As one of the most powerful non-state actors in the Middle East, Lebanon’s Hizbullah has often been accused of constituting a state within a state. Yet Hizbullah’s relationship with the Lebanese state is akin to that of a subcontractor that, to some extent, works for the state and operates within its legal framework – while also operating in parallel with the state on a range of issues, including local service and security provision. Nonetheless, due to mounting internal and external pressure, this dynamic may be shifting: today, Hizbullah is showing an increasing willingness to ‘securitise’ its political position and deploy necessary levers of influence to guarantee its interests – as has previously been the case when it has felt excluded from government.
Hizbullah has many state-like capabilities, including its vast social services network and its hybrid military force – which is active on several fronts in Lebanon and abroad. The group largely assumed this role as a result of successive conflicts that paralysed state institutions. Like those in other “mediated states”, the government in Lebanon lacks the capacity to rule on its own and shares its sovereignty with non-state actors. Hizbullah’s status as an armed security provider has been legitimised by successive Lebanese governments, which have allowed it to act in coordination with the country’s security establishment.
Beyond its resistance role against Israel, Hizbullah now assumes responsibility for guarding Lebanon’s borders, providing homeland security, and engaging in operations in Syria and Iraq on behalf of its allies there. The group also provides military assistance to non-state groups in Palestine and Houthi forces in Yemen. Hizbullah sees the Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, and Yemeni theatres as crucial battlegrounds for the self-declared resistance axis – which links the group to Iran, its key external backer – against the US-led coalition that aims to defeat the axis.
Domestically, Hizbullah has the backing of most Shia voters. It emerged from the 2018 general election as the largest party in Lebanon (receiving 62.7 per cent of the Shia vote); through its electoral alliance with the Amal Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement, and smaller parties in the March 8 coalition, Hizbullah established a parliamentary majority.
Nonetheless, the scope of the group’s popular and political influence prompted many Lebanese to blame it for the massive explosion in Beirut on 4 August, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands of others. There were widespread rumours that Hizbullah knew about the unsafe storage of the ammonium nitrate that caused the blast, with many Lebanese arguing that it was partly responsible for the disaster on the basis of its alleged influence in Beirut’s port and its entrenchment in state institutions.
Most established Lebanese parties will probably lose voters in the 2022 general election given mounting popular frustration with the system’s governance and socio-economic failures, as expressed in the October 2019 protest movement. Yet support for Hizbullah is unlikely to significantly decline. Although Shia citizens played a prominent role in the early days of this movement, they were gradually alienated from it by its changing political demands and use of provocative slogans. The increased political polarisation that followed the Beirut blast, along with the deterioration of Lebanon’s economy, has, in many senses, rallied the Shia community behind Hizbullah.
Unlike the Shia-dominated Amal Movement – which has long been entrenched in state institutions – Hizbullah only began to seek political power in 2005, when Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon, under pressure from UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (which followed the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri). Having lost its Syrian political support in Lebanon, Hizbullah took the unprecedented step of forming an electoral alliance with its rivals in the March 14 camp and participating in the government.
Today, Hizbullah is in a similar position of needing to secure political power to safeguard its position. As Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently put it: “we can’t stay out of government because we are afraid for what is left of Lebanon, economically, financially, and in every respect.”
In light of Hizbullah’s growing investment in domestic politics, the Trump administration has increasingly focused its efforts on unseating the party – as part of its wider “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s castigation of French President Emmanuel Macron for refusing to designate Hizbullah as a terrorist group – and for meeting with the head of its parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad – has exacerbated widespread concern that Washington is intent on forcing political change in Lebanon. The Lebanese state has become a battleground in the conflict between Washington and Tehran, with the US embracing a strategy of economic and political warfare against the party.
