Hezbollah's sectarian turn

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Simon Assaf examines the trajectory of Hebollah since 2006 that has led to their support of Assad in Syria

A party once lauded for its resistance to Israel is fast becoming a pariah in the Arab world. Hezbollah (The Party of God) is now openly derided as Hizb al-shaytan (Party of the Devil). Sunni Muslim preachers who once declared their support for it now call for holy war against it. Shia Muslims are now the victims of shocking violence and sectarianism.

The transformation of Hezbollah from the "heroes of resistance" into a sectarian party siding with a brutal civil war in Syria is rooted in its dependence on outside powers.

Shia Muslims were historically one of the most deprived communities in Lebanon, underrepresented in a system that divides the spoils of political office according to religious sect. Although they constitute some 33 percent of Lebanon, Shias were allocated the least influential government posts.

This political and social marginalisation created a fertile ground for leftwing and radical currents to grow in the years before the 1975-76 Lebanese civil war. The trend towards sectarianism accelerated following the defeat of the left and Palestinians in the 1982 Israeli invasion. This was further compounded by Syria's siege of Palestinian camps in its war to crush the PLO. Anger at Syria led to the formation of Hezbollah, and an alliance with Iran.

Unlike established parties, Hezbollah did not emerge to represent Lebanon's sectarian élites, but emerged from below. Its leader Hassan Nasrallah rose to prominence as an able and talented commander organising resistance to Israel's occupation. Despite its narrow ideological and religious base, Hezbollah attracted huge support among other sects for its principled stand, and its refusal to use its weapons to settle "internal Lebanese questions".

Its victory over Israel in the 2006 war gave it unrivalled status across the Arab world. Key to this victory was widespread support from ordinary people. Unlike in 1982, when refugees were trapped in west Beirut and left to the mercy of the Israeli army, those fleeing the 2006 Israeli onslaught were given refuge by other communities. A large number found shelter in Syria, in the poor neighbourhoods in cities such Homs and Damascus, and Al-Qusair, the Syrian town destroyed in the recent Hezbollah offensive.

After the war the party had two choices, either transform itself into a genuine movement for change that transcended its narrow sectarian base, or make a compromise within the sectarian system. It chose the latter. It welcomed the dictats of the so-called Paris III agreement that resulted in the provision of funds for the reconstruction of Lebanon, but at the price of new sweeping neoliberal policies. It was to mark a turning point.

The Shia areas damaged by the Israeli onslaught received a huge influx of money from Iran (and Qatar) which encouraged the bureaucratisation of Hezbollah. In the party's heartlands of south Beirut, a class of Shia entrepreneurs emerged, using reconstruction cash to buy up apartments and then sell them at huge profits. The impact of these neoliberal reforms was devastating for Lebanon's working poor, but could be mitigated in Shia areas by social welfare funded by the party and its backers, the most important being Iran.

The rise of a privileged layer linked to Hezbollah began to transform it into a party much like others in Lebanon. Its social networks shifted to cater to a growing Shia middle class, their hospitals and schools becoming some of the most expensive in the country. On the eve of the 2011 Arab revolutions, the party began to resemble other mainstream parties. But it was its commitment to defending the south that marked it apart. The majority of Lebanese accepted that Hezbollah could keep its weapons on condition they were never used for any other purpose. Its intervention in Syria broke this promise.

Hezbollah, like other resistance movements before it, became dependent on outside sponsorship that compromised its independence. Dependent on Iran for funding, and Syria for weapons, it found itself out of step with the Arab Spring.

It now had a vested interest in a regime that it once opposed, and declared war on the Syrian people who once rallied to its defence. The sense of betrayal now runs deep.

Nasrallah used the status of the resistance to shore up support for Bashar Assad when the Syrian revolution broke out in March 2011. His intervention, denouncing the uprising as "a foreign plot" and the revolutionaries as "salafi fanatics", served the interests of Assad and Iran, at the cost of the party's credibility. The result is a huge backlash for Shia Muslims.

Hezbollah's biggest danger is that faced with a new Israeli attack, it will find itself with few friends. The consequences for the resistance will be disastrous.

In a prophetic article in 2006, Chris Harman noted: "It is hardly surprising that an organisation so dependent on functioning within capitalism in reality accepts a 'conservative' economic programme at home and rejects the overthrow of the neighbouring Arab governments."