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NY Times, Feb. 5, 2020
For Lebanon’s Shiites, a Dilemma: Stay Loyal to Hezbollah or Keep
By Vivian Yee and Hwaida Saad
KAFR RUMMAN, Lebanon — There is a Lebanese phrase that translates,
roughly, to “a slapping.” That seems to be what happened to several
antigovernment protesters who were caught on TV denouncing Hassan
Nasrallah, the leader of the Islamist militia and political party
Hezbollah, in the early days of the now monthslong Lebanese uprising.
The smacking they received from a party that brooks little pushback, and
wields tremendous influence in Lebanon’s government, might have been
physical or it might have been verbal. Either way, the protesters
appeared again on TV a few days later, looking subdued — this time, to
“Sayyid means a lot to me. There are thousands who admire him, but I’m
like No. 100 on the list,” one man said, his voice meek, using a
respectful honorific for Mr. Nasrallah, whom the protester had
previously accused of letting his community starve.
The on-camera apology was a prelude to more violent retributions against
protesters from the Shiite Muslim community, the largest of Lebanon’s 18
recognized religious sects, which for decades has drawn on Hezbollah for
protection, jobs, social services and, for many, a sense of shared
struggle against Israel and other enemies.
As Lebanon hobbles into its fifth month of political and economic
meltdown, the countrywide protests continue to include protesters of all
religious backgrounds, uniting in scorn for leaders who cannot offer
even the basics: 24-hour electricity, a functional economy or
But the protests have forced many Lebanese Shiites into a dilemma: How
can they square their loyalty to Hezbollah with its support for the
status quo? And will Hezbollah keep trying to extinguish the rebellion,
or listen to it?
“I support resistance against Israel,” said Ali Ismail, 51, a protester
in Kafr Rumman, a mostly Shiite town in south Lebanon that has long been
dominated by “the parties,” as residents often refer to Hezbollah and
Amal, the other major Shiite party. “But I also support resistance
Mr. Ismail’s recent history sounds like that of many Lebanese
protesters. He has gone into debt to pay school fees for his children.
His wife, Farah, said she had been shut out of all the teaching jobs she
had applied to because she lacked party connections.
Even the man who publicly apologized to Mr. Nasrallah may have renounced
his insult, but not his plea. “Please help us,” he begged in the apology
video. “Really, we’re starving. We don’t have jobs.”
Among Shiites, the protests spring in part from Hezbollah’s simultaneous
military success and neglect of domestic issues, said Randa Slim, a
Lebanon analyst at the Middle East Institute.
The security threats that rallied the group’s base, whether Israel or
Sunni extremists in neighboring Syria, have receded in urgency. And when
Hezbollah entered Lebanese politics in 2005 to protect its status as a
shadow army, it propped up the government’s incompetence and corruption
rather than delivering on its promises of reform.
American sanctions on Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, have left it less
able to offer the subsidies, services and jobs that its supporters used
to count on, just as the Lebanese economy was teetering.
Fishermen in the southern port city of Tyre in January, one of many
cities in Lebanon that has seen protests against corruption and
incompetence. Credit...Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
As with other liberation movements, Hezbollah has found governance more
complicated than guerrilla warfare.
“Hezbollah has never prioritized bread-and-butter issues, but suddenly
they’re faced with a community that’s basically saying, bread and butter
are a priority,” Ms. Slim said. “It’s now part of a government that’s
corrupt, and they can’t blame others for the corruption; they’re part of
the corruption equation. So the question is, how are they going to respond?”
The Amal party has fostered loyalty through jobs and patronage, but its
leader, Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament, is widely viewed as a
profoundly corrupt pillar of Lebanon’s much-derided ruling class.
So far, Hezbollah and Amal have mobilized to protect the status quo, and
the protests in majority-Shiite areas have visibly shrunk as the parties
have moved to smother the uprising. With Hezbollah’s patron and partner,
Iran, under growing pressure at home and abroad as tensions with the
United States soar, analysts say Hezbollah needs more than ever to
preserve its power and influence in Lebanon.
Early on, Mr. Nasrallah, for whom many Shiites feel genuine reverence,
criticized the protests that began in October and called on his
supporters to go home, prompting some Shiites to leave the streets.
Violent scuffles broke out when some protesters included Mr. Nasrallah
among the political figures they wanted to sweep from power, chanting,
“All of them means all of them — Nasrallah is one of them.”
