Despite the oil tankers coming from Iran, supermarkets with Iranian goods, and all the Iranian-made medicine flooding its pharmacies, Hezbollah is still failing to maintain the Shia support and loyalty. Despite all efforts to shield the community from major shifts in public opinion and politics, an increasing number of Shia are turning against Hezbollah.
Hunger, shortages of basic needs, and the lack of accountability, have all hit the Shia communities in the same way they’ve hit others. One thing is certain, every Lebanese person is looking for alternative political leadership.
Take the Iranian fuel as an example. All of Hezbollah’s propaganda and broadcasting machines were dedicated to portray the event as another divine victory against a “US siege,” which does not exist.
Its social media army, WhatsApp groups’ managers, and popular websites, all geared their efforts to prepare and cover the event of the oil tankers crossing the Syrian-Lebanese borders last Thursday.
Hezbollah’s most popular singer, Ali Barakat, produced a special song for the occasion. Yet, expressions of discontent, doubt, and anger remain prominent.
Why? Simply, because no one has seen any improvement in their electricity provision. As for petrol for cars, it can only be found in Hezbollah’s US-sanctioned Al Amana gas stations, and only in small quantities, and certainly not for free.
The Shia could’ve been fooled in the past by Hezbollah’s resistance rhetoric and promises of glory, but they’re not blind.
As outlined in my report published earlier this month, I argue that the Shia have lost trust in Hezbollah as their main protector and provider, simply because the terrorist group is no longer doing so. Its priorities have shifted and the support-base is now split into many layers of discontent.
However, only Hezbollah’s core supporting group is the one making all of the noise – on social media and on the streets. The rest are hindered by fear and uncertainty. The killing of Lokman Slim earlier this year was a clear message for the young Shia people who participated in the October 2019 protests.
Hezbollah cannot afford to lose the Shia support-base – one of the three pillars of its power in Lebanon. Its two other pillars - political allies (Speaker Nabih Berri and Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil), have lost significant popularity and political leverage in the past two years, and its weapons are hindered by regional wars and Israeli threats of attacks in Lebanon.
Losing its supporter-base will cost the party dearly, with votes, committed fighters, and the pretense of representation all lost. Hezbollah thought a combination of force, violence and Iranian goods and fuel, could silence Shia resentment.
But, their supporter-base is hungry, and eliminating the discontent is not possible without a permanent and sustainable solution, and Iranian cash cannot provide this. The expressions of discontent are growing and manifesting in different forms, with student groups, social media platforms, political gatherings, and Shia grassroots movements working behind the scenes. They are organizing and readying themselves for the upcoming May 2022 parliamentary elections.
Hezbollah and the rest of its political allies are aware of this and are worried about the election’s outcome. It will try to cancel it, postpone it, and in the best-case scenario, hijack it to ensure the continuity of the status quo.
This is precisely what Hezbollah did when it lost the 2005 and 2009 parliamentary elections, using its military force against fellow Lebanese and coercing a so-called March 14 coalition. By brandishing its weapons, it defined a new “win or lose” political reality: when Hezbollah wins, it governs; when it loses, it still governs.
This is precisely why much of the international community’s focus should be placed on the 2022 elections, which need supervision and careful monitoring, to be based on a new representative electoral law.
It is not enough to morally support civil groups and call for their protection in statements that lead nowhere. Pressure from continuing sections and official warnings, followed by consequences are vital.
For example, the assassination of Lokman Slim should not have passed without serious accountability. The US and the EU could use their advantage of security assistance and humanitarian aid to push for electoral reforms and a strategy to protect activists, mainly within the Shia constituency.
As the US tries to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran, a Lebanon policy must not be jeopardized.
Hezbollah’s current challenges can unlock an opportunity to change the balance of power in Lebanon, contain Iran’s influence and promote political diversity within the Shia community. The timing cannot be more suitable.