The flag of the hizbollah (the party of God) waving after the war on Israel in June 2006

A Socioeconomic History of Hezbollah: A Retrospective

In the ninth and final part of this series on the socioeconomic history of the Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah, Edwin Tran discusses the geopolitical, historical, cultural, and political currents that led to the rise of one of the most prominent Islamic militant groups in modern history, how that group sustained political legitimacy where other militant groups have failed, and how this history can teach lessons for countering insurgencies.

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As we complete our charting of Hezbollah throughout the course of the Lebanese Civil War, it is important to recognize that these things are not frozen in stasis. The political situation in an environment as volatile and as dynamic as the Levant means that many changes have occurred from one particular period of history to the present. With this in mind, Hezbollah as a political organization, as a militant faction, and as a provider of social services are all facets that ring true to the present day and in fact, the organization has emulated the PLO’s attempts at creating a state-within-a-state in Lebanon. Dozens of reports and sources bring light to Hezbollah-operated hospitals and food banks that continue to operate to this day. These institutions have helped Hezbollah gain substantial ground in Lebanon’s political structure. The most recent elections held in May, 2018 saw the organization receive 13 seats in Parliament, and the bloc representing Hezbollah and its allies (known as the March 8th Alliance) made substantial gains against their opposition. Several members of the recently formed Lebanese Cabinet were pulled from Hezbollah parliamentarians, including Youth and Sports Minister Mohhamed Fneish and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mahmoud Qmati. What these points help illustrate is that Hezbollah has become a legitimate political and social force within the Lebanese context. Though disagreements on the nature of Hezbollah continue to arise (as seen in the United Kingdom’s most recent development), it is the organization’s place on the ground level of civil society that is most paramount.

The Lebanese Civil War presents an understanding of how an Islamist, terrorist organisation can transform itself into a legitimate political vehicle. While new developments have arisen throughout the modern Middle East, some lessons can be derived from the trials experienced by Hezbollah. As noted before, the group’s commitment to social services indicated a desire at maintaining a state apparatus, and differed itself from Yasser Arafat’s PLO model by conducting its services with higher levels of sectarian inclusivity. While the general trend of Islamist terrorism has followed the al Qaeda model of small, discrete groups that engage in acts of suicide bombing and assassinations, it seems that there is growing trend in activities reminiscent of Hezbollah’s actions during the Lebanese Civil War. Groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), while incredibly distinct in their political ideology and religious theology, have attempted to establish their own quasi-state apparatuses in order to gain legitimacy in their respective territories of control. A recent Vice documentary highlighted the ever-changing nature of AQAP and how the organization has begun to move away from insurgent operations and instead focus on constructing playgrounds and schools for disenfranchised children in Yemen. HTS have attempted to maintain order and stability in their pockets of control in Idlib, Syria through similar methods (though salaries are reportedly smaller than what other groups have given). In fact, a principle commander of the organization, Abu Humam al-Shami, pondered at the “prospect of securing something viable along the lines of a ‘state within a state,’ as Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon is widely characterized.” These actions highlight an understanding that necessitates a local focus in order to gain political legitimacy.

This is contrasted by the Islamic State and its actions in Syria, who decided to enforce a governmental framework. The Islamic State made few attempts at coopting the local population and in gaining legitimacy, and instead enforced autocratic practices directly onto the entrenched peoples. Rather, the attempt at state building by the Islamic State was conducted from the top-down and as a result, internal support for the organization waned as military victory decreased. By the end, individuals in occupied parts Syria for the most part felt distant and estranged from the ideological ambitions of the Islamic State. Few sought a caliphate, especially in light of an organization that had no desire at addressing the root injustices that were felt by the Islamic State’s constituents. Countless interviews have highlighted frustration and anger over the autocratic and brutalist policies enacted by the Islamic State. Hezbollah on the other hand, while an organization that similarly conducted suicide bombings and various acts of terror, was partly successful as it was a grass-roots development that emerged in tandem with the socioeconomic factors that all Lebanese Shiites faced. More specifically, Hezbollah (as it claimed in its Open Letter) did not attempt to construct a state based on their ideology, but rather allowed their own policy to be influenced by the state in which they operated in. This allowed Hezbollah to coopt disenfranchised Sunnis and Maronites into their own political circles and thereby grant the organization with a modicum of popular support that was more robust than that of the Islamic State. Hezbollah’s political positions and historical courses emerged as a result of this nuanced understanding within Lebanon during its civil war.

The failure of the Islamic State highlights key issues that emerge when extremist organizations enter full blown operations at a state-wide level. It appears, as noted by the changes to groups like AQAP, that a model similar to Hezbollah’s historical approach may be emerging. Though the analysis provided above does not seek to predict the future or create a model of observation, the lessons derived from understanding Hezbollah’s history illuminate on the concept of hybrid actors and is a period that should be closely examined as the study of terrorism and Islamist movements continue to move forward. A seminal work on these points was conducted by Professor Sheri Berman of Columbia University. In her work, she analyzes the dangers of political disenfranchisement and how the Muslim Brotherhood was able to use social services and civil society to obtain legitimacy in Egypt. This form of social legitimacy would become crucial in securing the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential victory in 2013 with the ascension of President Muhammed Morsi. Hezbollah’s case is especially salient with this comparison, as it is in this careful understanding of social services and socio-political movements that enabled the organization to gain popularity and become coopted into the Lebanese political framework.

Although Hezbollah has often been confined to simplistic understandings and generalized narratives, it becomes clear that the historical development of the organization emerged as a result of unique factors. The fifty years of socioeconomic and political disenfranchisement of Lebanon’s Shiite population resulted in a great amount of unrest and a large yearning for greater power. While Sunnis and Maronite Christians maintained a level of superiority in Lebanon, these systems completely broke down as a result of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. Infrastructure, government programs, and other institutions collapsed. The Shiite centers of Southern Lebanon were especially affected by this. Although groups like Amal and the PLO attempted to rectify this gap, it became clear that issues like corruption, ineptitude, and the Israeli occupation created a great deal of resentment and anger over these organizations. Hezbollah emerged as a direct representative of the Shiite population. They espoused an ideology that analyzed the civil war from a class warfare standpoint and made clear that they were supportive of all of those who could be considered downtrodden.

Hezbollah, in response, developed its own set of charities, medical facilities, and other social service organizations. The group directly participated in rebuilding Lebanon during the course of the war and even engaged in activities that were less flashy but ultimately necessary for any state building operation. As a result of these factors, Hezbollah was able to secure permanent seats in Lebanon’s political system and the organization still remains a fixture in Lebanese politics today.

For any group to gain legitimacy, it must first gain popular support, and to achieve that end, any group must be willing to listen to the whims and desires of its constituent peoples. The story of Hezbollah is one that remains salient, cognizant, and indicative of this understanding. It is a reminder that in any fight against sub-state actors, war is best conducted with weapons made of soft-power.

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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: Harout Arabian from Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon