Hezbollah’s chain of grocery stores is now a pilgrimage site for thousands of needy Lebanese, who enjoy large discounts on basic foodstuffs there. The pictures of these stores show shelves packed with bottles of oil, sacks of rice, sugar, pasta and candy – while regular grocery stores are suffering shortages of products and meteoric price increases.
According to reports in the Lebanese media, Hezbollah has started importing large quantities of food from Iran, Syria and Iraq. The Islamist organization has even built emergency grain silos in Syria and purchased huge tanks to store fuel in the event of an emergency.
“Hezbollah is preparing itself for the country’s collapse,” say commentators. “It is replacing the government in the realm of welfare services too.”
Indeed, Hezbollah conducts its own eligibility tests for neediness in Lebanon these days – also among those who are not even members of the organization – and decides on the amount of aid for each person. It has plans to import medication, too, and to that end has opened a professional training program for pharmacists and pharmacy owners, teaching them about the medicines it intends to bring in and how they are to be used.
A smart card developed by Hezbollah, which electronically stores allowances dispensed to those whom it approves, can be used once a month. It is not known how many families have already received the smart cards, but the money comes mostly from Iran.
This welfare initiative is controversial because, according to critics, it exempts the government from the need to take care of the poor, and perpetuates the country’s ongoing political crisis and economic collapse. At the same time, there are some senior Lebanese government officials who do not see anything wrong with the initiative because “in the crisis were are in, we need help from anywhere,” according to Leila Hatoum, an adviser to caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
Hezbollah’s generosity does not stem from its overly great compassion for the citizens of Lebanon. The organization is the subject of much public criticism and international pressure, and even though Lebanon is not currently facing new elections, the group is trying to improve its image after participating in the violent repression of demonstrations against the government, of which it is a member. In trying to preserve its role as kingmaker, Hezbollah cannot be seen as an enemy of the people, or be considered part of the corrupt political elite, which has stolen billions of dollars from the country and is incapable of resolving its crises.
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Hezbollah may enjoy generous funding through the government ministries it controls and the government companies in which it is a partner, but as a group that manages most of its sources of funding independently from the government, and has even found alternatives to the Lebanese banking system – it is investing quite to present itself as the only entity taking care of the country and its citizenry. Provision of cheap food is an effective populist tool, which the leaders of countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan also use.
During a period in which a functioning government doesn’t really exist in Beirut – Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has not been able to form a coalition since October, and Diab seems to be hiding at home – this is an opportunity for Hezbollah to assume the role of protector of the people and to reap political profit. All that should serve it well in advance of the formation of a new government.
The political impasse also enables President Michel Aoun to evade difficult decisions that could help Lebanon escape its dire problems. Last week, he refused to sign an amendment delineating Lebanon’s maritime borders, which include extending the country’s maritime territory by another 1,400 square kilometers. The original order regarding the borders from 2011 included an area of some 800 square kilometers, which is at the heart of a dispute between Lebanon and Israel. Agreement on the borders would allow Lebanon to begin drilling for offshore oil and natural gas, with a possibility of bringing in billions of dollars. Even Hezbollah has recognized this necessity and did not act to prevent negotiations between the two countries.
This is the first time Israel and Lebanon have held civilian and not military negotiations, but they have been halted because of deep differences; it is not clear when or whether they will be restarted. Aoun explained his refusal to sign off on the new order by saying that according to the Lebanese constitution, the entire cabinet, and not just the prime minister, needs to approve such a move before asking the United Nations Security Council to formally approve the ownership of the territory.
Lebanon’s caretaker premier refuses to convene the cabinet to discuss the subject, in order to compel Aoun to speed up the establishment of a new government by Hariri. At the same time, Aoun knows that by signing the order, he will deepen the discord with Israel and further impede negotiations.
But as usual, political considerations have taken precedence over economic needs in Lebanon. Aoun refused to approve the makeup of the new coalition proposed by Hariri, because it removes the president’s ability to block decisions he opposes. Aoun is demanding appointment of two additional Christian ministers, which would grant him the power he needs to push decisions through.
For its part, Hezbollah is playing the role of “honest broker” in this mess, too: It supports Hariri, while at the same time serving as a buttress for its ally Aoun, and thus perpetuates the political impasse. And all this is going on while Lebanon is drowning in debt, hospitals are falling apart due to the coronavirus crisis, the country cannot foreign obtain aid without a functioning government, and the only ray of light – development of offshore oil and gas fields – exists only on paper.