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More of the same

Despite optimism following the May 15 elections that Hezbollah and its allies are on the decline, in reality, it is likely that little will change for Hezbollah, as it will adjust its strategy and continue its dominance.

Supporters of Lebanon's Shiite group Hezbollah lift its flag from a car during parliamentary elections in the Lebanese capital Beirut, on May 15, 2022. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP)

Lebanon’s parliamentary elections were about a lot of things. 

They were the first since the popular uprising on October 17, 2019 and the August 4 Beirut Port explosion in 2020, so it was a chance for the opposition that formed in the wake of the uprising and explosion to gain a foothold in Lebanese politics and begin the process of changing the country’s direction.

It was also a referendum on Hezbollah’s grip on power in the country.

Following the 2018 elections, Hezbollah and its allies held over 70 seats in Parliament, a clear majority, giving them and their bloc a lot of control over what happened in the country.

Opposition to the group had grown nationally in the buildup to the elections. But without Saad Hariri and his Future Movement running, many feared, particularly in the north of the country, that Hezbollah and its allies would not only win in the election, but expand its sphere of influence.

The results, however, illustrated a more complicated picture.

While Hezbollah’s candidates won all of their seats, its allies, the Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement, led by the President’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, did not fare so well.  Having maintained the Christian majority since 2005,  the party lost an estimated one to two seats to its opponent, the Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea, making the Lebanese Forces the largest Christian party in Lebanon.

In addition, several other Hezbollah allies and Hezbollah-backed candidates lost their seats. 

When two opposition candidates, Firas Hamdan and Elias Jradeh, won in the South III district, beating out Marwan Kheireddine and Assad Hardan, Lebanon was speechless. 

The South III district has long been a Hezbollah stronghold, with no opposition having been able to come close to winning once Hezbollah began dominating the district.

By the time the official results were released, it became evident that Hezbollah and its allies were going to lose its Parliamentary majority, a fact that was later confirmed by the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in a speech in the days following the election.

Contrary to what was the case in 2018, 2009 and 2005, no one can come out and claim and say that the parliamentary majority or the parliamentary majority is with me, with this team or with this team if it wants to be objective, fair and according to numbers,” Nasrallah said.

Opponents of Hezbollah celebrated this as a victory over the party and a sign that the Party of God is on the decline.

But is it?

Hezbollah has shown again and again that it is able to quickly adapt to changing situations, which begs the question of what makes this time any different?

Rolling with the punches

The Iran-backed militia was not always as interested in Lebanese politics as it is today.

In 1992, during the first elections after the end of the 15-year civil war, newly-formed Hezbollah only put forward three candidates for the election, all of whom won their respective seats.

Still, that was about it. Hezbollah was not involved in the government at all and was barely a blip on its radar when it came to its role in Parliament. For Hezbollah, politics were a minor concern, with the fight against the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon being their primary focus.

While all of the warring militias that took part in the civil war were compelled to disarm, thanks to Syria’s intervention, and after the Taif agreement was signed, Hezbollah was able to keep its weapons since it is not classified as a “militia,” but rather, as a “resistance group.” Hezbollah remains armed to this day and it’s weapons continue to be a controversial topic in Lebanon.

Even after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon on May 24, 2000, Hezbollah did not increase its involvement in politics. There was no need to. Syria was still the unofficial ruler of Lebanon and provided Hezbollah and its resistance activities with plenty of cover, ensuring that the government would not make any attempts at disarming the group.

However, this all changed in 2005 when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by a car bomb on February 14.

This led to a mass uprising by the Lebanese people on March 14 where hundreds of thousands, if not well over a million, Lebanese took to the streets in opposition to Syrian rule over Lebanon. Ultimately, the Syrians were forced to withdraw from the country, ushering in a new age of Lebanese politics where the Lebanese themselves would be the ones deciding the direction of the country.

On top of losing its political cover, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was established in order to investigate and prosecute those found responsible for killing Hariri and, later, the others who were subsequently assassinated while probing the murder.

Hezbollah could no longer sit idly by and do nothing. They had to adapt to the new sociopolitical climate.

So, for the first time, in 2005, Hezbollah entered the government, taking the ministries of energy and water, foreign affairs, and labor.

Besides being a means to protect itself and its armed faction, this was part of an attempt by the group to prevent the tribunal from going forward. This was something that, despite their best efforts, they were unsuccessful at doing.

To gain and fortify its power, Hezbollah also began forming political alliances.

It allied with its fellow Shiite party, the Amal Movement, headed by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, despite the two sides having a mostly antagonistic and, at times, bloody relationship history.

The FPM and Hezbollah also announced in 2006 that they were joining forces. With the FPM being the largest Christian party in Lebanon, until recently, and Hezbollah being the most popular Shiite party, it was a powerful alliance that had served the two parties well up until the 2022 election.

These alliances and Hezbollah fully entering the Lebanese political scene upended the political balance in the country, shifting it in favor of the alliance.

In the past, Hezbollah did not need that much time to adapt to the new situation that it was facing in Lebanon. Hariri was assassinated in February and by July, they were part of the government, showing that the group acknowledged the potential risks that it would be facing if it did not take swift action.

