Hanin Ghaddar

Hezbollah’s Shiite catch

“Hezbollah will not be destroyed; but it will change”

Members of Shiite Hezbollah movement

“Hezbollah is transforming. It has to change, because we are changing,” says Karim, with the authority of an accomplished expert. Although he is still 18 years old, Karim has already trained and fought with Hezbollah in Syria, gotten wounded and left the party a few weeks after his injury. His involvement in Syria’s war, in addition to the fact that he’s lived all his life in the heart of the southern suburbs of Beirut, makes him look and sound much older than his real age. His familiarity with the nuances of life there, and acute observations on how the party and the community are changing, makes it very hard to argue with him.

Karim was injured in Syria a couple of years ago and had to stay for a while in his hometown in the South. “I had to go hide because my mom didn’t know I was in Syria, and I couldn’t let her see me injured like that.” But his mom eventually found out, and, of course, flipped. “She actually attacked a Hezbollah official in our village when he congratulated her on my injury,” he cracks up laughing.

Karim – and his friend Rasha who joined in our discussion – said that things have changed significantly in the past two years. People aren’t leaving the party because they don’t believe in “Resistance” anymore. He left because he was treated with indifference, like another number or body to dispense with. She left earlier – three years ago – simply, because she needed to breathe. She craved freedom on a personal level.

Are the GCC declarations or Saudi Arabia’s escalations worrisome? Not for Hezbollah. “If anything, Hezbollah is relieved. They don’t have to pretend anymore,” Karim says. “They have their own stronger state. Why would they worry about the Lebanese state?”

In a way, between the GCC declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization and the US increasing sanctions on the party’s sources of income, Hezbollah seems to be unconcerned and ready for any conflict these pressures could produce. Nasrallah’s recent speech carried serious accusations toward Saudi Arabia and stressed Hezbollah’s determination to continue its regional role as a military force.

Hezbollah knows that these measures will only weaken the Lebanese state and their opponents in the March 14 camp. Their control over Lebanon’s institutions and Lebanese decisions will be made much easier. If March 14 decides to confront; Hezbollah still has the arms and will take over. And if March 14 decides not to confront, well, Hezbollah is already taking over.

All external efforts to weaken Hezbollah have strengthened its popular support and given the party’s leadership more power within its community. Wars, sectarian conflicts, Israeli aggression, all made the community gather more tightly around its only protector and surrender their fears to them.

“Hezbollah will not be destroyed; but it will change, and we see it happening today more than ever,” Rasha says. She refers to the early days of Hezbollah when Sheikh Abbas al-Mousawi was the Secretary General. “They (Hezbollah) used to be more hostile and intimidating back then. Throwing acid on unveiled women was an acceptable practice, and they followed the regulations of the Islamic State by the book.”

Today, loud music in the streets of Dahiyeh, tattoo parlors and other non-Islamic lifestyle practices are becoming more and more acceptable. “Hezbollah has the capacity to force its will on the Lebanese people in general, but they cannot oppress the Shiites. Without the support of the community, they can’t recruit fighters, impose war decisions or even protect their assets,” Rasha adds.

“The main factor that’d bring change to Hezbollah and its community is the increasing class differences that are becoming more apparent in Dahiyeh today,” she insists. Karim agrees, adding that the stark disparities in the standards of living are raising serious discontent among people. “Most of the young folks in Dahiyeh do not have cars or proper access to public transportation. However, most Hezbollah officials’ sons are driving brand new expensive cars. We see this every day. Their houses, cars, clothes etc… are all in our faces every single time we go out.”

It is still immature to talk about serious dissent against Hezbollah, which is still the strongest and most credible political party there is for the Shiites. That hasn’t changed, but people are not one hundred percent compliant like they used to be. While Nasrallah pledges more fighting in Syria, Yemen and wherever they are needed in the region, more young men are coming back in coffins. The rhetoric is becoming more aggressive in Lebanon, whereas the Iranian people are starting to enjoy the advantages of Iran’s “openness” to the West. Investors are leaving Lebanon and moving to Iran, and all these young Shiites can do is hope that the war in Syria will stop so they can start breathing.

One cannot but feel a sense of jealousy when they talk about Iran. Iranian youth are reaping the benefits while Lebanese Shiites are either dying in Syria, or in the best case scenario, lingering – unemployed and isolated – until the Party of God decides otherwise.

Despite all that, Karim and Racha are not hopeless. “We are not an exception. Many people are asking questions, and there isn’t one family in Dahiyeh that isn’t divided over Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and the region. We will force Hezbollah to change. No one else can.”

Disclaimer: Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. She tweets @haningdr

Members of Shiite Hezbollah movement's security forces stand guard during a rally marking Ashura, on the tenth day of the mourning period of Muharram, in Beirut's southern suburbs on October 24, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / STR)

'The main factor that’d bring change to Hezbollah and its community is the increasing class differences that are becoming more apparent in Dahiyeh today.'