Hanin Ghaddar

Lebanese Shiites disrupting the status quo

Opposition lists in upcoming municipal elections are sounding the alarm to Hezbollah

Hezbollah supporters gather in Dahiyeh for Ashoura commemorations on November 4, 2014. (Al-Ahed News)

During Lebanon’s last municipal elections in 2010, the two Shiite parties – Amal Movement and Hezbollah – decided to run together on joint lists. Of course they won the majority of the council seats across the South and the Bekaa’s Shiite towns. However, there were signs of discontent. By ignoring the sensitivities of local families and other political groups, some independent candidates decided to run against the Amal-Hezbollah coalition, managing to win a few seats here and there. The competition was not based on political issues, but rather on local and developmental problems and solutions.


That was a small yet significant message to Hezbollah: The Shiites cannot be completely tamed and there will always be challenges on the local level.


Now that new municipal elections are around the corner, Hezbollah and Amal are again running joint lists, knowing that it is not the time to allow for challenges within the Shiite community. And again, familial sensitivities and political diversities were not taken into consideration. Again, the Shiites are taken for granted and expected to vote in their majority to the two parties ruling the community. Hezbollah and Amal will probably win a majority of the seats again, but things have changed drastically since 2010, with signs of discontent growing louder. This time, it is not about council seats or winning elections. This time, the Shiites are actually saying no to everything.


In the southern suburbs of Beirut (Dahiyeh), slogans against Hezbollah (which immediately get torn or painted over) are spreading all over the place. People are pointing out Hezbollah’s failure to address local and developmental concerns, and support for opposition candidates is discreet no more. Full electoral lists are being formed against Hezbollah and Amal in Dahiyeh’s Ghobeiry (Hezbollah’s wealthiest municipality in the southern suburbs) and Bourj al-Barajneh (where a major bombing claimed by ISIS took place last November). These two lists are gaining momentum and support, according to activists in Dahiyeh. Why? “Because Hezbollah has done nothing for us,” they say. “The party’s special services go to their members, while the municipality is as corrupt as other municipalities all across the country. Hassan Nasrallah said after the 2006 July war that they’re going to rebuild Dahiyeh to look better than it was. This became a slogan that filled the streets for years after the war. Look at Dahiyeh today. It’s worse than ever,” said one activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.


Yes, Hezbollah has proven to its community that that they are as corrupt as the rest of the political groups in the country. Like the rest of Lebanon, Dahiyeh suffers from a water crisis, electricity shortages, the chaotic spreading of illegal shops and stands, and streets filled with trash. But it is certainly more lawless than any other area, being a refuge for many wanted criminals, thieves and drug dealers.


Also, since the last elections in 2010, Hezbollah has engaged in a bloody war in Syria. Many Shiite militants fighting in Syria are coming back in coffins but without any “divine victory.” Shiites are more isolated than ever from other Lebanese communities and the majority Sunni Arab Middle East in general. Unemployment levels are on the rise and the only paid jobs that are available are combat jobs in Syria.


Residents are obviously fed up. Support for Hezbollah’s war in Syria is starting to cost more than they can afford, and alternative political movements are being formed out the discontent. Opposition lists have formed in many major Hezbollah-controlled areas: In addition to Ghobeiry and Bourj al-Barajneh, the Party of God is facing electoral opposition from Baalbek Madinati in Baalbek, and another group Nabatieh.


Is this scaring Hezbollah? Well, both Amal and Hezbollah are right to asume that they’ll secure the majority of the votes, and that any penetration from independent political groups will not change much. However, they are worried about the outcry. If anything, these lists are an expression of people’s discontent, whether they win any seats or not.


That’s why – for the first time during municipal elections – Hezbollah has ordered its supporters and members to vote. They have employed the card they usually use during parliamentary elections, when wining is not guaranteed: al-Takleef al-Shar’ii (commissioning constituents to act based on a religious directive or fatwa). One Hezbollah’s cabinet ministers, Hussein Hajj Hassan, appeared in a video saying that Nasrallah is requesting that all loyal Mujahedeen and Mujahedat to cast their votes in favor of Hezbollah and Amal candidates.


Hezbollah likely saw the writing on the wall and decided to roll out the big guns.


Nasrallah is expected to appear tonight on television to call on supporters to vote, and Hezbollah’s electoral and media machines are busy marketing for their candidates. This is not only about elections. For the Party of God, this is an opportunity to calm their constituents, and show that they are still present and in control.


Some of the opposing lists are proposing that current municipal councils be held accountable for incomplete or unaccomplished projects. This means holding Hezbollah accountable. This is certainly unheard of. But Hezbollah is not only worried about being held accountable or losing an election. They’re worried because they know that the Shiites in Lebanon are fed up with Hezbollah’s governance and actually looking for an alternative. They’re worried that development issues and everyday struggles will become more significant than the sacredness of the arms and wars.


Hezbollah wants to keep the voice of the arms louder than the voice of the people. The problem is that they had more than a decade to care for people’s needs, but they only used their representation in municipalities for political power games and to gain further control. The Resistance narrative was enough for people to sacrifice daily needs, but it seems to be no longer sufficient.


Will these elections change local political power? Likely not significantly, but the opposing lists, and the accompanying discontent among the Shiites could eventually lead to a serious political alternative from within the community itself.


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

Hezbollah supporters gather in Dahiyeh for Ashoura commemorations on November 4, 2014. (Al-Ahed News)

Hassan Nasrallah said after the 2006 July war that they’re going to rebuild Dahiyeh to look better than it was. This became a slogan that filled the streets for years after the war. Look at Dahiyeh today. It’s worse than ever.