Frenemy is perhaps the best term to describe the cordial yet turbulent relationship of Lebanon’s leading Shia parties, whose long-term alliance is constantly being tested by the countries abysmal political collapse and ongoing economic crisis.
The Amal Movement, led by the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, the Arab world’s longest-serving speaker, and Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese militia, have been allies as early as the 1990s, yet their alliance has been viewed by many as merely a marriage of convenience brought about by realpolitik and by the fact that both sides are forced to cooperate to maintain their hegemony over the Lebanon’s Shia community.
The recent political altercation between the Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement over stalling in the formation of a government saw Hezbollah yet again forced to publicly defend its ally Amal, and to openly rebuke and alienate its Christian ally Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of president Michael Aoun. Bassil, always aspiring to replace his father-in-law as the next president, has on various occasions deliberately challenged Berri and went out of his way accuse him of being responsible for the country’s endemic corruption, going as far as to call upon Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah to arbitrate on the matter.
Nasrallah was quick to disappoint Bassil, refusing to be placed in the awkward position of criticizing Berri and further empowering Bassil – whose appetite for becoming president is only matched by his corruption, something that earned him a designation as a corrupt politician and sanctions by the United States based on the Magnitsky Act.
In reality however, Amal and Hezbollah’s relationship is volatile not because of Bassil’s unwavering attitude to neutralize his adversaries, but rather because Amal and its huge Shia support base have seen their role marginalized by the highhanded and unrestrained manner in which Hezbollah has exposed the Lebanese political system. The traditional archaic clientelist system had previously allowed Berri to cater to his supporters, but times have changed, making this system no longer feasible given Lebanon’s horrible collapse.
Thousands of Amal supporters in Lebanon’s overcrowded bureaucracy have seen their salaries plummet to less than $90, not to mention the disappearance of life-savings seized by the banks. Thus, most of these Amal supporters look towards Hezbollah and their Maronite ally Bassil as the real reason for the collapse of this delicate corrupt system they have benefited from for so long.
Moreover, members of Amal are equally enraged by the fact that their supposed allies, at least those who are employed by Hezbollah as fighters and support staff, get paid in fresh dollars which they receive from Iran and their criminal activities – such as the smuggling rings they operate into Syria. Through these smuggling operations, Hezbollah not only makes millions of dollars of illegal money, but in fact siphons subsidized products, which are paid for with Lebanese tax-payers money, including gasoline and other essentials, such as medicine and food.
Equally, within Hezbollah support bases and with its junior cadre, Amal is looked upon as the epitome of corruption. For these Hezbollah zealots, Amal, having been in power since 1990, shared in the spoils of war, as well as a peace time economy, making it morally unacceptable to continue to defend Berri and Amal. This sentiment has spilled over on social media more than once and has forced Hezbollah’s senior leadership to issue directives banning such rhetoric. Equally, this anti-corruption mindset also refutes Hezbollah’s alliance with Bassil and the Free Patriotic Movement who are seen as no better than Amal and the entire Lebanese political establishment. These young voices inside Hezbollah are nevertheless checked by the senior military command, which sees in its alliance with Bassil and President Aoun a much-needed Christian cover, one which allows it to claim legitimacy for its Iranian arms.
Essentially the alliance of Amal and Hezbollah is based on mutual interests, yet with the erosion of the Lebanese state and all its resources, the lifeline of Amal is no longer there, and thus if Berri and his party refuse to break ranks with Iran’s militia they will be committing political and economic suicide. Furthermore, an aging Nabeh Berri will not be around forever, and thus Amal’s aspiring leadership will have to try to make a play to replace him – sooner than later. The fallout from such a move will have direct repercussions on their alliance with Hezbollah. Naturally, Hezbollah will then try to win over Amal’s support base – especially those who were born after 1990 and thus were not party to the violent conflict between the two sides during the Lebanese civil war between 1975-1990.
The Amal-Hezbollah nexus perfectly sums up the essence of Lebanon’s problem: Where a corrupt sectarian body, such as Amal, takes advantage of the protection provided to it by its control of the state, as well as its alliance with Hezbollah’s illegitimate weapons. As powerful as this Faustian partnership might seem at first, it remains an anomaly which Lebanon’s ongoing crisis will shatter, leaving everyone with the only the rational choice: Demand Hezbollah to disarm so that the Lebanese can start building a modern state.