What does democracy look like inside Hezbollah?

Hezbollah is often perceived by outsiders as an enigmatic, austere and closed organization. Inside the party, however, debate reigns and consultation is the norm — at least until the supreme leader speaks

What does democracy look like inside Hezbollah?

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivering a speech on March 6, 2023, that was broadcast at a party ceremony in southern Lebanon. (Credit: Aziz Taher/Reuters)

As mass demonstrations swept Lebanon in the autumn of 2019, heated debates animated the Consultation Center for Studies and Documentation (CCSD), Hezbollah’s think tank.

Hezbollah appeared to be overwhelmed by the revolutionary upheaval.

The question of whether to support or oppose the protest movement loomed over the party. To answer this question, Hezbollah organized a series of meetings moderated by CCSD director, Abdel Halim Fadlallah.

“The discussions took place in all frankness. All possibilities were reviewed, including the most radical ideas,” Fadlallah told L’Orient-Le Jour.

Among the discussed ideas was an end to the impunity of the “corrupt,” the abolition of political confessionalism, and even the notion of a “resistance” that evolves concurrently with the construction of the state – all reflecting the views of young people within or close to the movement.

“The people affiliated with Hezbollah are indeed capable of listening long and patiently, but they do so with a logic of intelligence gathering rather than engage in a true dialogue,” a Shiite figure critical of Hezbollah told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the subject.

This space for freedom and democracy was indeed temporary, some pundits would say “tactical” in nature.

The axe fell a few days later during thawra [revolution], when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called on his supporters to withdraw from the street, accusing the protest movement of “no longer being spontaneous.”

It was unclear whether Nasrallah made this decision on his own or if it was dictated to him by Iran. Hezbollah considers Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to be the ultimate authority in religious and political matters.

Regardless, this directive, coupled with Hezbollah’s confrontation against the protesters, reinforced the perception that the party is ultimately authoritarian, conservative, and counter-revolutionary.

While Hezbollah’s supporters continue to extol democratic practices within their organization — where uninhibited debate supposedly thrives — those on the other side of the political spectrum denounce the party as a dictatorial entity led by an all-powerful leader.

However, several influential members of Hezbollah argue otherwise, pointing to their extensive communication “at all levels and in both directions.”

“We are a party where the degree of freedom and discussion is at its highest,” said Mohammad Afif Nabulsi, Hezbollah spokesperson and member of the party’s political bureau.

“Having worked closely with Hassan Nasrallah for over 25 years, I can confirm that he is the most democratic person in the party and the one who most readily accepts the opinions of others,” he added.

Nasrallah has been Secretary-General of Hezbollah since 1992.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. (Credit: AFP archives)

“[Nasrallah] has demonstrated more flexibility than his predecessors, Sobhi Toufayli, who wielded absolute authority, and Abbas Moussaoui,” said a Shiite political leader familiar with the inner workings of the party, who requested anonymity.

In his speeches, Nasrallah often emphasizes that he “must first consult with [his] brothers in the Shura [Consultative Council] before making a decision.”

The Shura council is the party’s highest body, where ideas are exchanged and issues are allowed to mature through sometimes intense debates before the party leader reaches a final decision.

‘Speech is free as long as…’

Chaired by Nasrallah, this super-assembly serves as the forum for concocting the party’s policies. It encompasses a range of councils, including the executive, military, legal, political, and parliamentary.

Nasrallah possesses all the information, studies, figures, and analyses provided by the councils, as well as the CCSD.

This knowledge informs his decisions, though he consults with other Shura members.

Shura members include Naim Kassem, the party’s number two man; Mohammad Yazbeck, of the Judicial Council; Hachem Safieddine, who heads the Executive Council and is presented as Nasrallah’s successor; Hussein Khalil, Nasrallah’s right-hand man; and Mohammad Raad, who leads the party parliamentary bloc.

The council does not disclose the exact number of its members nor all of its members’ identities.

Nabulsi explained that speech is free as long as the Shura has not made a decision, in which the secretary-general holds moral ascendancy.

“However, once the decision is made, everyone is obligated to abide by it, including the secretary-general himself. This practice is known as partisan discipline,” Nabulsi said.

For the record

In Shiite circles that oppose Hezbollah, the party leader is criticized for his propensity to gradually concentrate power in his own hands.

With no strong competitor, Nasrallah has been able to increase his political leeway, especially now that he has been at the helm of the party for more than 30 years.

It is said that, until fairly recently, the presence of two of the most senior military officials in the party — Imad Moghniyeh and Mustapha Badreddine — served as a kind of counterbalance to the secretary-general’s influence.

Moghniyeh was assassinated in 2008, and Badreddine in 2016.

“These two figures were among the first founders of Hezbollah, which gave them a notorious legitimacy, while Hassan Nasrallah came later,” said Ali al-Amin, a Shiite opponent of the party.

“Who’s to say that we don’t have the equivalent of Moghniyeh and Badreddine today?” Nabulsi countered. “Nobody knew them back then. The public only became aware of them after their death.”

In its formative years, Hezbollah held regular elections where members of the Shura were elected by a general assembly of over 150 members from the high command and cadres.

The Shura members then elected the secretary-general for a three-year term that could only be renewed once. This process was followed for the election of Toufayli in 1989, then the election of Abbas Moussaoui in 1991, just before his assassination by Israel in 1992.

