Analysis

Hezbollah Uses Coronavirus to Gain Political Capital

‘We’d rather die of coronavirus than hunger,’ protesters say as the Lebanese pound plummets and they return to the streets

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A nurse in protective clothing in front of a poster in praise of Iran and Hezbollah at a hospital in Beirut's southern suburb, March 31, 2020.
A nurse in protective clothing in front of a poster in praise of Iran and Hezbollah at a hospital in Beirut's southern suburb, March 31, 2020.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Hezbollah held a proud parade this month in the city of Tyre. About 100 ambulances equipped to treat coronavirus patients, surrounded by teams of doctors, nurses and paramedics in full gear, all sounded their sirens at once as if to say “we are here.”

A month ago, Hezbollah announced it would put some 20,000 volunteers at the state’s disposal, and hundreds of doctors and nurses would receive the necessary materials to treat the inhabitants of southern Lebanon, most of whom are under the aegis of the movement. If there is a responsible body in Lebanon that can help overcome the virus, say the organization’s spokesmen, it’s Hezbollah, “the protective arm of Lebanon in times of war and times of crisis.”

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Bibi's got the perfect exit strategy - just not for the coronavirusCredit: Haaretz

While Lebanon’s five government hospitals have about 345 beds for coronavirus patients, the clinics and hospitals under Hezbollah control have 150. While government and private physicians are currently not receiving their full pay, Hezbollah pays its doctors, and also requires some of them to volunteer their services. For Hezbollah, COVID-19 is more than an illness: It’s also an opportunity to amass more political power, especially as one of its representatives, Dr. Hamad Hasan, also heads the Public Health Ministry.

Making political hay is no small matter. A few days before the show in Tyre, Hezbollah organized a tour for journalists at a few medical centers in southern Lebanon, where its representative, Abdallah Nasser, explained the arrangements Hezbollah had made to deal with the virus. “We aren’t working instead of the government, but in complete coordination with it, out of a desire to ease the burden on its shoulders.”

But the term “coordination” has a variety of interpretations. On Saturday, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab had planned to come to Sidon to declare that a large grant would be given to open and equip the Turkish hospital in the city, which has been closed for more than a decade. Preparations for the visit had already been made, the invitees were getting ready, refreshments were almost served - and then, at the last moment, the prime minister’s office announced the visit would be postponed to an unknown date.

Islamic health unit personnel wearing protective gear stand near ambulances during a media tour organised by Hezbollah officials in Beirut's southern suburb, Lebanon, March 31, 2020.
Islamic health unit personnel wearing protective gear stand near ambulances during a media tour organised by Hezbollah officials in Beirut's southern suburb, Lebanon, March 31, 2020. Credit: AZIZ TAHER/ REUTERS

The opposition website Al Modon has a detailed explanation for the postponement. According to its sources, Hezbollah required the presence of some of its people, so the movement could glean some political benefit from the government show. The mayor of Sidon refused, arguing that no political figures or party representatives had been invited to the ceremony, including lawmakers Bahia al-Hariri, the sister of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, and Mohammad Sa’ad, both of whom are Sidon residents and members of the opposition to Hezbollah.

A week before that, the health minister himself had planned to visit the city to announce the aid package to the hospital, but he was asked not to make the visit because the prime minister had already planned a visit there. But Hezbollah brought pressure to bear and in the end, the prime minister cancelled his visit. Now it’s unclear when the hospital will receive the aid.

The Lebanese government needs all the professional and financial help it can get to deal with the pandemic and there’s no disputing that Hezbollah’s contribution is necessary and efficient. In many cases, it meets needs that the government cannot. Because while Lebanon is in the throes of a deep economic crisis, Hezbollah has independent sources of funding, including regular aid from Iran and contributions from its supporters abroad, by means of which it can manage and fund public services for the population under its control.

But this aid only highlights the government’s weakness, and over the past few days, protest movements have begun to renew their activities. They are demanding for direct aid, after the promise to give a one-time payment of $133 to every needy person was not kept. They are also demanding a proper economic plan to extricate the country from the crisis.

We’d rather die of coronavirus than of hunger,” read signs held by protesters. Sit-ins in front of banks in Tripoli deteriorated into violent clashes; in Beirut there were protests in front of the Central Bank, met by security forces who had earlier demolished protest tents. The fear is that protests will wash over more of the country despite the government’s ban on public gatherings. “This government will lead to a social explosion. The ministers are becoming more adept every day at making us poor,” a protester in Tripoli, Natalie Rashid, warned in an interview with the website Daraj.

Several hundred Lebanese people protest in the northern city of Tripoli, April 17, 2020.
Several hundred Lebanese people protest in the northern city of Tripoli, April 17, 2020.Credit: AFP

Prices of basic products have risen in a month by more than 13 percent, the value of the Lebanese pound on the free market has plummeted to about 3,000 pounds to the dollar (as opposed to the official rate of 2,000 pounds to the dollar) and Economy Minister Raoul Nehme has only one creative and infuriating solution: He tells protesters “don’t buy eggs and chickens for three days and see what happens to the prices.”

Lebanese Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, who has become the most hated figure in Lebanon, promised that people’s bank deposits are in no danger and that the banking system is stable, but the association of banks itself has accused the Central Bank and the government of ongoing failure in managing the country’s financial system and that this could lead to the destabilization of the banking system.

Investors fear the Lebanese government has managed to find an Arabic translation for the term ‘financial haircut,’ and that it will trim their assets before allowing them to be released. “Investments are secure and we do not intend to hurt them,” the prime minister pledged. “As for the time and means of their release, everything will depend on the circumstances.” Noone knows what those circumstances are, and on what criteria they will be based - and it seems that only renewed mass protests will deliver an answer.

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