The Amal movement confronts its demons

Despite being unhappy with the conduct of Berry’s supporters, Hezbollah continues to turn a blind eye, its priority being first and foremost the unity of the Shiite community.

Soldiers protecting peaceful protesters on Friday in Nabatiyeh, in front of the "fist of the revolution" which had just been put in place. A few hours later, the fist was burned down. The protesters will see this as the act of Amal’s supporters. Pictures: Badia Fahs

The Amal movement has once again been singled out last week as being responsible for a multitude of repressive and provocative acts within the context of the popular revolt. This new outburst of violence has resulted in an outpouring of harsh criticism aimed at the Shiite movement, especially from certain political figures close to it. Hezbollah, which so far has refrained from publicly denouncing its main strategic ally, could be unhappy at seeing its political partner resort to methods which it currently perceives as not only counterproductive, but even dangerous, as they run the risk of exacerbating the overall sense of chaos that reigns across the country.

Harshly denounced by circles within the protest movement and in the media, the scenes of violence aimed at demonstrators who came to denounce the squandering of public funds outside the Council of the South by supporters of President of the House Nabih Berry last Friday, was only the beginning of many more assaults and provocations also attributed to the Amal movement.

That same evening, and also in the Jnah region, south of Beirut, about sixty individuals, most likely belonging to the same movement, gathered in order to block the road in front of the house of deputy Jamil Sayyed, who belongs to the same political camp. Without sugar coating his words, and directly referring to Mr. Berry's supporters, earlier in the day the MP had condemned the acts of vandalism and subversion "sponsored by the state", in a direct reference to those who attacked the protesters with sticks and knives. This criticism was most likely the motivation for the attempts at intimidation outside his residence.

The following day, an equally powerful message was also sent to the former general director of information and political analyst , Mohammad Obeid, who is close to Hezbollah, whose home in Habsheet (Nabatiyeh), was burned down by “unidentified people". Also well-known for his outspoken views, that morning Mr. Obeid continued attacking the leader of the Amal movement without naming him during an interview on the al-Jadeed TV channel, while also virulently denouncing the aggression against the protesters in Jnah.

Obeid forced the issue by drawing a parallel between the values defended by Amal when the movement was led by Moussa Sadr, and the ones endorsed by Mr. Berry today. "What we saw in Jnah is nothing like the principles advocated by Moussa Sadr, whose supporters used to defend the law and justice, and who did not venture to cover a thief and corruption in power, or those who hide behind the movement as such.” He said it all. That evening, Mr. Obeid's empty home was set ablaze.

According to sources close to Hezbollah, it is obvious that Amal's fingerprints are all over the crime scene. In addition, it is clear that the movement is also behind the destruction of the fist of the revolution in Nabatiyeh which took place over the past weekend. Following this latest attack, portraits of Nabih Berry were burned down by protesters in South Lebanon. "There are people within Amal who, unfortunately, continue to believe in the effectiveness of these bullying tactics", said a source close to Hezbollah.

In an equally critical op-ed published last Saturday in the daily newspaper al-Akhbar, which is close to Hezbollah’s circles, Ibrahim el-Amine also attacked Mr. Berry, inviting him to change the ongoing methods of persuasion as well as his mentality, and denouncing in substance the state of denial in which the President of the Parliament and the Amal movement seem to have sunk into. "Ultimately, he [Mr. Berry] will be unwillingly forced to choose between an arrogance that will lead to uncontrolled chaos, or backtrack and think through a strategy aimed at ending the crisis", said the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.

Who gave the order?

For some analysts close to Hezbollah, this widespread violence practiced by the Amal movement is not, however, as centralized as one might be tempted to believe. According to them, the beating of the protesters in particular, was not directly ordered by the President of the Parliament, but was the work of fiery supporters who believed they were doing well by defending the "sacredness" of Amal’s top leader.

"What interest does Nabih Berry have in throwing fuel on the fire and increasing the resentment he has been subjected to for some time now?”, asked a political analyst close to Hezbollah. According to the analyst, the attack was not organized by Ahmad Baalbaki, the security official of the Amal movement and member of the Parliamentary Police. The latter had, however, been singled out by Jamil Sayyed who, in a tweet published after the display of force outside his home, had called on Mr. Berry to do a better job at containing Baalbaki. "Get rid of Ahmad Baalbaki. It would be better for him”, advised the deputy to the President of the House in a rather threatening tone.

According to the political analyst, it is not so much Nabih Berry who was targeted by Mr. Sayyed’s tweet, but rather Ahmad Baalbaki with whom "the deputy has an old conflict".

Political ambition

However, many people believe that the deputy of Baalbeck-Hermel is directly targeting the leader of Amal in a showdown that would further his ambition to succeed him as head of Parliament. “Jamil Sayyed has political ambitions. It's not a secret to anyone. The current context is a golden opportunity that he is trying to take advantage of ”, commented an analyst close to Hezbollah, alluding to the current vulnerability of the President of the House, who has been strongly denounced by the street ever since the beginning of the popular revolt against the Lebanese political class, on October 17.

Lawyer and activist Sherif Suleiman, one of the 25 victims of the Jnah attack, also believes that Mr. Sayyed is indeed trying to attract a popular base of his own, especially as he has no political party backing him up, and that the majority of Shiite votes traditionally land in favor of Hezbollah and the Amal movement which dominate the Shiite political scene. "However, it would be wrong to say that the fight for the interests of the citizens and of his region – a fight in which Mr. Sayyed is currently engaged in - is circumstantial and concomitant with the revolution", says Mr. Suleiman who recalls that the battle which the MP is leading started at the onset of his election in May 2018.

One also needs to remember the showdown that, in July 2018, set the leader of Amal and the deputy of the Beqaa at odds. Back then, Sayyed denounced an imbalance in the appointments within the State Security agency in favor of the South of Lebanon, as well as the absence of a development policy in the Beqaa region.

As harmful to their interests as it may seem, this inter-community squabbling within the same political camp is not likely to undermine the unity of the Shiite street, a unity which Hezbollah wishes to see more than ever cemented in the face of the multitude of challenges -internal and external- that it is being confronted to.

Even if multiple sidesteps on the part of the Amal movement are being condemned within circles close to Hezbollah, it is agreed that the party will keep on refraining from publicly denouncing Amal’s actions, in order to avoid confrontation with a major strategic ally.

"Even Jamil Sayyed is fully conscious of the limits of the game and of the rule imposed by Hezbollah, which continues to support Amal’s ultimate leader, and will do so until the end", comments a source close to the Shiite party who remarks that criticism remains acceptable, as long as it does not directly target the Speaker of the House. The party will also not accept any controversy aimed at creating rifts between the Beqaa and the South, two areas where Shiite influence is predominant. Hezbollah must have communicated these numerous red lines to Mr. Sayyed.

Having themselves made the mistake of using repressive tactics on the protest movement -mainly in South Lebanon-, Hezbollah, a large number of whose supporters still sympathize with the protesters, is now convinced of the ineffectiveness of muscular methods.

For Hezbollah, the idea at this moment is to absorb the anger instead of fueling it, especially now. "The only option is to listen to the street and offer solutions that can meet the aspirations of the protesters. New policies must be instigated, and work must be done towards a radical change of mentalities”, concludes the source close to Hezbollah.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 29th of Januray)

The Amal movement has once again been singled out last week as being responsible for a multitude of repressive and provocative acts within the context of the popular revolt. This new outburst of violence has resulted in an outpouring of harsh criticism aimed at the Shiite movement, especially from certain political figures close to it. Hezbollah, which so far has refrained from publicly...