It was a sea of yellow as thousands of men, women and children waved Hezbollah flags and gathered in the ancient eastern city of Baalbek in support of the heavily armed militant group wearing the group’s trademark yellow hat.
One after another, several attendees vowed to vote on Sunday for Shia Muslim Hezbollah and its allies in parliamentary elections close to Lebanon, rejecting any attempts to disarm the powerful group.
Despite a disastrous economic collapse and several other crises gripping Lebanon – the culmination of decades of corruption and mismanagement – the deeply divisive issue of Hezbollah’s arms has been at the center of the vote for a new 128-member parliament.
The group has dominated political campaigns for disarmament among almost all opponents of the group. These include Western-backed mainstream political groups and independents who played a role in nationwide protests since the start of the economic downturn in October 2019.
“This is the biggest misinformation campaign ever. Why? Because they are implementing America’s policy against resistance weapons,” senior Hezbollah official Hussein Hajj Hassan told the Associated Press on Friday before the rally in Baalbek.
Hezbollah was the only group officially allowed to lay down its arms after the 1975–90 civil war as it fought Israeli forces occupying parts of south Lebanon. In 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon, but Hezbollah and others in the small Mediterranean nation insisted that its weapons were necessary for its defense against Israel, which has one of the strongest armies in the region.
Hezbollah has since fought a months-long war with Israel in 2006 that ended in a draw. Following the start of conflict in neighboring Syria, the Iran-backed group sent thousands of fighters to support President Bashar Assad’s forces, helping them to steer the balance of power in their favor.
Hezbollah’s rivals say its weapons and support of regional forces such as Assad and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have damaged Lebanon’s ties with oil-rich Persian Gulf nations. Those nations have classified the Lebanese group as a terrorist organization and withheld significant financial aid to the country.
Haj Hassan, a legislator and three-time cabinet minister since 1996, said that the claim of Hezbollah being responsible for the collapse of Lebanon was “a big lie”.
“They forgot the political system, the economic system, the corruption, the war in Syria and its effects on Lebanon, and they forgot US sanctions,” he said at his home near Baalbek.
Hezbollah says its weapons are for the defense of Lebanon and not for internal use. But the group used them in May 2008 against rivals in their worst fight in years at the time. The Hezbollah offensive took place when the government of the then-Hezbollah opponent Fuad Sanyora decided to dismantle the group’s military telecommunications network.
“No Lebanese group should have the right to be armed, while other Lebanese are not,” Sammy Gemayel, the head of the right-wing Kataeb party, said Friday night in remarks on a local LBC station.
This year’s vote is the first since the economic collapse, described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst votes in more than 150 years. It is also the first since the August 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut, which killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and caused widespread damage in the capital.
Three former cabinet ministers affiliated with Hezbollah were charged with investigating the port blast, but they refused to face questioning by an investigative judge. Hezbollah’s leader has criticized the judge and called for his replacement, and the investigation has been suspended for months following legal challenges by politicians.
Parliamentary elections are held once every four years, and the last vote in 2018 gave Hezbollah and its allies a majority with 71 legislators.
As Lebanon continues to sink into poverty, many Lebanese have been openly critical of Hezbollah. They blame the group – along with the ruling class – for a number of crises devastating the country, including a dramatic currency crash and severe shortages of medicine and fuel.
Some expect its main Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by President Michel Aun, to lose seats. Others have expressed dismay at Hezbollah’s steadfast alliance with Lebanon’s longtime parliament speaker, Nabih Berry, whom many see as the godfather of Lebanon’s corrupt sectarian-based and elite-dominated political system.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s victory is not in doubt. The group has a solid base and manages its alliances and electoral system efficiently. The threat ensures that no Shia threat emerges: three Shia candidates allied with the Saudi-backed Lebanese army group withdrew from the race in the Baalbek region within days.
In a Shia village in southern Lebanon, residents were attacked last month as they marched towards a rally for candidates against Hezbollah. In Baalbek, a Shia cleric operating against the Hezbollah-led coalition fired weapons into the air to disrupt a gathering.
Hezbollah was blamed for intimidating Shia candidates, a claim Hajj Hassan denied.
“They (Shia) do not want opposition within the sect. It is clear,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. Khashan said Hezbollah and its Shia allies were trying to maintain control of the 27 seats allotted to the Amal group sect of Beri.
Little change is expected from the election as mainstream political parties and politicians remain strong while opposition candidates remain fragmented. Nevertheless, mainstream Western-backed parties are hoping to snatch a parliamentary majority from Hezbollah, while many independents are hoping to break the party’s traditional list of candidates and candidates.
The vote comes after a powerful Sunni leader, former prime minister Saad Hariri, suspended his work in politics. Some have warned it could help Hezbollah’s Sunni allies win more seats.
“I regard the ballot box as a line of defense for us,” nurse Hoda Fallah said during a rally in Baalbek. Falah said Hezbollah’s weapons have protected eastern Lebanon from attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda over the years.
Hezbollah’s top official Nabil Kouk said in a speech last month that the election would show that his group enjoys the most support in the small nation. He claimed that money flowing into Lebanon from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the US would not change the outcome.