The maximum pressure campaign is strangulating Lebanon’s economy and delaying the formation of a national unity government. Hizbullah viewed the imposition of US sanctions on its Christian and Shia allies during negotiations on forming a government in September – as well as Future Movement leader Saad Hariri’s nomination of cabinet ministers on behalf of prime minister-elect Mustafa Adeeb (before Adeeb eventually resigned) – as an existential threat to its political power. As a result, Hizbullah insisted that a Shia politician retain control of the Finance Ministry, a position that effectively gives it a veto on all cabinet decisions (any cabinet order needs three signatures: those of the Christian Maronite president, the Sunni prime minister, and the hitherto Shia finance minister). Ultimately, US positioning has had the paradoxical effect of further entrenching Hizbullah within the Lebanese state.
For its part, Hizbullah is keen to preserve the status quo ante of sharing power with its rivals, albeit with an increased focus on reducing corruption among the ruling elite. Decades of government graft, waste, and mismanagement precipitated Lebanon’s economic collapse. This has not spared Hizbullah’s Shia base, which was already reeling from the impact of US sanctions on the party’s social welfare networks. Indeed, “resisting corruption” was Hizbullah’s election slogan in 2018. That year, Nasrallah warned of the “existential threat” posed by systemic corruption. Yet many Lebanese, including some of Hizbullah’s supporters, blame it for failing to check the corruption of its allies in Amal Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement. Hizbullah has never openly acknowledged corruption among its allies but Ammar al-Mousawi, head of its Foreign Relations Unit, came close to such an admission when he stated that “70 per cent of the corrupt are allied with the West; the other 30 per cent is from our side”.
Hizbullah has been unable to break free of these local alliances – not least because, without them, it would be unable to secure the share of cabinet seats required to block strategic decisions. Ending the alliance with Amal Movement would divide the Shia community. And breaking with the Free Patriotic Movement would strip the Hizbullah of political cover from the Christian community. Hizbullah is even somewhat bound to rivals such as Hariri, as illustrated by its 2005 alliance with him and its more recent tacit support for his return as premier in October, when he was nominated by a parliamentary majority. As prime minister-designate, Hariri has now dropped his earlier attempt to deny Hizbullah and Amal the Finance Ministry, and is appointing government ministers in consultation with the two parties. “His inclusion guarantees stability”, explained Mousawi. The spectre of sectarian tension and violence looms over all these political calculations.
Given these considerations, Europe would severely complicate its efforts to tackle corruption in Lebanon and stabilise the Lebanese state if it designated Hizbullah as a terrorist organisation (as the US wishes). The failures of the Trump administration’s campaign against Iran suggests that greater external pressure on Hizbullah and its allies would distract from reform in Lebanon. Europe should continue to engage with Hizbullah’s political officials, with the aim of encouraging governance reform among all actors.
Macron seemed to understand the dangers of sanctioning the party and pressuring it to disarm, but Hizbullah identified his Lebanon initiative as an emboldened attempt to control the formation of the government and dislodge the party. Hizbullah initially welcomed French efforts to solve the crisis – seeing the value of France as a third party aligned with neither the US nor Iran – but eventually came to fear that Paris was working alongside the US to weaken its position.
Europeans need to decide whether they want to be a party to the conflict by toeing the US line, or if they intend to support the new national unity government and a new political pact. The European Union cannot afford to sideline Hizbullah, as doing so would further destabilise Lebanon and reduce the prospects of reform. For the moment, it seems likely that Hariri will form a government and debate over the reforms needed for an International Monetary Fund support package will happen within a cabinet that includes Hizbullah. The failure of this effort would be catastrophic for the EU, potentially pushing Hizbullah to believe that it had no alternative but to eventually establish an alternative government solely with its allies.
Amal Saad is a professor of political science and international relations at the Lebanese University. She is author of Hizbullah: Politics and Religion (Pluto Press, 2002) and is currently working on a new book, Hizbullah’s Post-Resistance: From National Resistance to Regional Power (Palgrave Macmillan).
This case study was submitted on an individual basis without prior knowledge of the respective contributions. The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.