The Shiite Factor in the Popular Protests: Role and Messages

“Hezbollah is certainly powerful, but it has a vulnerable side. It cannot engage in a civil war because it would destroy it locally and regionally,” former MP Salah Honein said.

The Shiite Factor in the Popular Protests: Role and Messages

Roads cut, in downtown Beirut, near Martyrs’ Square on June 6. Photo João Sousa

Since Saturday June 6, the popular protests, initially directed against the government and the entire political class, have taken a new turn, with serious consequences well known to everyone. At the root of this reorientation was the entry into the scene of Shiite protestors with sectarian slogans and acts of violence in a clear break with what had marked the protests since October 17, 2019.

“Shia (Shiites), Shia, Shia,” shouted hundreds of protesters from el-Khandak el-Ghamik on June 6, rushing to Martyrs’ Square, where a motley crowd was calling for the fall of Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government, an autonomous judiciary, the recovery of embezzled public funds, early legislative elections and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (which provides for the disarmament of militias). The same scene was repeated that evening when dozens of others rushed to the very sensitive Chiyah-Ain el-Remmaneh axis, suddenly re-viving the demons of war at this ancient line of demarcation.

After the dollar soared against the Lebanese pound on the black market in mid-last week, thousands of angry young people from the southern suburbs of Beirut and the Shiite neighborhoods of Fanar poured in to join the protesters of the October 17 movement on the night of Thursday June 11, to also denounce the country's financial and socio-economic collapse. Later, that appeared to be a remote-controlled operation rather than a spontaneous reaction. The rage accompanied by gratuitous acts of violence and vandalism reached its climax on the night of Friday, June 12, with the ransacking of downtown Beirut, without the police, usually merciless with the protesters, taking a firm action.

With the Shiite factor coming into play, along with sectarian slogans addressed to both Sunnites and Christians and calls for changing the Lebanese political system, as the stranglehold of international sanctions tightens around Hezbollah, fears of inter-sectarian conflict have been revived. In Ain el-Remmanh and el-Tarik el-Jdideh, anti-Shiite slogans and others, blasphemous towards the Sunnite community, was almost like putting a spark to the powder.

A Missing Factor

Is Lebanon in danger of plunging into a new fratricidal war? Would Hezbollah benefit from a return to the sectarian barriers that the October 17 uprising had overcome? Is the group sending any messages and to whom? Is it to the Lebanese who call for implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1559, because they know that it is not possible, in the presence of illegal weapons, to build a state in the true sense of the word or to carry out substantial structural reforms to that effect? Is it to the international community, and in particular the United States, which is preparing to tighten sanctions against Hezbollah and its allies in the wake of the Caesar Act? Or is it to the leader of the Future Movement Saad Hariri, whom the two main Shiite parties would like to see again at the head of the government?

Some have seen in the recent events and the tense political discourse the ingredients for a possible civil war that could be ignited by the slightest inter-sectarian incident especially amid the current heated mood in the country. It reminds of the political climate and tensions that prevailed on the eve of the 1975 war, and blamed at the time on the presence of Palestinian guerrillas in the country and the subsequent political polarization. The circumstances may seem similar today, with now the weapons in the hands of Hezbollah. But a major element is missing: no green light and no regional and international interests for starting a war in Lebanon, according to sources close to the Future Movement. In the circles of the Shiite party, the risk of fratricidal hostilities is brushed aside.

“Stability remains a red line for us. No party today has an interest in seeing the country shaken by violence, which would do Israel a huge service, especially as the enemy is watching us everywhere,” sources close to the party said. Today, Lebanon does not represent a real challenge amid the crises in the region and international showdowns, they added. Thus, the country’s stability is a priority and Hezbollah, despite all its display of force, remains committed to it for its own considerations which stem from its power, both locally and regionally.

A power Drawn from the Weakness of the State

“Hezbollah has no interest in provoking inter-sectarian discord because, by becoming a party to an armed conflict, it would lose all the benefits it is getting from an existing situation that it has itself imposed,” said former MP Salah Honein, noting that Hassan Nasrallah’s party has built up a protection shield thanks to the weakness of the state that is under its control. “An armed conflict would strike the coup de grace to this weak state and bring Hezbollah to the same level as the other parties. A security collapse means the emergence of other weapons. They would then be equal to those of Hezbollah, something that this party would never tolerate, because it wants its own weapons to continue to weigh at the political level,” Honein said.

