Freedom, Democracy, and Hezbollah in Lebanon

This Spring, the Arab streets erupted with calls for systemic change. From Tahrir Square in Egypt to Benghazi in Libya to Pearl Square in Bahrain, uprisings have brought uncertainty and instability. So far, this cry for freedom and democracy has been hailed by the U.S. as a positive step forward, but to what extent they will try to manage the outcomes remains to be seen. The U.S. is treading very carefully, as the last thing the global North wants is another Iran, another Hamas government, or another Lebanese Hezbollah.



Captured Israeli tank

Islamic Health Society Clinic

School mural in Nabatieh

Hezbollah was formed after Israel invaded and occupied Lebanese territory in 1982, placing local communities under economic blockade and military curfew. One of their prime functions has been to engage in armed struggle to fight the system of occupation and prevent its return.


Like many dual-role movements born in the 20th century, Hezbollah, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, became known locally for its social service network, filling a gap in government services while also engaging in armed struggle. Hezbollah is a disciplined entity with a detailed command structure, including a political, military, and social service arm. Hezbollah operates like an umbrella with several organizations under its framework, including Qard al Hassan (The Good Loan), Jihad al Binna (Struggle of Reconstruction), and the Islamic Health Society. For the purpose of this article, representatives of each were interviewed, though their identities are confidential.


Hezbollah's social service network has grown to encompass a broad range of areas including reconstruction, the provision of community development consulting services, vocational training, interest-free loans, agricultural development, farmers' markets, health care, education, environmental protection, and anti-smoking campaigns. Using a wide range of tactics, Hezbollah also has a history of fighting the system that lies at the root of their marginalization. Their arsenal has included political participation, waging guerilla warfare to bring an end to Israeli occupation, and engaging in non-violent acts of mass defiance.


Hezbollah's parliamentary involvement began in 1992 when they captured 7 seats. As of 2009, they held 13 in a system where many small parties form coalitions. They use this platform to highlight issues of Shia poverty, address government corruption, and maintain national recognition of their right to engage in armed struggle.


According to the Islamic Health Society, armed struggle creates a balance of power with Israel: "If the IDF bombs us, they know we will respond similarly, which creates stability and security for us…. [I]f we disarm, they could re-occupy and prevent us from an education, life, development, etc."


Describing life prior to the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, the Islamic Health Society explains, "It was hell for people just to get to the hospital and it was also very dangerous to travel outside your community, to Beirut for instance to access medical facilities. After 2000, accessibility has increased greatly."


According to Jihad al Binaa's agricultural unit, by removing the system of occupation, the community experienced greater access to services and more opportunities to pursue livelihoods of their choice. "Before liberation, many villagers in the occupied belt could not work their lands and there was no investment going into communities…people fled their land and moved to Dahiyeh [Beirut's southern suburbs] due to insecurity and became wage labourers…. [A]fter liberation, they can go freely to their land." After 2000, the community regained access to natural resources including traditional water sources. Community members continue to benefit from a steady increase in institution building in liberated areas such as banks, hospitals, and schools.


In Iraq, we saw a model of regime change imposed by the U.S. In contrast, the protests raging through the Arab world have resulted in world leaders being brought down by the people, on their own terms. Likewise, Hezbollah faced off against the world's fourth largest military and brought to an end a system that long prevented their community's development. As with today's uprisings, this was done by everyday people, many with full-time jobs, who became trained in the art of guerilla warfare. Also, like the masses taking to the streets in the Arab world to challenge the system and to resist undemocratic ideas being imposed on them, Hezbollah has challenged systemic governmental discrimination on several occasions using non-violent tactics.


In December 1991, Hezbollah encouraged the formation of residential and professional groups in each quarter of the southern suburbs to press the government for action on the water problem. In December 2006, there was a massive protest in Beirut when half a million Shia and Christians took to the street and camped out until the government agreed to call elections. In A.R. Norton's 2007 book Hezbollah, he wrote, "Perhaps the most profound importance of the December protest…will be as a model for collective action in other Arab locales." Through the December protests, the community successfully altered traditional power structures and attained sufficient power to ensure they are no longer ignored by the government.


Responding to decades of state neglect, Hezbollah works within the system to lobby the government to play a greater role in social service delivery. The Islamic Health Society explained, "We do our own research and gather our own statistics based on our own indicators and get results and lobby the government to carry out its responsibility. But they don't and then we have to fill the gap, while we continue to lobby them…. If the government provides a service that is enough for the people, then we don't provide this service."


Jihad al Binaa adds, "In the 1980s, the government was totally absent so we supplied electricity and water. At the end of the civil war, the government began to do this, so we gave up working in electricity so the government can assume responsibility."


In addition to challenging a neglectful state system, Hezbollah also challenged the hegemonic imposition of external interests on their community. Hezbollah opposed a realtors' development plan to uproot 50,000 people from the Ouzai river basin, successfully opposed plans to open a wholesale supermarket, which would undercut local producers, and advocated for teachers and laborers.


