Checkpoint 4, Beirut 1982. Manned by U.S. Marines and Lebanese Army soldiers.

A Socioeconomic History of Hezbollah: From Ta’if to Beirut

In the eighth part of this series on the socioeconomic history of the Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah, Edwin Tran continues to chart the geopolitical, historical, cultural, and political currents that led to the rise of one of the most prominent Islamic militant groups in modern history.

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The political dynamics of Lebanon changed drastically in 1989. A delegation of representatives across the Arab world met in the city of Ta’if, Saudi Arabia in order to deliberate on the steps needed to end the Lebanese Civil War. There, it was stipulated in the Ta’if Agreement that “Lebanon [would be] a democratic parliamentary republic founded on respect for public liberties.” It was further asserted that “Lebanon’s soil is united and it belongs to all the Lebanese… [and as such] the people may not be categorised on the basis of any affiliation whatsoever and there shall be no fragmentation, no partition, and no repatriation.” Direct changes were made to Lebanon’s political structure. The position of presidency was reduced, while the Prime Minister’s role was greatly increased. Furthermore, new amendments were made to Lebanon’s confessionalist system, as the ratio of Parliamentary seats between Christians and Muslims was radically narrowed, and Shiites were given three new permanent seats. The agreement would prove to be successful in officially ending the Lebanese Civil War. All paramilitary organisations were forced to give up their weapons, though Hezbollah was able to ignore these declarations through tacit political manoeuvring. Though minor fighting would occur from 1989-1990 due to a rebellion instigated by Maronite General Aoun, much of the conflict finally subsided. After fifteen years of fighting, Lebanon was finally ready to put its guns down.

The 1992 Election

The end of the war called for the formation of a new government in Lebanon. Parliamentary elections, an event which had not been held for eighteen years by this point, were set to take place in 1992. The principle question that emerged for Hezbollah was how it would proceed with this. In its Open Letter, the organisation had declared the Lebanese political system as corrupt and Hezbollah asserted that they were “not concerned with any call of political reform that is based on the rotten sectarian system.” Although Naim Qassem commented that “the Taif Accord was not convincing and below the minimum required,” Qassem and Hezbollah both recognised a need to at least view the new proceedings pragmatically.

Hezbollah’s leadership recognised that their popularity in the regions of Southern Lebanon and Southwestern Beirut could translate into political victory. Although individuals like Naim Qassem were unsupportive of a move towards legitimising the Lebanese political system, there was an understanding that times were changing. Peace in Lebanon was at hand and the opportunity to have great influence in developing the country onwards was a lucrative prospect. Naim Qassem attributed several factors to Hezbollah’s move from paramilitary organisation to political movement, such as the realisation that while it had provided key social services to population centres, “the decision to participate in elections [would create] a set of new responsibilities and relationships” between Hezbollah and such areas. A move towards political legitimisation would also allow Hezbollah to raise “people’s concerns and internal issues to the public level.” After a series of debates between Hezbollah leadership, it was finally announced in 1982 that Hezbollah would enter the running for Parliamentary seats. Hezbollah’s place as the representative of Lebanese Shiʿa population meant that a successful showing in the elections would allow the organisation to “gain both official recognition as a political institution… as well as a public podium, and would also be able to influence the budget to its constituents’ advantage.” With these points all in mind, Hezbollah was able to campaign successfully and capture eight seats in the 1992 Lebanon Parliamentary Elections. Many citizens within territories de jure of Hezbollah cited the organisation’s actions during the civil war as being principle factors in their voting choices.

From War to War

Today, Hezbollah remains a dominant force in Lebanon. It maintains its paramilitary wing and is still viewed by many as a fundamentalist terrorist organisation. Events like the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel paint the minds of many foreign commentators. However, it is important to realise that Hezbollah’s social service apparatus continues to function today and has only improved over time. Even today, political analysts and researchers like Professor Shawn Flanigan of San Diego State University have commented on the fact that Hezbollah operates services like hospitals to a more effective capacity than the overarching Lebanese state. The modern iteration of its social service platform follows a system of Units, umbrella groups that control various organisations. These systems work in tandem with other derived Hezbollah services, like the Education Unit and the Islamic Health Unit. Hezbollah-funded hospitals like the al-Rasoul al-Aazam Hospital have been nicknamed as being “resistance hospitals,” and are marked by effective services and an inclusive platform that does not restrict Maronites or any other denomination from using its functions.

After the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah extended its social service apparatus once again and provided “$281 million for rehabilitation and compensation following the 2006 Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.” It extended these services and funds to those not directly affiliated with the organisation, once again heralding back to the principles and tenets Hezbollah was founded upon. Imad Khalil, a Lebanese citizen who resided in Beirut during the 2006 Lebanon War, gave one account of his experiences with Hezbollah’s services. He noted that as a result of Israeli air strikes, “[Khalil] had lost the thousands of dollars sunk into his residential business, ‘Imad’s Salon for Men,’ in the Bir al-Abd section of Dahiyeh.” He was an individual noted by his secular and cosmopolitan lifestyle. Despite this, Hezbollah provided monetary aid to Khalil as compensation for the damages committed by the Israelis. Khalil noted the following when asked by reporters of his experiences with Hezbollah’s social work:

‘They gave me almost 5,000 dollars, and I really believe that what they gave me was accurate to what was damaged during the air strikes,’ Khalil said. ‘I must say that this gives me a whole different impression of Hezbollah.’

Whether Khalil was pressured into making such statements can be up for debate. However, there is no doubt that this focus on social services has helped maintain Hezbollah’s place in Lebanese society. A 2003 interview with Middle East correspondent Nick Blanford revealed that Lebanese opinions of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah were reportedly endearing. Indeed, Blanford noted that “people adore [Nasrallah]…Hezbollah fighters… speak of him almost as they would a wife or a mother… They think of him before they go to sleep at night, that he’s always in their thoughts, so he has this tremendous power over the rank and file.” Even Maronite President Emile Lahoud maintained a positive sentiment towards Hezbollah. According to President Lahoud, “Hezbollah [was] a national resistance movement… if it wasn’t for them, [Lebanese citizens] couldn’t have liberated [their] land. And because of that, we have big esteem for the Hezbollah movement.”

To combat Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, one must factor the socioeconomic conditions that have harboured the organisation’s existence to the present. Hezbollah’s commitment to social services and state development have helped promote the organisation’s influence and soft power over Lebanon. Proactive and pragmatic approaches to political structures and sectarian relations have also strengthened the organisation’s operational capabilities, with a diverse amount of groups and contemporary factions offering support. The reality one must confront is that Hezbollah has evolved from its insurgent roots to one that is directly aligned with the political and institutional structures of Lebanon. Any other step forward must take that point into consideration. In the next and final chapter of this series, we will take a retrospective look at Hezbollah’s socioeconomic history and assess its current position in Lebanon. We’ll also attempt to dissect the lessons and ideas that one can derive from a brief glance at Hezbollah throughout the ages.

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Edwin Tran is an independent writer focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

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Photo credit: James Case