Hezbollah Hit by Political Backlash After Blast

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) -
Aanti-Hezbollah protesters hold banners during a sit-in against Hezbollah and Iran in front the United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

 

The blast at the port of Beirut, caused by a stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored there for years, appears to be a result of longtime government mismanagement. No direct connection to Hezbollah has emerged in the explosion that wreaked destruction across the city and killed at least 190 people.

For many, the Iran-backed Hezbollah now stands at the top of Lebanon’s sectarian-based system of power — and so is complicit in the corruption many blame for the port disaster and for driving the country to near-bankruptcy.

In the wake of the blast, Hezbollah has come under unprecedented public criticism and its role in Lebanese politics under intense scrutiny.

Cardboard effigies of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and other politicians were hanged with nooses at a rally after the blast. Some accused Hezbollah of storing weapons at the port, a claim it denies. Hezbollah’s political rivals seized the opportunity to fan hostilities against it and its allies.

Social media posts mocked Nasrallah’s speeches. One noted how the U.S. killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January prompted Nasrallah to weep and threaten revenge, while in his first speech following the blast, he was smiling and calm.

“There is a paradox there with Hezbollah. They have never been more powerful politically and militarily. But they have never faced such an array of challenges as well,” said Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based Hezbollah expert.

The season of discontent against Hezbollah comes as Lebanese suffer under an economic crash that has driven nearly half of the population into poverty. Rather than push for reform, critics say, Hezbollah has stood by its political allies who resist change. It also denied support to nationwide protests that erupted in October demanding the end of the dysfunctional political structure. U.S. sanctions against Iran and Hezbollah made things harder.

For years, Hezbollah maintained a clean reputation and distance from Lebanon’s political elite. It developed its power and resources as a resistance movement against Israel and became virtually a state within a state, heading a powerful military force and a welfare network for its Shiite supporters.

Hezbollah remains Lebanon’s only armed force outside the military. It controls the borders and plays a crucial role in Iranian-backed wars in the region, like Syria’s.

In 2005, an explosion killed former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and changed Lebanon’s political course. The bombing, blamed on Hezbollah, sent nearly a million people into the streets, forcing Hezbollah’s ally Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon.

After that, Hezbollah began seeping into the system — from having a handful of Parliament members to becoming Lebanon’s most powerful political faction.

Hezbollah and its allies formed the last Cabinet. Its failures came to be seen as Hezbollah’s, Blanford said.

And of failures there were many: The government failed to enact reforms, stem the financial meltdown or reach a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund. It finally resigned after the explosion.

Hezbollah plays a significant role in forming the new government.

To deflect criticism, Nasrallah addressed supporters several times, denying Hezbollah had anything to do with the port explosion.

He made thinly veiled warnings to critics. In an Aug. 14 speech, Nasrallah warned repeatedly against pushing Lebanon toward civil war. He urged supporters to “hold onto their anger” over criticism, hinting it would be unleashed against opponents.

Meanwhile, social tensions are on the rise. Opponents of Hezbollah clashed twice with the group’s supporters, including a gunfight on Thursday that killed two bystanders and wounded several. Gunmen reportedly opened fire over religious banners raised by Hezbollah supporters.

“There is no god but G-d, and Nasrallah is the enemy of G-d,” mourners chanted at a funeral of one of the killed.