Nasrallah was elected to succeed Moussaoui in 1992 and re-elected in 1995. Since then, the election principles for the secretary-general and the Shura have been annulled.

“The upper echelons of the hierarchy have aged considerably, with most of them having held their positions for more than 25 years,” Amin said.

‘Democracy is not a priority’

According to party sources, there are those within Hezbollah who argue that change is unnecessary as long as the existing leadership formula is effective and the party’s top leaders have demonstrated their abilities.

“Why would we want to reduce the term of someone like Hassan Nasrallah, who is the mastermind behind many victories, a humble and wise man who cares about his people and is ready to serve them?” asked Nabulsi.

Party officials justify the absence of elections, even provisional ones, by citing the exceptional circumstances the country has experienced over the past few decades.

They point to the July 2006 war, the clashes of 2007 and 2008 at home, the war in Syria, the fight against the Islamic State (Daesh) since 2011, and the ongoing conflict with Israel.

“In such a climate, can we afford the luxury of change in the name of a sacred democracy?” Naboulsi said. “The cause we defend takes priority over democracy.”

According to the party spokesperson, regular rotation and change are ensured through regular permutations within the hierarchy. The same people, however, continue to rotate through the positions.

“Hassan Nasrallah and the members of the Shura are not in their positions in spite of us, but because of our consent,” said Nabulsi.

The party conducts regular evaluations of its policies and even engages in internal criticism.

In his recent articles, journalist and political analyst Kassem Kassir refers to a series of debates taking place at the top of the hierarchy.

On the agenda are discussions of how the country came to its current situation and which mistakes were made, including those made by Hezbollah itself.

The party also examined its policy toward Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Gebran Bassil when he expressed his desire to review the terms of the 2006 agreement between the two parties.

“Immediately, we formed a committee consisting of members of our parliamentary bloc. We had extensive discussions with [Bassil] for many hours with the aim of reconsidering our policy toward him,” Nabulsi said.

Hezbollah’s detractors, however, argue that the party’s democratic front is merely a façade.

“Internal debates between the different councils are merely variations on the same theme. They are all on the same side and share the same ideology,” said a Shiite opponent on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the issue.

Sherif Sleiman, a lawyer affiliated with the October 2019 protest movement who is familiar with Hezbollah circles, confirmed that personal freedom of speech diminishes as soon as a party member is in the company of his peers.

“When face-to-face with a party member, a party member expresses themselves freely without restraint. But when in a group, censorship and group influence take over,” Sleiman said.

Nicolas Blanford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has closely followed Hezbollah’s development since the 1990s, said he believes the party has a unique form of internal democracy that fosters an environment of open discussion and exchange. This process often precedes major decisions made by the party.

Blanford cites several examples, such as in 1992 when the party debated whether or not to participate in Lebanese legislative elections for the first time.

The same process occurred again in 2005 when the party discussed whether or not to take part in the government.

In 2011, Hezbollah engaged in similar discussions before deciding to intervene in Syria.

Blanford emphasized that Hezbollah’s primary motivation has always been to protect its “resistance” and its weapons.While the party has engaged in politics, its goal is not to build a social or economic project.

Blanford’s analysis highlights Hezbollah’s strategic mindset as it engages in politics to protect its primary interests.

According to Mohanad Hage Ali, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center, the party is driven by a dynamic that strikes a “balance between democratic and revolutionary structures.”

This model draws inspiration from the Iranian system, where democratic practices coexist with an unelected force, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

No less democratic than the others?

According to Hage Ali, Hezbollah is just as democratic as other Lebanese political parties that operate based on political lineage and offer limited opportunities for advancement or mobility.

The researcher explained that the party has created opportunities for workers and individuals at the lower rungs of the social hierarchy to progress within the party.

“It’s similar to international corporations where employees are promised opportunities to grow alongside the organization,” Hage Ali added.

Elections serve as a means to reward loyalty and promote individuals within the party.

Although Hezbollah has limited involvement in municipal elections, which are mostly local affairs, the party spokesperson noted that the elections provide an opportunity to endorse candidates after a thorough analysis conducted by the party and polling firms.

“We assess and identify charismatic personalities and those with the best chance of success,” said the Shiite political leader familiar with the inner workings of the party.

“The Shura council makes the final decision on candidate selection and alliances,” the official added.

Although Hezbollah may be more receptive to internal discussions than other Lebanese political parties, it distinguishes itself in two ways: first by its capacity to suppress any opposing views within its community, and second due to its inherent loyalty to Iran.

The extent of the party’s independence from its Iranian benefactor remains unclear even to diplomats and experts. However, most analysts agree that Nasrallah’s voice carries weight in Iran and that he has gained more autonomy since the 2020 US-led assassination of IRGC commander General Kassem Soleimani.

Moreover, within the party, there is a hierarchical division between the military and civilian members, with the former being more prominent and esteemed.

“Those who participated in the 2006 war or the fight against Islamic extremists, particularly in Syria, have gained more influence,” said Sleiman.

“This is only normal,” said Nabulsi, “since they have offered what is most valuable to them: their lives.”

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

As mass demonstrations swept Lebanon in the autumn of 2019, heated debates animated the Consultation Center for Studies and Documentation (CCSD), Hezbollah’s think tank.Hezbollah appeared to be overwhelmed by the revolutionary upheaval.The question of whether to support or oppose the protest movement loomed over the party. To answer this question, Hezbollah organized a series of meetings...