The explosion in the Port of Beirut on August 4 caused domestic reverberations throughout Lebanon. With close to 200 people killed, over 6,000 wounded and damages estimated at over $15 billion, the public outrage toward the ruling elite was immediate and damning (Daily Sabah, August 12). The political classes were already subjected to heavy criticism for an ongoing economic crisis that has left 55 percent of the population living below the poverty line, while remnants of the October 2019 protests against political corruption remain active (Middle East Monitor, August 20). In the aftermath of the explosion, public ire accelerated swiftly. No group has come under more scrutiny, or been blamed more directly, than Hezbollah.
While much of the outrage has been focused on the role the Iranian-backed political and militia organization has played in the gradual erosion of basic political cohesion in Lebanon, its involvement in the explosion itself has been questioned. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued a public statement in the days following the blast denying that the group had stored arms in the port. He denied all knowledge of the stockpile of 2,750 tons of industrial ammonium nitrate that had been stored in the port since 2013, without the necessary safety measures in place (al-Arabiya, August 7). Thus far, no evidence has been found to discount these repudiations of responsibility, but international and domestic observers believe it is unlikely such a large number of explosives would be present in Beirut without Hezbollah’s leaders having knowledge of its existence.
The denials of complicity have been complicated further by Hezbollah’s previous history of using the explosive material, and the United States has subsequently accused the group of stockpiling caches of ammonium nitrate across Europe (Alaraby, September 17). Furthermore, Hezbollah’s security chief Wafiq Safa exerts substantial influence over operations at the Port of Beirut (Arab News, August 9). By very publicly percolating itself into every political and operational aspect of the Lebanese governance apparatus, Hezbollah has made the claims of denial difficult to palate. With public outrage directed at the group and international observers hoping the incident will lead to Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon diminishing, the next few months are vital for the group.
Declining Public Trust
The blast reignited public outrage towards deep-seated corruption among the political elites, with Hezbollah at the heart of the indignation. The group has spent years cultivating itself as a ‘state in a state’ and has managed to place itself at the center of Lebanon’s political system. When Hassan Diab was appointed as prime minister in January 2020, he was hand-picked by Hezbollah and its political allies, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal movement (Al-Arabiya, July 14). Hezbollah’s allies held key positions of power in the cabinet and the group had successfully managed to craft a government that would pursue an agenda coherent with Hezbollah’s domestic and international program.
With public outrage focusing on the government in the aftermath of the explosion, largely due to mismanagement, negligence, and failure to protect its citizens, Hezbollah was quick to sacrifice Diab and his government in order to create distance between itself and the incident—the resignation of finance minister and Hezbollah ally Ghazi Wazni precipitated Diab’s resignation (Middle East Eye, August 10). This was indicative of Hezbollah’s defensive stance in the immediacy of the explosion.
Along with essentially forfeiting Diab’s government, the group also reiterated hostile rhetoric towards Israel. Initial allegations of Israeli involvement were quickly disproved. Nasrallah’s narrative reverted back to the usual ‘resistance to Israeli and U.S.’ agenda, largely in an attempt to reinvigorate support among its Shia Muslim base. This narrative was furthered by claims by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a secondary explosion was possible, owing to a hidden Hezbollah missile factory in southern Beirut (Almanar, October 4).
Criticism from the Christian and Sunni communities has been consistent since the escalation of protest activity in October 2019, but discontent has also been growing within the Shia community, the foundation of Hezbollah domestic support. During protests following the explosion, effigies of Nasrallah were hanged—a display of public condemnation towards Hezbollah rarely seen. The level of criticism from within Hezbollah’s Shia constituents will be of most concern to the group, as even secular Shias participated in the protests following the blast (Alaraby, August 30).
