Hezbollah wants the dollar-hungry Lebanese to boycott American goods. The catch? Lebanon could hurt more

Hezbollah wants the dollar-hungry Lebanese to boycott American goods. The catch? Lebanon could hurt more
In-depth: Ordinary Lebanese are accusing Hezbollah of being out of touch with the needs of the economically embattled country, saying they have different priorities, reports Emma Scolding from Beirut.
5 min read
24 February, 2020
Hezbollah's chief Hassan Nasrallah wants Lebanon to avenge Qasem Soleimani by boycotting US products [Twitter]

Many in Lebanon have responded with derision to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's call last week for a campaign to boycott products manufactured in the United States.

With the economic situation in Lebanon spiralling out of control, critics condemned the campaign for being out of touch.

They say ordinary Lebanese have different priorities, especially as the call was made in the context of avenging the US assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January.

Speaking on February 17 to mark the passage of 40 days since Soleimani's death, Iran-backed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had called for a boycott of American products suggesting it was "part of the battle" with Washington.

The speech proved immediately divisive.

Among supporters, photos of alleged US-manufactured goods, including food, electronics and cleaning products, made their way around pro-Hezbollah pages on social media, with a caption suggesting that "boycotting American goods" is part of "awareness and the struggle."

Hezbollah supporters even staged a bizarre video stunt in Beirut's southern suburbs, dressing up as Orthodox Jews while calling for the boycott of US products, drawing accusations of anti-Semitism.

Yet as the pressure of economic meltdown bears down on Lebanon’s citizens, many Lebanese decried the campaign as "delusional".

Lebanese journalist Sahar Mandour was critical of the call. "You have produced a country that doesn’t produce anything," she wrote, referring to Hezbollah’s role in enabling Lebanon's bad governance since the end of the civil war in the 1990s.

In a column for the activist media platform Megaphone, she wrote that the "throw-away" campaign was merely a "distraction" from the poor record of the Hezbollah-backed government currently in place in the country.

On social media, some mocked Hezbollah and shared a photo of Nasrallah's son Jawad wearing a Timberland USA.73 sweatshirt with a caption reading: "Before suggesting to your audience boycotting the US, please remove your son's sweatshirt and dress him in Iranian [clothing]".

Who would hurt more?

According to US official trade figures, trade between the two countries was worth $1.19 billion last year. Lebanon's main imports from the US are oil products, heavy machinery, medical supplies, and aviation parts, with limited imports of retail goods that ordinary Lebanese can readily boycott. 

In fact, pro-boycott infographics circulated online by Hezbollah supporters misidentified the origin of many trade marks. One list contains the logos for products made by Nestle, a Swiss company, but labelled them as 'American'. 

For its part, Lebanon exports $150 million per year to the US, mostly jewelry and foodstuffs produced by small businesses, which would stand to lose if a boycott campaign gained traction.

Different priorities

Since the October outbreak of an unprecedented wave of popular protests in Lebanon, protestors and supporters of Hezbollah have repeatedly been at odds. Even so, many of the party’s supporters are skeptical about the boycott call. 

Amid a snowballing economic crisis, shopkeepers and consumers who spoke to The New Arab said their priority is to keep prices low despite a de-facto currency devaluation.

Fatima, who manages a branch of the Rammal supermarket in southern Beirut, said that her store hadn’t changed its stocks since Nasrallah’s speech, and denied noticing many customers asking for alternatives.

"If someone’s used to Nestle they’re not going to commit to a boycott" said Fatima, giving the example of the popular instant coffee powder, despite its origin being non-American. "Half our products are Nestle anyway," she added.

Both traders and consumers in Lebanon are increasingly feeling the squeeze, as the country struggles to cope with the worst economic crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

While the central bank maintains a currency peg to fix the Lebanese Lira at L.L.1,507.5 to the dollar, the exchange rate has diverged heavily in parallel markets. The dollar has been selling steadily at prices around 1.5 times the official rate in exchange houses across the country this week, driving up the cost of imported goods and raw materials.

Product prices change from store to store as a result, as consumers pay the price for the unstable exchange rate.

On Thursday, protestors gathered outside Lebanon’s Economy Ministry to call for better government oversight. The ministry responded that it was attempting to monitor shops and distributors, with 61 files “involving raised prices and non-compliance with official pricing” sent to the judiciary.

The conditions have pushed many traders to cut their losses. According to a recent study by InfoPro, 220,000 people have lost their jobs since October, while half of the companies surveyed had slashed wages by 40 percent. Another announcement this week noted that 785 companies in the food and beverages industry have shut their doors since September.

Having opened just a month and a half ago, the market Rachid* runs in south Beirut’s Ghobeiry neighbourhood represents a rare success story. Despite an unassuming location near Beirut’s Airport Road, the shop was busy with customers.

While a sign outside denotes support for the “sayyed,” a term of respect used to refer to Hassan Nasrallah, Rachid said the shop wasn’t aiming to facilitate the boycott.

Rachid said his priority is to find cheaper products, wherever they came from. Now, he is looking to supply his shop with products from lots of sources, including Egypt, Tunis, Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Iran, in order to offer people cheaper alternatives.

"I don’t have a problem with anyone,” said Rachid, when asked about the boycott, and said he did not watch Nasrallah's speech.

But Rachid admitted "some people ask for alternatives," as one customer approached the counter to check the manufacturer of a large tin of luncheon meat, which turned out to be Lebanese.

In Khandaq al-Ghamiq, a low-income Beirut neighbourhood considered a bastion of support for the Hezbollah-allied Shia Amal movement, two shopkeepers told The New Arab they wouldn’t be changing their stock after Nasrallah’s speech either. 

"What speech? If they really want us to boycott they should provide an alternative."

Emma Scolding is a freelance journalist working from the Middle East and North Africa