Fifteen years after the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, Hezbollah has risen to become the overarching power in a country that is now collapsing under its feet amid a series of devastating crises.
A U.N.-backed tribunal on Tuesday convicted a member of the Iranian-backed group of conspiring to kill Hariri in a 2005 bombing and acquitted three others.
The verdict came at a time when Lebanon’s economy has collapsed. Institutions from the security services to the presidency, occupied by a Hezbollah ally, have been found wanting, and people are struggling with the aftermath of the massive explosion that shredded central Beirut this month.
Added to this, there is no functioning government and there is a spike in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has denied that the group has ever controlled Lebanese governments or that it has a majority that would allow it to act on its own.
But Lebanon is slipping from Hezbollah’s hands, said a political source familiar with the thinking among the group’s Christian allies.
Hezbollah has faced growing criticism for its perceived failure to deliver on promised reforms since winning a parliamentary majority with its allies in 2018.
The government — nominated by Hezbollah and its allies after the previous administration led by Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain PM, was toppled by a civic uprising last October — resigned over the Aug. 4 blast.
It had tried to negotiate a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund, but was blocked by the very powerbrokers who appointed it.
“There are so many problems internally apart from the port explosion,” says Magnus Ranstorp, a Hezbollah expert. “The country is breaking under their feet.”
Western donors say they will not bail out Lebanon without fundamental reforms to a corrupt system.
The Shi’ite movement, which has acted as a spearhead for Tehran in Syria’s civil war and across the region, is also facing public anger over the explosion in the Beirut port that has traumatized the country.
The detonation of what authorities say was 2,700 tonnes of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate fuelled outrage over government negligence, incompetence and inaction.
Hezbollah is not only the predominant power in Lebanon but is seen as protecting a corrupt political class that has driven Lebanon into the ground.
“What Hezbollah doesn’t understand about the port explosion, the outcry, the protests, is that people view it as the latest manifestation of the corrupt elite and they hold Hezbollah responsible for safeguarding this elite,” said Gerges.
“Hezbollah is losing the narrative inside Lebanon,” he said.
Many Lebanese, including some Christians who once supported Hezbollah, have turned against the group even though it is not responsible for an economic crisis that had piled up for years under previous governments.
The mood changed after Nasrallah gave a televised address denying responsibility for the blast and warning protesters that any more attacks on the system and its leaders would meet a robust response.
“You would have expected him to have reached out to the public by saying he would do anything to find out what has happened, that ‘we are with the people,'” Gerges said.