Hezbollah in precarious position ahead of Hariri verdict

Hezbollah in precarious position ahead of Hariri verdict

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The aftermath of the car bomb explosion that killed Rafik Hariri, Beirut, Lebanon, February 14, 2005. (Reuters)

As the port of Beirut — including the grain silos that stored about 85 percent of Lebanon’s cereals — was totally destroyed in Tuesday’s deadly explosion, the country now needs to rely on the port of Tripoli, which is unequipped to cater for the needs of a nation that largely relies on imported food.

This is a tragic moment for Lebanon. However, this tragic moment comes during a very tense period. The explosion took place just three days before the day the entire country has been waiting for: The verdict of the international tribunal on the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Though the verdict is not out yet, it is expected to incriminate Syrian President Bashar Assad and his ally Hezbollah. Hezbollah has been on shaky ground for a while now amid increasingly vocal opposition. The most recent flagrant opposition was from the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Mar Bishara Boutros Al-Ra’i, who last month accused Hezbollah of dragging Lebanon into a regional crisis and called for the country’s neutrality.

Hezbollah has been losing popularity and facing increasing resistance since last year. To start with, it was the group that was most alarmed by the protests that erupted on Oct. 17. The current power structure provides the group with the necessary cover for its operations. Any change toward a transparent, non-sectarian and accountable government would lead to the weakening of Hezbollah.

It has been the main agent pushing back against the protests. The followers of Hassan Nasrallah and his ally the Amal Movement went down to the streets to beat up and intimidate protesters, while the government, in many instances, sidelined the army and prevented it from protecting the peaceful demonstrators. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was a welcome gift for the government, as the enforced lockdown strangled the protests, which slowly started to lose momentum. Fatigue and the dire economic conditions made each citizen more concerned about fulfilling their basic food needs than protesting for the collective good of the country.

The visit of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Lebanon last month resulted in a clash with Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who refused the French calls for reforms, claiming that 97 percent of the promised reforms have already been conducted. While bragging about his achievements, he neglected to mention that the currency had lost 80 percent of its value, people are unable to access their bank accounts, and basic goods have tripled in price. At the same time, the little funding left with the state is used to import subsidized fuel and flour. However, these goods are then smuggled to Assad, Hezbollah’s ally, while Lebanon plunges into darkness due to electricity cuts. The Lebanese people, who were hoping for international aid, have been let down by the government, which used various pretexts to justify noncompliance with the Internal Monetary Fund’s requirements.

Though Hezbollah has used various tools to deflect the blame for the current situation, and its government has given many justifications for not conducting the required reforms, popular anger has been brewing and Hezbollah has regularly found itself defending an indefensible position. People are very upset as they feel their country is being hijacked by Hezbollah, which has imposed a puppet government and has been the main stumbling block to reforms and international relief.

The group has been very anxiously waiting for the tribunal’s verdict. The government is also very nervous as it will have to follow the instructions of its master and reject the findings if it incriminates Hezbollah and Assad, which would further fuel popular anger. To circumvent the effects of the verdict — as the government does not really need another wave of protests — it has announced another nationwide lockdown starting on Thursday, again using its friend COVID-19 as the perfect pretext. 

Now, with all eyes on the verdict, this massive explosion occurs. Was that a mere coincidence? While investigations are underway and the direct cause of the explosion was the chemical material that was unsafely stored in a warehouse, the timing makes the plausibility of it being an accident very questionable.

Popular anger has been brewing and Hezbollah has regularly found itself defending an indefensible position.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Nasrallah, who was supposed to give a fiery speech, kept quiet and adjourned his talk to mourn the dead. Not everyone is buying into the accident narrative. However, all alternative narratives lead to Hezbollah. Some on social media say they heard a jet and think that Israel struck the warehouse, which was storing ammunition for the group. Nevertheless, Israel denied any involvement. Others posted pictures of the explosion with the turban of Nasrallah superimposed on top of the smoke, with the title: “We know it’s you.” Their rationale is that the explosion was a tactic to shift the public discourse from the verdict to saving the stricken city.

Regardless of whether it was an accident resulting from the negligence of the government installed by Hezbollah or whether it was instigated by an external actor, Hezbollah is going to be blamed. With all eyes set on Friday’s verdict, Hezbollah is in a precarious situation.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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