For the Global North, the question remains, does Hezbollah seek radical change? Do they want to overthrow the system and will they bring about an Islamic government in Lebanon? According to Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of Hizbullah: Politics and Religion (2002), Hezbollah rejects the "values, beliefs, institutions and social structures of Western society." Ghorayeb explains this is because Hezbollah is against their colonial, imperial, and hegemonic practices. Yet, Hezbollah does not seek to replace the system through radical change and violence on the domestic front because the chaos that may ensue is considered more oppressive than the oppressive state being replaced.


Ghorayeb says that radical change in internal affairs would create a weakened environment that would invite external aggression from Israel and would also detract attention from Hezbollah's "liberation priority," to resist occupation. As a result, they seek to maintain public order and avoid any actions that could result in instability.


The leader of Hezbollah's bloc in Parliament, Hajj Muhammed Raad, explained in an interview with Ghorayeb at the time of its inception, that Hezbollah was a revolutionary movement that opposed the Lebanese system and sought to change it. However, the Taif Agreement's redistribution of power within the state's structure (ending the country's civil war in 1989-90) made it possible to work for structural change from "within the system." A Hezbollah-led revolution in Lebanon seems far from likely as the focus has been on reforming the existing system.


It also seems unlikely that Hezbollah will impose an Islamic State on the Lebanese people. In their 1985 Open Letter, Hezbollah declared its desire to establish an Islamic republic in Lebanon with the caveat, "We do not seek to impose Islam on anyone as we hate those who impose their beliefs and regimes on us and we do not want Islam to reign Lebanon by force," a sentiment also echoed by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrullah.


According to Hala Jaber in her 1997 book Hezbollah: Born With a Vengeance, one year after the publication of the Open Letter, Hezbollah did impose their religious zeal on the local community, alienating many by prohibiting alcohol, loud music, parties, dancing, mixed beaches, and coffee shops, while popular beach resorts became "ghost towns." More recently, Hezbollah MP Mohammed Fneish insisted, despite having a well formulated view on personal conduct, "We try to convince others of our views, but we don't impose them on anybody…. You find women with hijabs and others without and we have no problem with that."


A recent visit to south Lebanon confirmed that the marketplace was equally welcoming to women in tank-tops as it was to chador-clad women. There was a choice of co-ed beaches or women's only beaches and the type of music being played in shops also ranged from top of the charts pop music to Hezbollah-inspired Islamic anthems, with no signs that one view was being imposed on others.


Nasrullah claims an Islamic state would not be imposed unless it was voted on by the overwhelming majority of Lebanon's population. Analysts say this would be unlikely. Although demographics have shifted dramatically in favor of the Shia in the last century—by the 1980s the Shia became the largest of Lebanon's 18 sects, numbering 1,400,000 people—the Maronite and Sunni communities are sizeable and are estimated at approximately 800,000 people each. At the same time, Lebanon is undeniably diverse and many of Lebanon's Shia remain loyal to secular political parties serving as alternatives to Hezbollah.


In Social Movements, Activism and Social Development in the Middle East, Asef Bayat argues the number one priority of Islamic movements is the imposition of an Islamic state. According to Bayat, Islamic movements feel nothing can be done to ameliorate the marginalization of the oppressed until they change the entire system and bring about an Islamic government. However, it seems Bayat is inaccurately universalizing the motivating principles of all Islamic movements. Although Hezbollah self-identifies as an Islamic movement, the data suggests they do not aspire for an Islamic state as a precursor to improving their community's standard of living. They also do not see it as a prerequisite to attaining their goals, such as fighting occupation, ensuring their community's voice is heard at the national level, and addressing unfair power relations.


Far from seeking radical change, it appears Hezbollah is merely trying to make the government more responsive to the community's needs. Rather than trying to bring down a state system perceived to be unfair, they are seeking to work from within the system. Hezbollah has presented an effective development strategy by providing social services and simultaneously addressing the underlying causes of their marginalization by removing occupation and vying for a greater voice for some of Lebanon's disenfranchised communities.


In the spring of 2011, television screens continue to be filled with scenes of Arab masses taking to the streets in protest, demanding greater freedom and democracy, a move hailed by much of the global North. At the same time, we find when democratically popular movements such as Hezbollah conflict with the global North's interests, then such movements are dealt with using a punitive hand. Hezbollah's military wing is banned in five countries while Hezbollah's social service wing is banned in three countries: Canada, the U.S., and Israel.


In Canada, the ban makes it illegal to support Hezbollah financially or to distribute any of its literature. But with Hezbollah so deeply entrenched in everyday life, the ban seems very difficult to enforce. Whether it be shopping at a Hezbollah-owned supermarket, eating ice cream at a Hezbollah-owned café, disseminating one of Hezbollah's stickers that encourage people to brush their teeth at night, sharing their brochure on the harmful effects of smoking, or posting one of Hezbollah's video clips on YouTube, one would be in violation of the ban on Hezbollah.


From the standpoint of the local community, Hezbollah is a resistance movement that has expanded the ability of historically marginalized communities to access social services. Hezbollah also pursues a political strategy that includes advocacy, participation in parliamentary and municipal politics, and protecting local communities from re-occupation. The result is a dual-role movement that lies at the crossroads of armed struggle and local community development.


Shaheen Sajan is an international consultant specializing in participatory methodologies. Her clients include human rights commissions and non-profit agencies. Shaheen has volunteered with the UNHCR and the Geneva-Based International Commission of Jurists. She took the photos for this article.