Hezbollah responds to deep woes with internal facelift

Hezbollah’s upcoming strategy will be to concentrate on domestics, trying to please and appease a disgruntled home front.
Sunday 07/04/2019
 A Hezbollah supporter carries a poster of the group’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Maroun al-Ras village in southern Lebanon. (Reuters)
Optical illusion. A Hezbollah supporter carries a poster of the group’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Maroun al-Ras village in southern Lebanon. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Hezbollah is getting an internal facelift, weeks after Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah admitted that the group was suffering a cash flow shortage. Nasrallah appointed Mohammad Yaghi as his personal executive assistant, creating a job that did not previously exist.

A former MP and member of Hezbollah’s Shura Council, Yaghi, 61, is a political heavyweight in Baalbek, a city that has received exceptional attention since demonstrations broke out in the Iraqi city of Basra, demanding better services from a disgruntled Shia community.

Behind closed doors, Hezbollah feared similar manifestations of discontent in Baalbek, a traditional powerbase for Hezbollah, suffering from government neglect, unemployment and dire economic conditions that Hezbollah has not addressed.

Last June, heavy rainfall knocked down utility poles in the village of Ras Baalbek, destroying crops and severely damaging infrastructure.

Few had tried to challenge Hezbollah in the Baalbek-Hermel governorate, given the numerical superiority of Muslim Shias (230,000), who outmuscle Sunnis and Christians of the region, who total 86,000.

The area is also home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees and a smaller number of Palestinians, straining what was already one of the country’s poorest regions.

On the day of general elections in 2018, Nasrallah addressed his constituency from Baalbek, promising to personally walk through its streets and to “tour villages, towns and neighbourhoods” to make sure that his list won the elections.

His new aide Yaghi, a highly respected community leader in Baalbek, is expected to carry the district’s worries directly to Nasrallah’s ears. His appointment comes hand-in-hand with that of two executive aides to his cousin Sheikh Hisham Safieddine, head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council.

One of them is Abdullah Qassir, head of Hezbollah’s research unit and former manager of its Al-Manar TV. The other is Hussein Zeaiter, a member of parliament for Byblos who serves as a major liaison between Hezbollah and its allies in the all-Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Safieddine, often considered the “Number Two” in Hezbollah, is one of the party’s core founders.

A childhood friend of Nasrallah who is four years his junior, he was educated at the seminaries of Najaf and Qom, while his brother, Abdullah, is Hezbollah’s permanent representative to Tehran.

Safieddine, like Nasrallah, realises how important it is to maintain the party’s tactic alliance with the FPM, even after its 84-year-old founder, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, dies or leaves office. They both equally distrust Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister who has been overtly and covertly reaching out to Hezbollah’s opponents in the March 14 Alliance, marketing himself as a president-in-waiting.

Through hands-on figures such as Zeaiter, Qassir and Yaghi, Hezbollah leaders hope to be better informed about what’s happening within the Christian community, making sure that their alliances are institutional, rather than based on personal relations only.

Part of that policy is to please the 43,000 Christians of Baalbek, who have stood on neutral ground between Hezbollah and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Their position can shift, however if their worries are not addressed immediately.

Ten years ago, the two cousins co-wrote a revised declaration of principles for Hezbollah, delicately choosing words to please their Christian allies.

Gone were the 12 Quranic verses scattered throughout their original declaration of 1982. The 2009 declaration relied more on politicised pragmatic wording, trying to come across as a pan-Lebanese, rather than a pan-Shia party. It dropped all reference to Iran and adherence to the velayat-e faqih.

In the first manifesto, the enemies of Hezbollah were identified as Israel, France, the United States and the Phalange Party, an all-Maronite grouping and militia that was supportive of ejecting the Palestinians from Lebanon and had helped the Israelis take Beirut in 1982.

In the second manifesto, France and the Phalange were dropped from the text, given their cordial relations with Aoun and “US hegemony” was identified as an enemy, rather than the United States itself.

The first manifesto was very critical of the Maronites, with statements that sounded like threats, whereas the second manifesto treated them as friends and allies — words that were music to Aoun’s ears.

Hezbollah’s upcoming strategy will be to concentrate on domestics, trying to please and appease a disgruntled home front, both among its members and their Christian allies.