Unrest in Lebanon is raising eyebrows among Iran’s political class. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif urged the government in Beirut to “pay attention to the people’s demands.”
If Iran’s leaders are reluctant to comment, then there is little public interest so far. “Most people are too busy struggling with daily expenses to care about Lebanon,” said a Tehran professional. “Some who follow the news think the demonstrations show that corruption of the high-ranking class is even worse in Lebanon than here.”
Others noted a carnival atmosphere among protesters. “People are sharing photos of Lebanese dancing and having fun,” said an Iranian professor. “They say they wish they had such relaxed social and political norms in Iran.”
Some hardliners smell conspiracy. “Basij [the semi-militarised body linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] members are suggesting on social media that enemies are spreading demonstrations from Iraq to Lebanon in order to undermine the ‘Resistance Axis’,” said the professor.
“This is an old argument: that protests against regimes we oppose stand for dignity and ‘Islamic awareness,’ while any protests against our allies must be a Western plot.”
Lebanon’s demonstrations, however, do not fit this simple dichotomy. They are unprecedented in their cross-confessional support and demands for a caretaker government, fresh elections and action on corruption. Some protesters have called for an end to the sect-based political system.
Sectarian comments are circulating on social media, while Hezbollah critics are enthused. On the website of Foreign Policy magazine, the Washington Institute’s Hanin Ghaddar claimed unrest in Lebanon and Iraq reveals that “Iran’s system for exerting influence in the region failed… [because] Iran’s resistance narrative did not put food on the table.”
Such arguments belie Hezbollah’s limited government role since taking ministerial positions in 2005. This was long after former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the assassinated father of the incumbent prime minister, set a course of high government borrowing he believed would be sustained by regional peace, economic growth and investment from Lebanese expatriates.
As growth faltered, Lebanon’s politicians — many of them former militia leaders — failed to adapt or to curb their appetites. Public debt is $86 billion, while government borrowing has fuelled crippling interest rates stymying productive industry.
It has also enriched those with large bank deposits. Nisreen Salti, an associate professor of economics at the American University of Beirut, in September published “No Country for Poor Men,” a report highlighting widening inequalities with the richest 1% claiming 25% of national income from 2005-14 and 20% of bank deposits held in 0.1% of accounts.
Salti pointed out that, with debt servicing swallowing 45% of government spending, there is little left for redistribution or improving infrastructure. In any case, successive governments have shown scant regard for the bulk of Lebanese facing rising prices, power cuts and poor public services.
Hezbollah has largely remained aloof. It has allied electorally with the Amal Movement but generally allowed Amal to battle for the Shias within Lebanon’s confessional system, where leaders distribute favours and resources. Hezbollah has thereby kept its “purity” and concentrated on building up its military, the Islamic Resistance.
Hence, Amal has been the butt of protests in the mainly Shia southern city of Tyre, where demonstrators torched the Rest House, a beach hotel owned by the state but associated with Amal leader Nabih Berri. Slogans insulted Berri’s wife, who enjoys a lavish lifestyle.
However, without fundamental reappraisal, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has little alternative to warning that a change of government would not remove “systematic” problems. Hezbollah entered the cabinet in 2005 not to reform the sectarian system or curb corruption but to protect the Islamic Resistance after the Syrian military withdrawal.
Hence, non-sectarian, anti-government protesters indirectly raise the relationship of Hezbollah with its supporters, who face the same challenges in everyday life as other Lebanese. While Nasrallah expressed sympathy with protesters, he doesn’t want to encourage them. The challenge he faces is that “dignity” is as much about making ends meet as anything else.
“Hezbollah is a loser in these demonstrations as it’s now obvious the Shias are not 100% behind them, as they portray,” said an Arab security analyst. “That’s a major weakness that Hezbollah’s opponents, including Israel, will not overlook.”
This concerns Iran, where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s website recently featured a stately picture of the leader alongside Nasrallah and Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s al-Quds overseas military brigade. Another problem facing Hezbollah and Iran is that effective government is needed to bolster the Central Bank against US pressure to sanction Hezbollah.
“The Iranians worry about the collapse of the Lebanese government and the way all parties including Hezbollah are being criticised,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech University.
“If the Central Bank implements all the sanctions against Hezbollah and they decide [in response] to bring their forces into the streets, then the situation will become even more troublesome for the Iranians.”
Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.
This article was originally published in the Arab Weekly.