By Bassem Chit
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Can Hizbollah unite Lebanon?

This article is over 15 years, 5 months old
Amid the carnage and slaughter in Lebanon a new force is emerging that has confounded Israel - the tremendous unity shown by ordinary Lebanese towards each other.
Issue 2013

Amid the carnage and slaughter in Lebanon a new force is emerging that has confounded Israel – the tremendous unity shown by ordinary Lebanese towards each other.

This has, more than anything else, become the defining moment for a country with a tangled history of religious sectarianism.

Lebanon is a country that lives in the shadow of civil war, but Israel miscalculated in thinking it could rekindle sectarian hatred in its battle against Hizbollah. This is what they meant when they threatened to “turn the country back 20 years”.

Ordinary Lebanese are rediscovering unity in resistance, which had seemed lost during 15 years of civil war (1975-90). The majority have backed Hizbollah in its struggle against Israel. Yet Hizbollah is trapped by the major contradictions of Lebanese society – between class and religious sects.

Hizbollah was transformed by its role in the resistance from a purely sectarian party to one that appealed to nationalism, yet it is a movement that is still embedded in the Shia Muslim community. It is a party of resistance not revolution. But it would be a mistake to characterise it, as author Gilbert Achcar did, as “utterly bourgeois in social structure”.

Hizbollah is a child of a religious sectarian system where the Shia are losers rather than winners. Hizbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah was raised in the slums in east Beirut, an area of grinding poverty and the scene of the first sectarian massacre by right wing Christian militias during the civil war.

Hizbollah’s two cabinet members reflect the expectations of ordinary people. One of the party’s first acts when it was given control over the ministry of labour was to remove the ban on Palestinian refugees’ right to work, and to campaign for the rights of peasants.


Because the party is based among the poorer sections of Lebanese society, it has a layer of trade union activists and officials who, in recent industrial disputes, have sought to represent all workers.

Yet the organisation also has support among shop keepers and small businesses – this is evident from some of its fee paying schools which cater for more wealthy sections of the Shia community.

Its resistance to Israel has created an audience beyond its base, but its political ideology and leadership are embedded in Shia religious beliefs.

Hizbollah has struggled to adapt to a Lebanese society that is itself changing. Before the civil war the majority lived in villages and worked the land. Now around two thirds of the population live in Beirut. Although the majority of neighbourhoods are dominated by one religious sect or another, most people’s workplaces are mixed.

Sectarianism is not merely an expression of hatred between religious groups – it is rooted in a system that gives privileges to one group over others. But during the civil war the mass of ordinary people were pushed into misery and poverty – hunger did not distinguish between religious identities. The greatest division in the country became class, not religion.

The groundswell of support from all communities for the victims of Israel’s attacks shows the general revulsion against religious sectarianism. This desire for unity was reflected in the growing movement against neo-liberal policies, and anger at the growing chasm between rich and poor. Before Israel’s latest war, half a million Lebanese workers marched against the government’s economic policies.

This unity has been building for many years and is rooted in the resistance to Israeli occupation. Robert Pape looked at Lebanese suicide bombers that fought the Israelis in the 1980s. He found that out of 41, “Only eight were Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty seven were from leftist political groups like the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union. Three were Christians. All were born in Lebanon.”

Whatever the outcome of this war, Lebanon faces a severe test. Building on the magnificent solidarity that has been the heart of a general resistance to Israel, we need a movement that can transcend one community. We have seen glimpses of this movement over the last month – and a vision of what Lebanon can become.

Bassem Chit is a democracy activist in Lebanon.


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