Sure, Hezbollah no longer enjoys the majority that it did for the last four years, but between the armed Shiite group and its allies, they still hold over 60 seats in Parliament, just shy of a basic majority, meaning that they still hold the largest bloc in Parliament. It also ensures that no one else will be able to form a majority.

The group’s biggest opponent, the Lebanese Forces, now hold the most Christian seats in Parliament, but they only have around 20 seats in total.

The Lebanese Forces might be able to form a coalition with some other groups in Parliament but they will not be able to form anywhere near as strong of a group as that of Hezbollah and its allies. 

On top of this, there are now 14 opposition MPs who ran on the basis of being anti-establishment parties and claiming that they would refuse to work with any of the old traditional parties.

There is also the case of the independent MPs who were elected. Some of them are aligning themselves with the opposition, which would further limit the Lebanese Forces’ options when it comes to forming a coalition.

Hezbollah and its allies have been working together for well over a decade now and, while the house might rock a bit at times, it has a solid foundation. The Lebanese Forces have no such relationship with any of the other parties, calling into question how cohesive of a coalition it might be able to form. 

Just like a couple in a failing marriage who refuse to split because of the child that they have together, opposition to Hezbollah is not a strong enough reason for a relationship to truly work.

Even as Hezbollah’s opponents celebrated its loss of a majority, supporters of the group  were anything but worried.

They have seen time and again how the Shiite party faced poor odds, only for them to adapt to the situation and find a way to come out on top.

Even if Hezbollah fails to adjust to the new reality that it is now facing, there is still the issue of the group’s arms and its refusal to disarm.

Monopoly on violence

Hezbollah’s arms were not always as contentious an issue as they are today.

During the Israeli occupation of the south until their withdrawal, Hezbollah’s military actions actually garnered quite a bit of support. There were some who took issue with a group like Hezbollah having the amount of firepower that it did and being able to operate with autonomy, but, for the most part, people were not really opposed to the situation. They were the Lebanese militia fighting to reclaim all of Lebanon.

After the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah refused to disarm because, according to the group and the Syrian regime, the Shebaa Farms were still being occupied by the Israelis, meaning not all of Lebanon had been liberated and the Resistance was still needed.

The UN disputed this claim that the farms are part of Lebanon, as most demarcated maps have them as being part of Syria. But Hezbollah and Syria insisted, with Hezbollah continuing to insist to this day, that the Shebaa Farms are part of Lebanon and that Israel is continuing to occupy the country.

Still, Hezbollah was viewed with wide popularity following the liberation of the South and, while its critics started to grow due to its refusal to disarm, it remained a minor issue and Syria was able to ensure that the Lebanese government did not take any steps to disarm the Shiite group.

Things really started to shift in 2006 after Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers from across the border, leading to a month-long war between the group and Israel that once again saw the country in ruins due to Israeli bombardment.

After the war concluded in a stalemate, criticism and the issue of Hezbollah’s arms exploded.

It was one thing when they were an armed group looking to free the country from occupation, but, unintentionally or not, the fact that there was another force in Lebanon outside of the state that had the ability to declare war did not sit right with people.

The issue of Hezbollah’s arms deepened in 2008 when the Siniora government looked to dismantle Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network that is used within the organization to communicate.

This led to armed clashes between Hezbollah and pro-government forces, with Hezbollah taking over West Beirut.

Eventually, the Doha Accord was signed, bringing an end to the fighting.

But Hezbollah had broken its promise to protect the Lebanese people.

For years, the group insisted that it may be heavily armed, but the weapons were there to protect Lebanon, and that they would never use them against the Lebanese people or the government. However, they had done just that.

Once again, there was fighting in the streets of Beirut on October 14, 2021, when Hezbollah and Amal supporters clashed with supporters of the Lebanese Forces in Tayyouneh, an area on the border of Christian-majority and Shiite-majority neighborhoods.

This occurred when Hezbollah and Amal staged a protest outside of the Justice Palace in Beirut in opposition to Judge Tarik Bitar’s investigation into the Beirut Port explosion which has, so far, implicated two members of the Amal Movement.

Both Hezbollah and Amal refused to attend cabinet sessions until Bitar was removed from the investigation and have continued to be major impediments to the investigation which has been stalled for months.

In a speech following the clashes, Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah was “100,000 strong,” a direct threat to Samir Geagea and the Lebanese Forces.

Time and time again, Hezbollah has shown that it will take action if its interests are threatened.

Criticism of Hezbollah’s arms has only intensified since then. And even more so after their attempts to block the investigation into the August 4 port explosion in Beirut, leading to a larger outcry in condemnation of the group nationally. But critics have been increasingly cautious about what they say.

Small-time critics might just see a smear campaign against them online and in the media.

But for major critics that the group views as a threat, it can take a deadly turn.

These critics could be accused of being Zionists or working for the West. And if that does not get them to end their criticism, and they are viewed as a significant enough threat, then they might be killed.

It is easy to think that just because Hezbollah no longer has a majority in Parliament that the group is on the way out.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Hezbollah remains the most popular Shiite party in Lebanon, maintaining its base of support within a community that shows no signs of abandoning it.

And, as long as the group maintains its arms and is able to adapt to changing circumstances, it is doubtful that much will change.