Even if the Shiite party and with it the Amal Movement washed their hands of last week incidents, the fact remains that this show of force cannot be separated from the context of crisis in Lebanon, which threatens to worsen with the entry into force of the Caesar Act. By tightening the sanctions around Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, the law is sure to weigh on Lebanon. Having Hariri rather than Diab at the head of the government would further reassurance Hezbollah.

Sectarian slogans, the sacking of downtown Beirut and acts of violence in Tripoli, where it is said that the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition intervened through the supporters of Faysal Karameh, may thus be interpreted more as a message addressed to Hariri, who is determined not to return to power as Prime Minister under the mandate of President Michel Aoun, rather than a form of pressure intended to get rid of Central Bank Governor Riad Salamé.

It was to this message that Diab responded on Saturday, June 13, in his enigmatic diatribe against phantom opponents, whom he blamed for an attempted “coup d'état.”

The deployment of Hezbollah and Amal supporters, identified by their black T-shirts and yellow and green caps at the entrances to el-Khandak el-Ghamik and the southern suburbs, was to mark on the evening of Sunday June 13 the end of an episode of Shiite pressures on Hariri who Hezbollah would like to see back in power. And for good reason: Hariri remains a better regional and international interlocutor than the current prime minister.


In this regard, Honein noted that “Hezbollah today is not the same as that of few years ago, when Western capitals negotiated directly with it the release of detainees, for example. It is no longer an interlocutor, but is blacklisted by the international community. Its only protection is the presence of a weak state that it cannot venture to shake, otherwise it would sign its own death warrant. Hezbollah is certainly powerful, but it has a vulnerable side. It cannot engage in hostilities in Lebanon because such hostilities would destroy it locally and regionally,” said the former MP, who considered the Shiite party’s recent show as an intimidation attempts.

Chamel Roukoz, Kesrouan MP and former army officer, downplayed the Shiite party’s incursion into the Christian quarter of Ain el-Remmaneh, seeing it also as an intimidation. “There was not a single shot and the young (assaulters) were not even armed with sticks,” he said, noting that at Martyrs' Square, “it was also obvious that the youths of el-Khandak el-Ghamik did not intend to escalate their attacks, contenting themselves with provocative slogans.”

Intimidation would thus be Hezbollah’s sole objective. This is a practice that the Shiite faction has often resorted to, using its weapons internally to convey multidirectional messages. “This tactic has been so far successful in the absence of an opposing front powerful enough to say no” to Hezbollah, Honein said. Yet, he pointed out, Nasrallah’s party has demonstrated that it does not go to the end with its opposition or warnings when firmly ignored. Honein gave the examples of the battle of el-Nahr el-Bared which the army fought against Palestinian jihadists (2007), and the resignation of Hariri's government in October 2019 despite the party’s opposi-tion. Both moves were “red lines for Hassan Nasrallah but they took place,” he said.

But the Lebanese still remember the events of May 7, 2008 when the fighters of the Shiite faction carried out a coup in Beirut and destroyed offices of the Future Movement because Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government wanted at the time to block Hezbollah's telecommunications network and sack the head of airport security who was close to the group. The Shiite group considered both decisions “a declaration of war.” The militant operation ended a week later and resulted in a political process that was sealed by the Doha Accord. Hezbollah and its allies were thus able to wrest a blocking minority in the government.

We also remember the shells that fell “accidentally” not far from the presidential palace in 2014, when former President Michel Sleiman, the architect of the Baabda Declaration, tried to engage the country in a process that would eventually lead to a controlled supervision of Hezbollah's arsenal The fall of the shells, whose message had been quickly captured by the main concerned parties , sounded the death knell for the presidential efforts.

All this is to say that Hezbollah’s reactions remain specific and targeted. On this, various sources agreed.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 16th of June)

Since Saturday June 6, the popular protests, initially directed against the government and the entire political class, have taken a new turn, with serious consequences well known to everyone. At the root of this reorientation was the entry into the scene of Shiite protestors with sectarian slogans and acts of violence in a clear break with what had marked the protests since October 17,...