BAALBEK, Lebanon – It was a sea of yellow as thousands of men, women and children waving Hezbollah flags and wearing the group’s yellow caps gathered on a giant pitch in the ancient eastern city of Baalbek to support the heavily armed militant group.
Despite a devastating economic collapse and multiple other crises gripping Lebanon – the culmination of decades of corruption and mismanagement – the deeply contentious issue of Hezbollah’s weapons was at the center of the vote for a new 128-member parliament.
Disarming the group has dominated political campaigns among nearly all opponents of the group. These include mainstream Western-backed political groups and independents who have played a role in nationwide protests since the economic crisis began in October 2019.
“This is the biggest disinformation campaign. Why? Because they are implementing the US anti-resistance weapons policy,” senior Hezbollah official Hussein Haj Hassan told The Associated Press on Friday before the gathering in Baalbek.
Hezbollah was the only group officially allowed to retain its weapons after the 1975-1990 civil war because it was fighting Israeli forces occupying parts of southern Lebanon. In 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon, but Hezbollah and other countries in the small Mediterranean nation insisted its weapons were needed to defend it against Israel, which has one of the strongest armies. of the region.
Hezbollah has since fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006 that ended in a draw and after the conflict began in neighboring Syria, the Iranian-backed group sent thousands of fighters to fight the alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces to help tip the balance of power in his favour.
Hezbollah’s rivals say its weapons and support for regional forces such as those of Assad and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have hurt Lebanon’s relations with oil-rich countries in the Persian Gulf. These nations have classified the Lebanese group as a terrorist organization and withheld crucial financial support for the country.
Haj Hassan, a lawmaker since 1996 and a three-time cabinet minister, said claims that Hezbollah was responsible for Lebanon’s collapse were “a big lie”.
“They forgot about the political system, the economic system, the corruption, the war in Syria and its effects on Lebanon and they forgot the US sanctions,” he said at his home near Baalbek.
The 62-year-old bespectacled man has lost two brothers who fought for Hezbollah in Lebanon’s civil war and a nephew in Syria.
Hezbollah maintains that its weapons are intended to defend Lebanon and not for internal use. But the group used them against rivals in May 2008 in the era’s worst fights in many years. Hezbollah’s offensive came after the government of Fouad Saniora, then an opponent of Hezbollah, decided to dismantle the group’s military telecommunications network.
“No Lebanese group should have the right to be armed while other Lebanese are not,” Samy Gemayel, leader of the right-wing Kataeb party, said in comments to local station LBC on Friday night.
This year’s vote is the first after the economic collapse, described by the World Bank as one of the worst the world has seen in more than 150 years. It is also the first since the August 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut which killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and caused large-scale damage in the capital.
Three former cabinet ministers allied with Hezbollah were charged in the investigation into the port explosion but refused to appear for questioning by the investigating judge. The Hezbollah leader lambasted the judge and called for his replacement, and the investigation was suspended for months following legal challenges by politicians.
As Lebanon sinks deeper into poverty, many Lebanese are more openly critical of Hezbollah. They blame the group – as well as the ruling class – for the multiple devastating crises plaguing the country, including a dramatic currency crash and severe shortages of medicine and fuel.
Some expect its main Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement founded by President Michel Aoun, to lose seats. Others expressed disappointment with Hezbollah’s unshakeable alliance with Nabih Berri, the longtime speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, seen by many as the godfather of Lebanon’s corrupt, sect-based and elite-dominated political system. .
Still, a victory for Hezbollah is beyond doubt. The group has a solid base and masterfully maneuvers its alliances and the electoral system. Intimidation ensures no Shia threat emerges: Three Shia candidates allied with the Saudi-backed Lebanese Forces group withdrew from the race in the Baalbek area within days.
In a Shiite village in southern Lebanon, residents were attacked last month on their way to a rally of candidates against Hezbollah. Weapons were fired into the air to disrupt a rally by a Shia cleric who opposed the Hezbollah-led alliance in Baalbek.
Hezbollah has been accused of intimidating Shiite candidates, a claim denied by Haj Hassan.
“They don’t want any opposition within the (Shia) sect. It’s clear,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. Khashan added that Hezbollah and its Shia ally, Berri’s Amal group, are trying to keep control of the 27 seats allocated to the sect.
Little change is expected from the election as political parties and mainstream politicians remain strong while opposition candidates are fractured. Still, traditional Western-backed parties hope to strip Hezbollah’s parliamentary majority, while many independents hope to break through traditional party lists and candidates.
The vote comes after a powerful Sunni leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, suspended his political work. Some have warned that this could help Hezbollah’s Sunni allies win more seats.
“I see the ballot boxes as a line of defense for us,” nurse Hoda Falah said at the rally in Baalbek. Falah said Hezbollah weapons have defended eastern Lebanon from attacks by the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda-linked militants over the years.
Senior Hezbollah figure Nabil Kaouk said in a speech last month that the elections will show his group enjoys the greatest support in the tiny nation. He claimed that money flowing from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States to their “tools” in Lebanon will not change the results.
“May 15 will prove that the US plan to target resistance is fruitless and they will only reap disappointment,” Kaouk said.