The Shia community has not been immune to the rise in unemployment, inflation, and basic levels of poverty that have exponentially increased during the economic crisis. The welfare services Hezbollah have historically provided are ongoing, but Lebanese Shias are being increasingly impacted by the declining value of the Lebanese pound. The ongoing military campaign in Syria is also increasing the perception that Hezbollah is prioritizing foreign military conflicts, at the behest of Iran, over the basic wellbeing of its Lebanese constituents. Ensuring the continued support of its base is among Hezbollah’s most pressing priorities.
Stick to the Status Quo
Hezbollah has continued its policy of self-containment. Primarily, this involves ensuring that the status quo is maintained. The organization uses its political and military might to exploit the system of sectarianism, which acts as the basis for Lebanon’s political system. Prior to the explosion, it had managed to position its self as the puppet master of domestic politics, wielding outsized influence over numerous institutions.
The inability of the political establishment to agree on the formation of a new government in recent weeks is largely due to Hezbollah’s intransigence. The man appointed to form a new government, Mustapha Adib, resigned in late September citing sabotage attempts by Iranian-backed factions—referencing Hezbollah and other Shia political allies (Arab News, September 27). Adib was exploring the possibility of appointing a reformist, consensus government with all ministers representing the major religious sects, but separate from the main political parties (Middle East Eye, September 26). The initiative for a government of independent specialists was recommended by the French government with significant input from President Emmanuel Macron.
Hezbollah and the Amal Movement were named as the biggest impediments to progress and their refusal to agree to compromise led to the collapse of Adib’s attempts to form a government. Hezbollah and Amal refused to cede the finance ministry. The organizations demanded to either name a finance minister or force the new prime minister to pick a finance minister from a Hezbollah-approved list. Hezbollah was never going to agree to any reforms that diminished its domestic political power—the standing sectarian government structure enables Hezbollah to manipulate its disproportionate influence. Publicly, Nasrallah has stated Hezbollah remains committed to the French initiative, and blamed its ongoing failure on intervention from the United States and Saudi Arabia (Middle East Monitor, October 1). Realistically, Hezbollah’s commitment to forming a government that significantly altered the political system was minimal.
Such statements are meant to challenge accusations that Hezbollah is responsible for the current lack of a functioning government, but the ongoing political vacuum benefits the organization’s ‘wait-and-see’ strategy. The group is continuing to safeguard its domestic interests while waiting for public outrage to dissipate. Nevertheless, its role appears diminished. Its current inertia has given international and domestic opponents an opportunity to claim the group is prioritizing its own survival over the well-being of its constituents. In addition to this, Hezbollah’s influence and the lack of a functioning government is an impediment to the provision of international assistance that Lebanon needs to address its current economic crisis.
The current maritime negotiations between Israel and Lebanon also indicate Hezbollah’s power has waned slightly. It is likely no coincidence that the talks over contested maritime borders have been organized when Hezbollah is lacking its usual political capital. If Hezbollah and its political allies had been in support of such talks, they could have happened at any time in the last decade. Hezbollah’s opposition has largely been limited to criticizing the composition of the negotiating team, insisting the delegation is only comprised of military personnel rather than including civilians or politicians (Alkhaeej Today, October 14). The involvement of rival politicians could allow other sects to gather public support and gain political power.
Realistically, Hezbollah retains enough domestic support that its hegemony over the Lebanese political system is unlikely to be impacted in the medium-to-long term. The explosion, however, is the latest in a series of incidents that have impacted Hezbollah’s previously impermeable standing. The ongoing result of its negligence of political institutions, its obsession with self-preservation, and the prioritization of a seemingly never-ending conflict in Syria have seen support waver among its Shia constituents. In the immediate term, Hezbollah’s efforts will be concentrated on ensuring its political capital is not diminished further; Hezbollah abstained from voting for former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in his attempts to regain his former position, but have publicly back his candidacy – provided he agrees to let the Shia bloc retain control of the finance ministry. With serious political reform avoided, Hezbollah has achieved its immediate aim of maintaining the status quo and will look to rebuild its tarnished domestic reputation in the coming months.