Lebanon's Hezbollah under rare street pressure

Hashem Osseiran
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Lebanese protests have grown into an unprecedented cross-sectarian street mobilisation against the political class

Lebanese protests have grown into an unprecedented cross-sectarian street mobilisation against the political class (AFP Photo/Anwar AMRO)

Beirut (AFP) - When mass anti-government protests engulfed Lebanon, a taboo was broken as strongholds of the Shiite Hezbollah movement saw rare demonstrations criticising the party and revered leader Hassan Nasrallah.

On live TV and in protest sites, citizens accused the party of providing political cover for a corrupt government that they say has robbed people of their livelihoods.

This shattered the myth of absolute acquiesence among Hezbollah's popular base, baffling even those who hail from the movement's strongholds.

"No one ever expected that in any of these areas in south Lebanon we would hear a single word against Nasrallah," or Amal Movement leader Nabih Berri, said Sara, a 32-year-old activist who participated in protests in the southern city of Nabatiyeh.

"It's unbelievable," the activist added, asking to use a pseudonym due to security concerns.

The popular Iran-backed movement is a major political player that took 13 seats in the country's May 2018 parliamentary elections and secured three cabinet posts.

It is the only political party not to have disarmed after Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, and helped its Christian ally Michel Aoun assume the presidency in 2016.

Popular dissatisfaction with the government peaked last week following protests over taxes, corruption and dire economic conditions.

South Lebanon -- a bastion of the powerful Shiite movement since the group liberated the region from Israeli occupation in 2000 -- was not spared.

Protests have been reported in the cities of Nabatiyeh, Bint Jbeil, and Tyre, where Hezbollah and its political affiliate the Amal Movement hold sway.

With the exception of Tyre, they were not as big as other parts of the country.

But "the novelty here is that some of these protesters are party loyalists," said Sara.

"They support Hezbollah, but they are suffocating."

Among his supporters, Nasrallah is revered as an icon, with his pictures inundating highways, shops and homes.

In the past, his followers have mobilised against anyone who tried to criticise him, often ostracising opponents as supporters of rival Israel.

- 'The resistance' -

But anti-government protests that started in Beirut on October 17 and quickly spread across the country left no politician unscathed, not even the Hezbollah leader.

"All of them means all of them, Nasrallah is one of them," protesters chanted in Beirut.

Criticism of Nasrallah even aired on the Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV, in a scene that was previously unfathomable for watchers of the movement's propaganda arm.

In a live interview from central Beirut, one protester urged Nasrallah to "look after his people in Lebanon" instead of focusing on regional enterprises like Syria, where he has deployed fighters to defend President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Nasrallah acknowledged the mounting criticism against him in a speech on Saturday: "Curse me, I don't mind."

Speaking on the protesters demands, he warned against calling for the resignation of the government -- saying it could take a long time to form a new one and solve the crisis.

Hatem Gharbeel, a protester in Nabatiyeh, said Hezbollah loyalists felt let down.

"The messages being addressed to Nasrallah by his own supporters in Nabatiyeh is that the resistance is not just about fighting Israel or terrorism," he said.

"It should also be about supporting people's livelihoods."

Other party heads have come in for even greater criticism.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Foreign Minster Gebran Bassil and Speaker Nabih Berri have been the targets of strong insults and slurs by demonstrators, even in areas where they are popular.

- 'Nothing to lose' -

But the relatively toned-down criticism of Nasrallah has broken taboos, said Gharbeel.

"The barrier of fear has been broken, " he said.

"It shows that people are not blindly following their political or sectarian leaders anymore."

Lokman Slim, an independent political activist and an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, said that resentment among Lebanon's Shiite community "is not born out of a single event or a single moment."

"Frustration has been fermenting over the past few years over an economic crisis hampering not just the Lebanese state but also Hezbollah's statelet."

Hezbollah has filled in for the weak central government in areas where it has influence, creating social welfare institutions and provided an array of public services, including education and health services.

But the group has come under financial strain due to tightening US sanctions since President Donald Trump assumed office, forcing Nasrallah to appeal to his popular base for donations earlier this year.

"The Shiites have nothing to lose anymore," said Slim.

"This is why they are out on the streets."