas where it dominates, Hezbollah has filled in for the government’s inactivity by offering citizens a variety of public services, including in education and health.
Whether the government resigns or not, Saad said Hezbollah would be the least affected by a change of political leaders as the group would probably win the same number of seats in early elections.
“They’ve won more seats than ever in the elections. It’s [the group] the least tarnished by these protests so I don’t see any problem for Hezbollah,”Saad said.
However, Khatib believes Hezbollah has a lot to lose from the protests as it is Lebanon’s most influential political party and [Nasrallah is] de facto ruler of the country.
“Hezbollah has the most to lose from the kind of political change demanded by the protesters which is calling for a civil state that is accountable and transparent,” Khatib said, adding that the only way the political system can be “shaken” is if disagreements start to occur between different political parties in the ruling class about what to do next.
“For now, it is clear that the political elites are trying to get together on one side against the Lebanese protesters but it’s not clear as to how long the show of unity will last,” Khatib said.