Hezbollah, Amal turn to violence as ongoing protests shake Lebanon’s sectarian system

Mona Yacoubian, USIP expert Hezbollah and Amal supporters “have become increasingly brazen in their intimidation tactics.”
Sunday 01/12/2019
Guarding the status quo. Militants from the Lebanese Amal Shia movement try to block the road in front of Lebanese women during a march in Beirut, November 27.(AFP)
Guarding the status quo. Militants from the Lebanese Amal Shia movement try to block the road in front of Lebanese women during a march in Beirut, November 27.(AFP)

TUNIS - As Lebanon’s protests stretch into their second month, much of the early optimism is giving way to an overriding sense of caution, as the country finds itself navigating rising sectarian violence, government paralysis and an economy that looks to be rapidly circling the financial plug hole.

On the street, protesters are calling for the dismantling of Lebanon’s confessional system of government, where positions and ministries are allocated according to religion or sect, in favour of a technocratic body capable of tackling the corruption and reversing much of the economic damage they feel the current system has wrought.

For supporters of the Shia, Amal and Hezbollah groups, who see their political survival as vested in the status quo, the struggle is becoming increasingly desperate.

Brutal clashes between protesters and supporters of the two groups rocked Martyrs’ Square in Lebanon November 24, as moped-riding counter-protesters attempted to force their way into the crowds of anti-government demonstrators.

“We are standing before two dangers that are racing with each other, the danger of financial collapse and the danger of security collapse. It is an unprecedented situation,” Nabil Bou Monsef, deputy editor-in-chief of the An-Nahar newspaper, told the Associated Press.

Foreign Policy reported chants of “Terrorists, terrorists, Hezbollah are terrorists,” had taken hold among protesters in Beirut, a public sentiment unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

One senior Shia cleric, Sheikh Ali al-Khatib, cautioned against the street again spinning out of control, leading “our nation into a slide towards anarchy.” He urged politicians to “remedy the situation and contain the deterioration,” Reuters reported.

The state’s military, the heavily Western-backed Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), has appeared to hold back and, assuming the role of policeman, concentrated on keeping roads open and warring crowds of protesters apart.

Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser for Syria, Middle East and North Africa at the US Institute of Peace, cautioned “…though their behaviour has been largely professional, there are some worrying trends to watch: First, the LAF appears to be largely absent in Hezbollah and Amal strongholds, increasingly allowing thugs and others to intimidate protesters in those areas. Second, there are reports that elements of the LAF, particularly military intelligence, are arresting and torturing protesters.”

While initially both Hezbollah and Amal appeared accommodating of the protesters, going to lengths to sympathise with their grievances, their leadership has clung to the notion of government by confessional divide, which they insist is vital for Lebanon’s survival.

“The last few days have witnessed a decided shift in the behaviour of Amal/Hezbollah supporters,” Yacoubian said. “They have become increasingly brazen in their intimidation tactics, harassing protesters, burning tents and essentially looking to turn the otherwise peaceful protests violent.”

“It appears that this shift in behaviour could be the result of Hezbollah leadership determining that the protests increasingly pose a threat to the status quo and may lead to an outcome that is not favourable to their interests,” she added.

Yacoubian said two developments, in particular, appear to have underpinned the shift in tactics: “increasing pressure to form a cabinet — Hezbollah is insisting on some political elements to the cabinet, rather than a purely technocrat cabinet as demanded by the demonstrators. Second, it is interesting to note that this shift also coincides with the outbreak of demonstrations across Iran, initially peaceful and against gas price hikes, but quickly evolving into protests against the supreme leader and the revolutionary government. Protests in Iraq are also becoming increasingly dangerous and violent.”

However, Yacoubian cautioned that, though there was no direct link between Lebanon’s protests and those in Iraq or Iran, the popular cries for good governance and an end to corruption were strikingly similar.

“Hezbollah and Amal are prime beneficiaries of the current status quo in Lebanon and would be threatened by a shift in the system of governance,” Yacoubian concluded.