Alex Rowell

Is the US turning its back on Hezbollah's Shiite opponents?

A leading independent Shiite activist claims the State Department is withdrawing funding for his NGO for policy reasons; a claim the US ambassador disputes

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif pose before resuming talks over Iran

Making a start on the first of several morning coffees—and the first of at least as many cigarettes—Loqman Slim looks like a man who could use a vacation when NOW meets him in the office of his Hayya Bina [“Let’s go!”] NGO in southeast Beirut’s working class Ain al-Rummaneh neighborhood.


The veteran civilian society activist, who has made his name opposing Hezbollah despite being a Shiite himself (and a resident of Dahiyeh, the Party of God’s fiefdom in the capital’s southern suburbs), has more weighing on his mind than usual nowadays. In April, he received notice from one of Hayya Bina’s US State Department-linked financiers that Washington had requested they cease funding one of his programs. The reason given by the State Department, as quoted in writing by the financier, the International Republic Institute (IRI), came as a shock to Slim and his team: “[D]ue to a recent shift in Department of State priorities in Lebanon […] all activities intended [to] foster an independent moderate Shia voice [must] be ceased immediately and indefinitely.” (NOW commentator Tony Badran earlier quoted part of the same correspondence, published in full below, in his latest column.)


For Slim and his colleagues, the letter spells a dramatic and disastrous new direction for US foreign policy that works directly to Hezbollah’s advantage.


“So we don’t support Shia democratic activists anymore?” asked Inga Schei, Hayya Bina’s Program Director, herself an American. “This is an alarming shift, and it sends a message not just to us but to all the Shia who are receiving funds from the [US] embassy, who are cooperating with [Hezbollah’s political opponents] March 14, or outspoken in their own capacity, or expressing an alternative vision for the future of this country. It sends a horrible message to all of these people.”


Slim told NOW, moreover, that he believes this alleged new approach is a component of recent American overtures to Hezbollah’s prime patron, Iran, with whom President Barack Obama is seeking warmer relations.


“We see clearly that US policy in Lebanon is based on the idea of not upsetting Hezbollah. Clearly. Whatever they can do not to upset Hezbollah, they do it,” said Slim.


That assertion has been flatly denied by both the US Embassy in Beirut and the State Department in Washington, D.C. In a written statement sent to NOW Tuesday, US Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale said: “There is no change in policy. A shift in one sub-grant that represents a change of less than one tenth of a percent of America’s non-military assistance to Lebanon does not constitute a policy shift. We have an array of programs designed to support moderate voices in a myriad of ways across all religious sects. We remain strongly committed to promoting peace and moderation in Lebanon, as a cornerstone of our policy.”


This was echoed by a State Department official, who told NOW: “As a matter of policy, the Department continues to support independent Shia via a number of programs,” including those run by Hayya Bina itself, whose Teach Women English program – providing English language instruction to women in rural areas of Lebanon – continues to receive US government funding. The official also cited an environmental project called Tyr Hope, run by “an independent Shia civil society organization,” working with youth to create green spaces in the predominantly Shiite southern city.


Rather than being a question of policy, the State Department official claimed, the withdrawal of funds was prompted by “performance concerns” that arose following an “independent evaluation” of Hayya Bina undertaken in late 2014. In fact, said the official, the concern wasn’t that Hayya Bina was doing too much to promote Shiite moderation and independence, but rather that it wasn’t doing enough.


Schei firmly rejected this version of events when contacted by NOW for comment, saying: “To our knowledge, questions of performance were not raised with IRI regarding this subgrant, and the embassy did not raise such concerns with Hayya Bina at any time throughout the implementation of the grant. In addition to the letter provided by IRI on April 10, IRI emphasized that the reasons for halting funding were related to policy, and not the integrity of our work.”


As for the evaluation, Schei told NOW “there was certainly nothing glaring there about our performance.” Slim, too, had earlier told NOW the audit had gone smoothly, and added he thought it could have been an effort by the State Department to find an apolitical pretext to cancel the funding.


Beyond these discrepant claims of Slim and Schei, on the one hand, and US officials on the other, NOW has struggled to obtain independent verification or clarification from any relevant third party. IRI, the financial middleman between the State Department and Hayya Bina, declined to comment on-the-record when contacted by NOW. Attempts by NOW to obtain comment from the office of Senator John McCain, who chairs IRI, were also unsuccessful. One source in Washington, D.C., familiar with the project and the deliberations essentially corroborated Hayya Bina’s version of the story, telling NOW that “no party was informed of any performance issues directly related to the suspension of specific activities; on the contrary, all were informed that decisions were not a reflection of performance but rather a result of the reassessment of policy.”


For some other independent Lebanese Shiite activists, though, to focus on the precise details of this case is to miss a larger point. Malek Mroue, an influential activist who has worked with such groups as the Lebanese Civil Coalition and the Democratic Renewal Movement, told NOW that with or without the funding for this particular Hayya Bina program, US support for moderate Shiite voices is insignificant either way.


“Short of Hayya Bina, they haven’t supported anyone,” Mroue told NOW. “I’ve worked on this for the past 10 years, and I deal with most of the independent Shia, and I’ve talked to the Americans, and I haven’t seen any support whatsoever, neither financial nor political, short of Hayya Bina.”


“The [US] is claiming they’re helping, but this is all lip service to something that never existed, and actually harms the independent Shia who are working with their own resources without US support.”


Alex Rowell tweets @disgraceofgod

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif pose before resuming talks over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne on 16 March 2015. (AFP/Bryan Snyder)

We see clearly that US policy in Lebanon is based on the idea of not upsetting Hezbollah. Clearly. Whatever they can do not to upset Hezbollah, they do it,” said Slim.