None of this is surprising. But what is surprising is that Hezbollah’s iron grip on Lebanese politics and economy is starting to loosen, giving the Biden administration a chance to change an approach that has long failed. Even if the country’s rulers remain accountable, Hezbollah no longer enjoys the support it once had among the Shiites. In particular, many businessmen are more interested in jobs than in Hezbollah’s resistance struggles, as today’s youth have grown up long after the Lebanese civil war and the period of Syrian rule that follow-up that helped bring Hezbollah to power.
Lebanese policy has unfortunately not changed much over the past ten or two years – and neither has the American manual for dealing with the country’s intermittent crises. Now, however, the Biden administration has the opportunity to take advantage of Hezbollah’s weakness and strengthen the viable political alternative to the group’s regime that Washington has long hoped for. By abandoning its traditional focus on failing Lebanese institutions and instead investing in business leaders, activists and young people who are increasingly frustrated with Hezbollah, the United States can empower a new generation of Lebanese Shiites who really want the change – and could finally have the power to do it.
Since its creation, Hezbollah presented itself to its Shiite colleagues as a protector and a provider. Its popular support rested on three pillars: providing social services, resisting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, and forging a common Shia identity. Today, Hezbollah’s social service network has shrunk due to financial problems caused in part by US sanctions. The idea of resistance has lost its force since Hezbollah intervened in the war in Syria to protect Bashar-al-Assad. And the Shia identity no longer binds many Lebanese so strongly to Hezbollah, as the community has started to feel more isolated from the region.
In 2019, Lebanese from all sects took to the streets to protest against corruption and economic hardship. Since then, political alternatives to Hezbollah within the Shiite community have become more solid. Emerging groups are beginning to express significant opposition to Hezbollah: business networks, students who participated in the protests (which Hezbollah opposed, in some cases with physical violence), savvy social media activists and young professionals without any remember the post-civil war years that brought Hezbollah into the political fold. The main concerns of these groups are economic and social rather than political or ideological.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s shadow economy is collapsing. U.S. sanctions against Iran have crippled the flow of money from Iran to Hezbollah, and the group’s involvement in regional military operations – primarily in Syria – has further depleted its coffers. This affected its ability to provide social services, aid, and non-military employment opportunities.
There are also signs of a split between Hezbollah and its traditional supporters. The group is increasingly in conflict with the Amal Movement, a political party that has long allied itself with Hezbollah. Other allies have been sanctioned by the United States and have lost popularity, especially after the 2019 protests drew attention to their corruption. According to a poll taken earlier this year, Hezbollah’s main Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, has the support of only 15 percent of Lebanese Christians. Within Hezbollah’s own ranks, financial difficulties are driving the wedge between the military and the non-military. Hezbollah still pays its military personnel in dollars while the rest receive their payments in Lebanese pound, which has lost about 90 percent of its value.
Faced with this weakness, new groups are emerging which could be essential to break the vicious circle of Lebanon.
The Shiites, who constitute over 30 percent of the Lebanese population, are the most important constituency for building an anti-Hezbollah coalition, as they constitute the bulk of the group’s support. Other Lebanese groups, including Sunnis, Christians and Druze, are likely to support a strong Shiite alternative to Hezbollah, in part because they increasingly share frustration with the country’s broken politics.
I have interviewed many Shia businessmen in Lebanon, Africa and the Gulf who have expressed their willingness to work with the international community – and outside of Hezbollah’s orbit – to provide jobs and loans. They have provided political and financial support to activist and civil society groups in Shiite towns. Their motivation is to take root in their communities, but also to avoid sanctions or financial isolation by distancing themselves from Hezbollah. Prior to his assassination earlier this year, Shiite political activist and intellectual Lokman Slim was closely associated with this informal group of business leaders and civil society.
This enthusiasm suggests a different political path for Lebanon and an opportunity for the United States and the international community to change course. Instead of continuing to work with weak, corrupt, Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese state institutions, the United States should shift its focus to investing in this unofficial but increasingly influential group. The end goal would be a more structured civil society organization that has strong relationships with the United States, Europe and international institutions and focuses on creating economic opportunities, empowering new political voices and offering a meaningful alternative to Hezbollah for frustrated Lebanese Shiites.
The group is expected to include business leaders, representatives of civil society, members of the Lebanese diaspora, activists and other influential Shiites. Donor countries, including the United States and international institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, could work with the Lebanese business community to structure, develop, finance and manage the organization. The bottom line is that this happens outside the realms of state institutions and Lebanese political parties.
To avoid the potential pitfalls of working outside formal government structures, international participation will be essential. The international community should focus on investing in basic services such as health and education, expanding economic opportunities outside of Hezbollah, and protecting journalists and activists. This can be done by supporting private sector initiatives, local organizations working to provide services in small communities, and independent media organizations.
Creating economic opportunities is especially important today, as the Lebanese private sector has collapsed and the middle class has all but disappeared. Hezbollah has become the largest employer with the best access to hard currency. Many Shiites – Hezbollah’s traditional recruiting base – face a choice between relying on Hezbollah or starving to death.
This does not mean that the United States should stop its long-standing policies of assisting the Lebanese military – especially given the heightened security concerns – and humanitarian aid. However, the United States can reorient these traditional aid channels to match its new focus on civil society rather than formal institutions. Aid to the military must be structured in such a way as to ensure that pro-Hezbollah elements within the military do not benefit from it – elements that have allegedly targeted Lebanese militants. The United States can make the protection of militants a condition of continued military aid. In addition, humanitarian aid should only flow through civil society organizations, not politically affiliated NGOs. In recent years, the United States has tended to target aid at organizations and charities linked to powerful Lebanese political elites, rather than genuinely popular organizations. Meanwhile, support for some anti-Hezbollah civil society initiatives has waned since the United States began nuclear negotiations with Iran.
At the same time, the United States can continue to sanction corrupt political leaders. Sanctions, such as the Magnitsky Law, are a powerful tool for containing corruption when they are part of a larger policy, and the sanctions imposed on Hezbollah allies have already hit the group hard. Finally, if sanctions against Iran are lifted as part of a new nuclear deal, robust mechanisms should be put in place to limit Hezbollah’s access to hard currency from its sponsors in Tehran.
Hezbollah and Iran have long understood something that the United States and its European allies have not understood: soft power. While the West helped Lebanon the old-fashioned way – by supporting the political opposition, providing security assistance to the military, and funding development programs – Iran was funding the Shiite business community, media organizations, education and non-traditional initiatives like cybersecurity training, musicians and a pro-Iranian youth group called the Mahdi Scouts. Hezbollah, with support from Iran, created an alternative state and shadow economy that provided services and jobs. Now, as Hezbollah weakens, the United States can use a similar soft power approach to help the Lebanese access the economic opportunities they want – and weaken Hezbollah in the process.
Waiting for Hezbollah and the Lebanese political class to change has proven to be a loss time and time again. But Lebanon itself is changing. Washington has the opportunity to take advantage of these changes by investing in civil society groups that are already emerging as a viable alternative to Hezbollah. The Lebanese people are ready and the opportunity is ripe.