Hizbullah losing friends but gaining influence in crisis-hit Lebanon

One-time revolutionary Shia movement now a status quo party opposing popular protests

Lebanon's efforts to form a new government following the massive blast that devastated Beirut are deadlocked at a time the discredited political elite must carry out urgent reforms to secure external financial aid to rebuild and rescue the ruined economy.

Jockeying for advantage among politicians is largely responsible for failure, but domestic, US and Arab Gulf pressure to exclude from the cabinet Hizbullah, Lebanon's most powerful entity and kingmaker, is also a factor.

Its domestic and external opponents argue Hizbullah agents in the port of Beirut should have neutralised or moved to a safe location the nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that exploded on August 4th, killing 180, wounding 4,000 and rendering 300,000 homeless.

Rivals seek to deflect blame from themselves although they also had operatives in the port and benefited from corruption accompanying the import of goods.

To demonise Hizbullah, rivals also tout the conviction last week by a UN-backed tribunal of one of its members, Selim Ayyash, of involvement in the assassination in 2005 of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Hizbullah's rivals fear both its war-seasoned military wing and its political clout. The organisation began as a Shia militia recruited, trained and armed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards to resist Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Israeli Labour prime ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzak Rabin later agreed that before the invasion of south Lebanon mounted by the Likud's Ariel Sharon in 1982 there had been no Hizbullah, which subsequently became Israel's most formidable enemy.

While Shia militants carried out the 1983 bombings of the US embassy and US and French military barracks in Beirut, Hizbullah’s military wing did not become a coherent military force until 1985. During the mid-1980s Shia groups – some allied to Hizbullah – were branded “terrorists” when they killed, kidnapped and held Westerners. Hizbullah has never escaped the epithet.

In 2000, Hizbullah expelled the Israeli army and its surrogates from south Lebanon and was lionised across the Arab world.

Movement criticised

Its popularity did not last. The movement was bitterly criticised in 2006 when its fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers patrolling on their side of the border, precipitating another Israeli invasion. Hizbullah fighters repelled the Israelis and its construction wing, Jihad al-Binaa, rebuilt, damaged and destroyed homes, offices, and shops but the movement never recovered pan-Arab backing.

Since 2011, Hizbullah has deployed fighters in Syria to prevent its neighbour's conflict from spilling over into Lebanon and to preserve the Damascus government. The movement's leaders argue the fall of the Syrian regime would fracture the country into warring fiefdoms and destabilise neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Hizbullah's intervention in Syria is strongly opposed by Sunnis, right-wing Christians, Israel and the West.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah's political wing, financed by Iran and wealthy Shia expatriates, ousted Shia feudal lords who for decades had ruled over Lebanon's poor Shias. Hizbullah rooted itself in the Shia community, the country's largest, by building clinics, schools, an orphanage and a hospital and providing services and welfare for impoverished Shia families ignored by the state.

Hizbullah became a political party in 1992 by winning 12 seats in Lebanon's parliament. Today it has the same number of seats and belongs to the ruling Shia-Christian bloc with 67 members out of 128 that includes the Shia Amal party and Maronite Catholic Free Patriotic Movement founded by Lebanon's president, Michel Aoun, who owes his position to Hizbullah and Amal.

Hizbullah’s rise on the political scene has transformed it from a revolutionary movement into a status quo party opposing popular protests that seek to topple the political elite Lebanese accuse of mismanagement and corruption. Hizbullah and Amal thugs have attacked demonstrators demanding the overthrow of the country’s failed sectarian system of governance.

Hizbullah’s rejection of change has alienated Shias who, along with Sunnis, Druze and Christians, seek to replace the sectarian patronage-based regime with a secular democratic government.

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