With the economy faltering and discontent rising, the coronavirus pandemic could hardly have been better timed for Lebanon’s embattled Hezbollah.
A public health-mandated lockdown freed the squares of protesters, halting a civil movement that has continued unabated since October and giving the Iran-backed group an opportunity to repair its tarnished image. For a short while, the virus provided the illusion that a newly found common enemy could stir things back towards the post-Civil War sectarian order.
The recent revival of the protest movement, including violent street clashes in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli that killed one demonstrator on April 27, was a sobering reminder that short-term fixes and an aggressive public relations campaign will likely not suffice to appease an exasperated Lebanese population caught between the spread of hunger and that of the virus.
Hezbollah lost its armour of invulnerability last year, as anger over the collapsing economy engulfed Lebanon’s political class in its totality. Its leader, Hasan Nasrallah – who opposed public calls for the government to resign – found himself the target of previously unthinkable criticism.
The group’s supporters, together with those of its Shiite ally Amal, made the headlines as they attacked unarmed protestors with clubs and metal rods before burning their tents. The protesters’ chants labelling Hezbollah a terrorist group – a position espoused by the US, the UK and lately Germany – inflamed the confrontation and fuelled claims of Western interference.
COVID-19 brought this tug-of-war to a screeching halt. The imperative of social distancing gave the government appointed in December – of which Hezbollah was a major architect – the opportunity to dismantle the symbols of the so-called “October revolution.”
It also gave the Iran-backed group an opportunity to mount highly publicized campaigns that sought to rescue its self-styled reputation as the saviour of Lebanon. By its own account, Hezbollah converted over a dozen private medical facilities into COVID-19 response centres, activated 70 ambulances equipped with coveted ventilators in the southern area alone, built two testing centres and marshalled 25,000 volunteers nationwide. The response was presented as complementary to that of the Ministry of Health – a key office held by Hezbollah.
Western journalists were shuttled to the southern town of Jwaya to admire one of such facilities as ambulance sirens blared for the cameras and disinfectant crews visibly sprayed the streets. Doctors and party representatives generously dispensed quotes to the media equating their fight against the virus to their military “resistance” against Lebanon’s southern enemy, Israel.
In announcing its capacity to treat 500 COVID-19 patients, Hezbollah sought to restore its community standing and its role of “state within the state” able to offer clientelistic benefits. In short, it attempted to jumpstart the broken muhasasa ta'ifia – or sectarian apportionment system – which has governed the country since the 1990s and is the very object of the protesters’ anger.
The group was not alone in thinking it could use this common enemy to revive the sense of sectarian belonging. The Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces Movement and the Druze-led Progressive Socialist Party sent their own disinfectant crews and distributed face masks marked with their own logos. Saad Hariri, the head of the Sunni Future movement who stepped down as prime minister in October, pledged to contribute 100 million Lebanese Lira to the response to COVID-19.
Rather than provide the political elite with an easy bailout, the virus has only exacerbated pre-existing problems. The government's response to the pandemic further eroded public trust as it repeatedly delayed the provision of financial relief. Food assistance remained largely unavailable due to the lack of consensus over how to distribute aid, offering final proof of the limits of the muhasasa ta'ifia.
Hezbollah’s political future now hinges on the government of a little-known academic, Hassan Diab, whom the group made premier using its parliamentary majority. The deal for a new cabinet was born out of the alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement led by Gibran Bassil, President Michel Aoun's son-in-law and the most reviled political figure among protestors.
Hariri's Future Movement party, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Aoun's Maronite rival Samir Geagea – who are part of a political alliance historically opposed to Syrian meddling in Lebanon and ideologically aligned with the West and (to a varying degree) with Saudi Arabia – have grown increasingly critical of a government they view as pro-Hezbollah.
Against the backdrop of a spiralling economic crisis, the old political rivalries have turned into a row between those who hold political power and those who hold financial power, which must be read in the context of the broader regional confrontation.
Central bank governor Riad Salameh, who is perceived by the Shiite group as an American ally inside Lebanon, effectively shut the group and its supporters out of the banking system when it complied with US-imposed sanctions.
In turn, Diab has blamed Salameh – the architect of the dollar currency peg – as being responsible for the sharp depreciation of the pound and the surge in prices of consumer goods by 50 per cent since October. “The Central Bank is either incapable, absent or instigating the dramatic drop,” Diab said.
Those in power say there is an attempt to topple the government by sabotaging financial stability. Opposition politicians backing the longstanding governor believe the ruling alliance led by Hezbollah is trying to take control of the central bank.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese population is growing more desperate. In a video of the clashes that erupted in Tripoli, a protester can be heard shouting to a soldier that the people are “starving”, with the latter replying with equal despair: “I’m hungrier than you.” A taxi driver reportedly set his car on fire after being fined for violating the lockdown, while a construction worker sought to sell his kidney in order to afford his monthly rent. In December, two suicides were recorded as concern grew over the psychological toll of the economic crisis.
The World Bank projected before the pandemic that 45 per cent of people in Lebanon would be below the poverty line in 2020. Now, 75 per cent of people might be in need of aid, according to government estimates.
The institution authorized $40 million to strengthen the Ministry of Public Health’s capacity to respond to the crisis, but the country needs a heftier rescue package that will be hard to come by.
For Lebanon to be in a position to receive international assistance it must commit to undertaking real and tangible reforms that will restore investor confidence. The preponderance of Hezbollah – a designated terrorist organisation according to the US, the UK and lately Germany – at the government level will also complicate unlocking international funds.
In the context of COVID-19, governments around the world are committing significant financial resources to address their own public health crises and the expected economic recession. It remains to be seen whether any country will be willing or able to step up and rescue Lebanon from itself.