Even many nonmembers of Hezbollah credit Mr. Nasrallah with ousting
Israel from its 18-year occupation of south Lebanon. His charisma and
credibility outstrip those of any other Lebanese political figure: Mr.
Nasrallah’s son died fighting the Israelis, and, unlike the
mansion-dwelling jet-setters who populate much of the government, he is
usually considered personally incorruptible.
“We love Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah at home, but here, we love Lebanon,”
said Ghazie Atrash, 40, a protester from Baalbek, in the
Hezbollah-dominated rural interior, who joined the huge demonstrations
in Beirut this fall.
When asked whether Mr. Nasrallah bore any responsibility for Lebanon’s
dysfunction, however, Ms. Atrash was emphatic. “He’s not part of the
government,” she said. “No.”
Though Mr. Nasrallah does not hold office, Hezbollah and its allies
dominated the last government, which resigned amid the protests in
October, as well as the new cabinet formed in January.
Hezbollah and Amal followers have repeatedly swept into protest sites in
Beirut and other cities, thrashing protesters with sticks and fists.
Though the parties have not openly encouraged the attacks, the men have
shouted party slogans or, simply, “Shia! Shia! Shia!”
In interviews in majority-Shiite areas, protesters reported receiving
threatening calls, anonymous WhatsApp audio notes warning of a “negative
impact on your life” or visits from Hezbollah or Amal representatives
asking them to stop protesting.
Mohamed Dib Othman, 29, who has been helping to organize the small but
persistent demonstrations in Baalbek, said his car windows had been
smashed after the first day of protests in mid-October. Acquaintances
warned him that party affiliates were branding him a traitor in WhatsApp
“The revolution is our only hope. If it gets crushed, we’re finished,”
said Mr. Dib Othman, who said he was shut out of all 36 government jobs
he had applied to after graduating from university because he lacked
But he was hopeful something had shifted. “When Nasrallah criticized the
revolution, the mask fell off for everyone,” he said.
Ali Ismail at a January demonstration in Beirut. “I support resistance
against Israel,” Mr. Ismail said, “But I also support resistance against
corruption.”Credit...Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
Perhaps Hezbollah’s most effective anti-protest tactic has been to
insinuate that the protests are the product of a foreign conspiracy
against Shiites, whose ingrained sense of grievance stretches back
Some Shiites who initially supported the uprising said they were now
convinced the United States must be secretly maneuvering to pressure
Hezbollah and its Shiite partners in Iran and Iraq: how else to explain
the simultaneous uprisings in all three countries?
Such suspicions only hardened after the American killing of Maj. Gen.
Qassim Suleimani, a top military leader in Iran, in early January.
“They’ve been trying to defeat Hezbollah for years,” said Ahmad, a
butcher in Beirut who did not want his last name used because he did not
want to offend customers of other sects.
But when the protesters are friends, neighbors and relatives, they are
not easily labeled foreign tools. They also include former fighters and
relatives of those known as martyrs who died fighting with Hezbollah,
who are hard to dismiss.
Among them was Rabih Tleiss, a Hezbollah member until 2013, whose cousin
and brother-in-law died fighting for Hezbollah in Syria.
Sitting with other protesters in Baalbek, Mr. Tleiss pointed at the
other Shiite men in the room, one by one.
“Are you working?” One man shook his head.
“Are you working?” Another headshake.
“I’m not working either,” Mr. Tleiss said. “We’re all jobless.”
Jad Jarjoui, 20, a protester in Tyre who volunteered with Hezbollah in
Syria for a few months and is now unemployed, said he had kept
protesting despite his family’s opposition and a visit from a local
Hezbollah leader. He said he had not been directly threatened, but that
an unknown assailant had stabbed him in the arm one night.
“My father asked why I’m getting myself into trouble,” he said, “but I
told him I’m doing the right thing.”
Mr. Jarjoui remained loyal to Hezbollah’s cause, he said, just not its
domestic politics. “The resistance is above all suspicion, but I’m
against members of Parliament in the party.”
Still, the longer the protests go on without substantial political
change or economic succor, the more fatigue and fatalism have crept in.
Ihab Hassane, 29, a Shiite from Tyre who had been protesting since Day
1, said he had lost hope for swift change. He was planning to leave the
But he believed the protesters had notched at least one accomplishment.
“People used to watch Nasrallah’s speeches without asking questions,” he
said. “But now, even though they still support him, they’ve started
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