Growing tension in Lebanon’s Bekaa fuels conflict within Shia bloc

A war of words is underway between recently elected MP Jamil al-Sayyed, a former security chief, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Sunday 22/07/2018
Control of the Bekaa. A  campaign poster for Jamil al-Sayyed at Dahr al-Baidar area in Lebanon’s  eastern Bekaa Valley, on April 25.  (AFP)
Control of the Bekaa. A campaign poster for Jamil al-Sayyed at Dahr al-Baidar area in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, on April 25. (AFP)

BEIRUT - In Lebanon, cracks are emerging within the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance and, more specifically, the Shia community within it.

A war of words is under way between recently elected MP Jamil al-Sayyed, a former security chief, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Both are Shias who are exceptionally close to Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Sayyed, who is from the Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah incubator, recently posted a tweet saying the Shias of Lebanon were divided between those in government and those in “the resistance.” Berri supporters saw the comment as an effort to distance Berri from the resistance, although it was from his Amal Movement that Hezbollah was formed in 1982.

Sayyed, at a news conference, said grievances were high in the Bekaa Valley due to soaring unemployment, government neglect, corruption, security breakdown and lack of proper services, such as electricity and water. He described the Bekaa as a “time bomb” and said the government should not ignore the concerns of the Bekaa,

“You have given a lot to the south (where Berri reigns). It is now time to pay attention to the Bekaa before you lose it,” Sayyed said.

Sayyed has refused to criticise Berri in person but said the speaker’s top aides were corrupt. Berri supporters accused Sayyed of being a thief and liar.

Lebanese Agriculture Minister Ghazi Zueiter, a Berri protege and member of Amal, replied via Twitter, that the Shias were one camp and all belonged to the resistance. Their mistake, he added, was allowing Sayyed to run for parliament with the backing of Hezbollah and Amal.

Berri supporters reminded Sayyed that, while he was detained from 2005-09 for suspected involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Berri worked for his release from prison.

Sayyed is apparently trying to position himself as a spokesman for the Shia poor on par with Nasrallah and Berri, who have been the only Shia voices for two decades. Sources in Lebanon said Sayyed has his eyes on a pan-Shia leadership and, eventually, the speakers’ post in parliament, which Berri has occupied since 1992.

Sayyed’s immediate chances to become speaker are low because the Saudi-backed March 14 Alliance will not support him. Berri, 80 and reportedly in declining health, has been re-elected to another term, which ends in 2022, but has named no successor. Sayyed, then, has four years to gather support for a run at the speakership.

An ambitious man, Sayyed said he was not properly compensated for his years of detention and that the MP post is too limited. He is not entitled to a cabinet post, however, because only heads of blocs will be represented in the upcoming cabinet, with one seat for every four members in parliament, and Sayyed doesn’t qualify.

Sayyed has pointed out rising discontent in the Bekaa Valley, including his native Baalbek-Hermel, a predominately Shia district. He is expected to use that frustration before a conference of Berri’s Amal Movement in September to erode Berri’s leadership among Shias.

Surprisingly, Hezbollah, the Iranians and the Syrians have been silent about the feud between its two allies.

Such Shia rivalries are not new but they have been muted for nearly 20 years. Within the Shia camp, one notable voice is still being heard — Subhi al-Tufayli, the founding secretary-general of Hezbollah, who left office in 1984 and has been a vocal critic of the party’s links to Iran and of chronic poverty and neglect in Shia districts. Tufayli remains on relatively good terms with Amal and Berri.

Sayyed seems to be creating another camp in the Shia community, insisting on excellent relations with Nasrallah but positioning himself as a possible successor to Berri.

“Since Michel Aoun’s ascent to the presidency, talk started about replacing Nabih Berri with a new speaker of parliament, which coincided with reports of ‘Syrian anger’ from Amal Movement’s refusal to join the Syrian war, in support of the Syrian regime,” said Lebanese analyst Ghassan Habbal.

This has shown in the campaign against Berri by Sayyed, which, Habbal said, has been “adopted indirectly by President Aoun and more directly by Gebran Bassil,” Lebanon’s foreign minister.

Berri, Habbal said, was unhappy with Aoun’s nomination as president in 2016 “and the battle goes on, in all of its Lebanese and Syrian dimensions, and it is one of the obstacles facing formation of the Lebanese cabinet.”