'Where's Hezbollah's Money?': Coronavirus Recession Makes Lebanese Protesters Yearn to Take Over the Streets Again

'We have to choose between dying of hunger or the plague,' demonstrators are shouting. It didn't help that the Shi'ite group wanted to block an IMF loan

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Lebanese army soldiers run in front of a Credit Libanais Bank that was set on fire in Tripoli, Lebanon, Tuesday, April 28, 2020
Lebanese army soldiers run in front of a Credit Libanais Bank that was set on fire in Tripoli, Lebanon, Tuesday, April 28, 2020Credit: Bilal Hussein,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Where’s Hezbollah’s money?” wondered Lebanese journalist Abdullah al-Khiami on the website Janubiyah. This wasn’t just another stab at following the organization’s funding sources.

It was an opinion piece where Khiami demanded that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah come to the aid of Lebanon in its time of severe economic crisis and inject billions of dollars that the group has received from Iran and supporters at home and abroad.

“At a time when many workers have been fired from their jobs, the organization continues to pay its officials a salary of about $600 a month, almost twice as much as the salaries in the private sector,” Khiami wrote.

He’s not the only one demanding that Hezbollah share the burden. Similar articles have been published in Lebanon asking questions about the organization’s contribution – or more accurately, lack of a contribution – to solving the economic crisis. The group has always used the rallying cry of aiding the oppressed, but critics are bashing it for becoming part of the Lebanese economic elite.

At the beginning of May, Lebanon requested the International Monetary Fund for a loan of about $10 billion, after Hezbollah spent weeks trying to block the move. The group fears that approval will force the government to undertake not only strict economic reforms but also block Hezbollah from taking part in politics.

anti-government protester stands in front of Lebanese riot police during a protest against the Lebanese central bank's governor and the deepening financial crisis, April 2020Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

Lebanon already suffered a harsh financial blow when donor countries froze the transfer of $11 billion during the period the country didn’t have a stable government that could commit to reforms. Now that a government has been formed, Lebanon must still provide clarifications on Hezbollah’s role in managing the donations once they arrive.

Over the last week, Hezbollah has said it doesn’t oppose accepting the loan from the IMF – as long as the loan doesn’t impose political conditions, such as on the government’s makeup.

Germany tough on Hezbollah

But even without the limitation on Hezbollah’s participation in the cabinet, the IMF’s demands – such as raising the value added tax, letting the Lebanese pound float freely, privatizing profitable government companies and especially slashing employment in the public sector – will run into opposition from interest groups and the public, which will have to pay much more for consumer goods and government services.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab signs a request for assistance from the International Monetary Fund at the government palace in Beirut, May 1, 2020. Credit: Dalati Nohra/Handout via Reuters

While the request was waiting for the IMF, Germany banned all Hezbollah activities inside the Federal Republic, and German police raided four groups linked to Hezbollah and arrested activists. Six months ago, German officials still were saying that while the country considered Hezbollah’s military wing a terror group, it wouldn’t include the entire organization on its list of groups that support terrorism.

At the time, the fear was that an across-the-board definition would harm relations between Lebanon and Germany, and could send too harsh a message to Iran – with which Germany has been trying to reach a solution to the nuclear-agreement crisis.

Media organizations in Germany and Lebanon have attributed the change in German policy to the Mossad and American pressure, and Iran rushed to condemn the decision. But it seems that proof Israel provided on Hezbollah’s operations, along with German media reports on the group’s money laundering through German criminal gangs, led to Berlin’s decision.

Worshipers perform the Friday prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, while keeping a safe distance from each other, at the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque in Beirut, May 8, 2020.Credit: Anwar Amro/AFP

In taking this step, Germany joined the Netherlands, Canada and Britain – which in opposition to the European Union’s position – view all of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. It’s unlikely that Germany’s decision will have any real effect on the group’s financial situation, but it does provide Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his government with another dilemma in solving the crisis in Lebanon – especially as he strives for donations from international financial institutions where Germany has an influence on decisions.

'We will slaughter the leaders'

Lebanon fears a renewal of the protests that began in October and were halted by the coronavirus outbreak. But the revolt’s causes haven’t disappeared. Wide cracks have appeared in the coronavirus lockdown in Tripoli, where violent demonstrations have taken place in recent weeks, with the security forces brought in.

Meanwhile, there have been restrictions on withdrawing bank deposits, the collapse of the Lebanese pound to a record low of 4,000 pounds to the dollar, and the “coronavirus layoffs” that came on top of Lebanon's already high unemployment even before the pandemic – which has now reached 40 percent.

The country also lacks a plan to help people harmed by the lockdown, and is in despair over the government’s inability to improve the situation. The feeling is that people are just waiting for the moment they can return to the streets.

“We have to choose between dying of hunger or the plague,” protesters shouted in Tripoli and Sidon. “We will slaughter the leaders to feed our children,” was one slogan spray-painted in Tripoli.

The government may have begun easing the coronavirus restrictions and allowing a limited reopening of restaurants and cafes, but this isn’t enough to restart the economy, which needs the return of hundreds of thousands of tourists to jump-start the country’s most important industry. Or Diab must convince the Gulf states to reaccept the thousands of Lebanese workers who were forced to leave their well-paying jobs and return home during the coronavirus crisis.

“The worst is still ahead of us,” tweeted someone in Lebanon. “While countries around the world are beginning to return to normal life, we expect that the rich masters will continue to extort what’s left in our pockets. We have nothing left to lose. The streets are waiting for us, whether as beggars or protesters. In both cases we’re lost.”

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