Analysis

Soleimani Assassination Rattles Hezbollah's Grip in an Already Shaken Lebanon

Lebanese citizens, already deep in their own political and financial crisis, reject Iranian retaliation by proxy

A supporter of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah wears the words "powerful revenge" on her hand, ahead of the leader's televised speech in a southern suburb of Beirut, January 5, 2020.
Maya Alleruzzo,AP

The Lebanese University last week transformed into a small commemoration site for assassinated Qassem Soleimani. Candles were lit, pictures of the commander adorned the hallways, student supporters of Hezbollah oversaw the memorial rally and anyone who dared criticize the morphed “Shi’ite study house,” was cursed by Soleimani loyalists.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56Haaretz

The Lebanese University was not the only place where Iranian flags were flown alongside pictures of Soleimani Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Main public roads also commemorated the slain Iranian commander, and according to Lebanese people interviewed in the media, it seemed that Lebanon for one day became a branch of Iran.

“The Lebanese University is supposed to train students to ensure the future of Lebanon, not Iran,” a Lebanese student protested to Hadeel Mahdi, a journalist for Daraj. “When the university hangs pictures of Soleimani while at the same the university president goes after Issam Khalifeh, it shows yet again that the state is failing,” the student said, referring to the much-admired historian and veteran activist who was indicted for “harming the good name of the university” after he publicly accused its president Fouad Ayoub of corruption. Khalifeh's arrest and interrogation roused protest not only from his students but also from various lecturers who signed petitions for the charges against him to be dropped.

The opponents of Iran and Hezbollah at the university see the complaint against Khalifa on the one hand, and the memorial rally for Soleimani on the other, as proof of the increased politicization of Lebanese academia. In 2012, a regulation was adopted to ban political activity at universities. Given that some Hezbollah supporters have attacked protesters in demonstrations in Beirut and other cities in recent weeks, universities have been more vigilant about political expression within their walls. But it seems that as with other institutions, Hezbollah considers itself above the law.

The clashes in the streets of Beirut, which sparked a fierce political crisis that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and his entire government, have yet to reach their conclusion. As in Iraq, where protested took to the streets calling against Iran and its Shi’ite militias, in Lebanon too, voices have been raised against Hezbollah, accusing it of acting in Iran’s name to break up the anti-government movement. 

After Soleimani was killed, many feared that Hezbollah would take revenge by attacking Israel. Such a scenario surely would have led to a massive retaliation that would have damaged civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, precisely at a time when the country is at the throes of one of its worst economic and financial crises. “If anyone needs to retaliate, it’s Iraq and Iran. Why is Lebanon involved at all?” A Lebanese man asked during an interview with Daraj. It’s hard to know what segment of the population he represents, but reader comments and blog posts indicate a palpable concern that Hezbollah could turn Lebanon into a battlefield over Soleimani’s killing. 

It's not just Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah's threats of “certain revenge” that have enraged his adversaries. Last week, the Lebanese rapper Bunasser al-Taffar wrote a sharply worded piece aiming his barbs at Hezbollah activists. He presumably quoted Hezbollah activists who disparage criticism of the movement's involvement in Syria by arguing that “If Hezbollah had not gone into Syria, ISIS would have raped your mother, your sister and your wife.”

Cars pass near a picture of the late Qassem Soleimani in Beirut's suburbs, January 5, 2020.
AZIZ TAHER/ REUTERS

And then he answered them: “As if there is now no value to anything except preventing terrorists from hurting our women as they hurt the daughter of the Caliph Ali the founder of the Shia, selling them in the slave market as they did to the Yazidi women in Iraq. They want us to forget the actions of the Syrian army and its intelligence when they controlled Lebanon and abused civilians, with no distinction between men and women. Do we have to right to ask what Lebanese woman is Hezbollah defending? Is it the woman it commands to wear a veil at the age of nine? Is it the divorced woman whom Sheikh Naim Qassem [Nasrallah’s deputy] said has no authority to teach schoolgirls or give them advice? Is it the woman whom Nasrallah himself refused to place on the parliamentary roster because ‘Hezbollah has no women who can fulfill the role of member of parliament’? Or perhaps Hezbollah was defending the Lebanese woman against the rape of her rights at the religious tribunals that deny her rights in cases of domestic violence?”

Al-Taffar frequently appears on television and his songs have become part of the repertoire of the Syrian and Lebanese protest as well as in other Arab countries, and even in Turkey. In one of his interviews, he explains that he doesn’t know how much influence his songs have but “if three people are influenced by them, that’s better than nothing.” Judging by the number of fans he has, he has become one of the leaders of the new spirit of the times in Lebanon, one that refuses to accept Hezbollah’s monopoly on public discourse.