Amid popular anger, Lebanon's Hezbollah uses Soleimani's killing to shore up shaken legitimacy

Amid popular anger, Lebanon's Hezbollah uses Soleimani's killing to shore up shaken legitimacy
In-depth: Qasem Soleimani's killing is allowing ruling elites in Lebanon, including Hezbollah and its allies, to shift the conversation away from domestic issues that have triggered anti-government protests since October
6 min read
13 January, 2020
'Neutrality protects Lebanon' became a trending hashtag on Twitter after the killing of Soleimani [AFP]
Since the assassination of the head of Iran's elite Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani on January 2 and the subsequent Iranian retaliation, the region, including Lebanon, has entered a new phase of US-Iranian tensions.

With Lebanon dominated by the Iran-aligned Hezbollah, many fear the country could be dragged into the standoff.

Facing popular anger against corruption, bad governance and bank restrictions, however, the country's sectarian ruling parties were keen to exploit this regional turmoil to shift the tone of the conversation.

Since the beginning of the popular movement in Lebanon on the October 17 and the fall of the Hariri government 12 days later, the country's uprising has shaken the local constituencies of powerful sectarian leaders and groups. 

"There is a heavy need for a technocratic government, as our faith in the current ruling class has diminished," said student activist Jad Hani in a protest outside the Central Bank.

Authority in crisis

Initially, the demonstrations fixated on matters such as judicial independence, fair tax laws and the creation of a technocratic government. Nevertheless, with the currency devaluation, price hikes and informal capital control procedures, many experts have warned of a "hunger revolution".
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Despite such escalations and deteriorating local confidence, Lebanon's main political forces have insisted on being included in any upcoming government arrangement. Lebanon's President and Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun has stood firm on his desire to form a hybrid "techno-political" government.

In a speech televised a month ago, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah emphasised that "any new government must include all sides", rejecting many protesters' demand for an independent interim government to rescue the country from financial collapse.

In the meantime, the army and security forces have responded to recent protests with brute force and arbitrary arrests, the latest being the detention of dozens of youth activists by the army in Beddawi, Tripoli a few days ago.

Shoring up legitimacy

"The (US) attack was a dangerous escalation against Iran which will increase regional tensions," said a statement issued by the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Lebanon, condemning the move as a violation of sovereignty.

While similar sentiments were expressed by many politicians and figures, several statements and analyses attempted to link external developments to events unfolding internally.

In a speech televised on the January 5, Nasrallah denounced Trump's aggressive foreign policy and attempts to corner Hezbollah and Iran. He went further to condemn the United States' projects in Lebanon, one of which he claimed is "inciting Hezbollah's support base" against the party.

Nasrallah further categorised three groups in Lebanon: those aligned with the "axis of resistance", those against it and those "unaware where God has put them". Many have understood the last category to encompass demonstrators not aligned with formerly existing pro-Iran and pro-US coalitions in Lebanon.

In response to the Iranian retaliation, Hezbollah ally and head of Amal Movement Nabih Berri reiterated his support for a 'consociational' government which accommodates all sectarian sides.

"The assassination of Soleimani represents a dangerous escalation," said Berri in a parliamentary meet-up last Wednesday. "What is needed is an inclusive national government which is able to assure the public and instill security," he continued.

Since the killing of Soleimani, efforts to form a government in Lebanon went back to square one as a result, after earlier optimism in some quarters that the current PM-designate Hassan Diab would be able to form a government of specialists.

Now, many analysts and activists have raised concerns over the shift in public discourse. "Hezbollah and its allies, alongside the rest of the Lebanese ruling class and oligarchy, used various methods to coerce and threaten protesters and activists from voicing their opposition to the status quo," researcher Bachar El Halabi told The New Arab.

"A conversation which revolved around the basic needs of Hezbollah's local constituents was shortly replaced by a discourse of regional confrontation," continued El Halabi.

On the other hand, the conversation in the country has become more polarised with Hezbollah and its allies' monopoly on matters of foreign policy.

"Since the assassination of Soleimaini, many groups which align with Hezbollah's 'Axis of Resistance' launched campaigns and accusations against those who see Soleimani as the orchestrator of the counter-revolution in Syria, Iraq and Iran," wrote Farah El Baba, a local activist and political writer.

El Baba continued to describe the dichotomies created by such a discourse, in which people are forced to choose between the "Axis of Resistance" and colonialism/imperialism.

'No to USA, no to Iran'

"The murderer is American, the target Iranian, the murder act was set in Iraq. No matter how I twist it, I can't seem to get how a Lebanese has vowed to respond," wrote renowned Lebanese journalist and activist Dima Sadek in response to Nasrallah's televised speech.

Sadek's comments come in a wider context of many residents in Lebanon who don't wish to be victims of a US-Iran proxy war, hence the trending hashtag on Twitter "neutrality protects Lebanon".

A similar sentiment was expressed by protesters in Iraq last week, who chanted 'No to America, not to Iran' as the country's elites also sought to prioritise geopolitics over their demands.

Besides that, progressive left-leaning youth and student groups in the country expressed their frustrations with how both Iranian and American hegemony faced the rising protest movement in Lebanon and Iraq.

In a statement issued by the Youth Movement for Change, the grassroots group affirmed that "Iraq is witnessing a competition and struggle between America and its tool on one hand, and Iran and its tools on another."

Instead, such groups have insisted on their continuous support and solidarity with those fighting for progressive change in the Middle East.

"As an active political movement fighting for freedoms and rights, including the right to self-determination and freedom of assembly, [we] reject the continuous violations and military operations undertaken by both the US and Iranian forces on Middle Eastern territories," said a statement issued by the AUB Secular Club.

On the ground, to stress on the continuation of the protest movement in the face of deteriorating socio-economic living standards and rising regional tensions, thousands of activists and demonstrators marched towards the Lebanese parliament under the slogan "We Won't Pay the Price".

Karim Safieddine is a political writer and student living in Lebanon

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