Could Hezbollah win over Lebanon’s Sunni community?

The Shiite party with a brand of resistance has sought to make inroads into Sunni areas despite their recent history of being at odds with one another. Has time healed the wounds, or does suspicion run deep?

Credit: Nesma Moharam

Could Hezbollah win over Lebanon’s Sunni community?

When the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri began restoring Beirut’s Ottoman Government Palace in the 1990s — a building badly damaged during the civil war — he intended to inscribe an ancient Arab axiom above its main gate: “If it had lasted for your predecessor, it would not have reached you.”

This phrase, which epitomises the transient nature of power, seemed at odds with Hariri’s own position, as he sought to consolidate his power.

Nevertheless, his distinctive style of governing, prior to his assassination, left many Lebanese to see him as a high water mark in the country’s political leadership, whose death precipitated its descent into a profound crisis.

Moreover, this age-old adage symbolises the distinct social and political stance of Lebanon’s Sunni community, known for their relative adaptability within the political landscape, in contrast to the relative inflexibility of other sects.

Leaders of these other communities typically resist changes in power dynamics and see their role within the political system as inviolable and essential to their existence.

An illustrative example of this dynamic can be seen in their contrasting responses to political upheaval.

In 2005, when there was widespread popular and political pressure to remove President Emile Lahoud, the Maronite community responded with a significant sectarian mobilisation.

In contrast, during the protests of 17 October 2019, which included calls for the removal of the Sunni prime minister, there was no comparable mobilisation from the Sunni community, despite their grumblings.

Influenced by geography

Some feel that this distinct approach can be attributed to the Sunni community’s core urban nature, having historically emerged in the coastal cities such as Tripoli, Beirut, and Sidon.

Their political and socio-economic influence evolved significantly in these urban centres, a development that predated the formation of Greater Lebanon in 1920.

This unification brought these cities together with Mount Lebanon which, during the later stages of the Ottoman Sultanate, enjoyed its autonomy, often under the protection of Western countries.

Indeed, Mount Lebanon holds historical significance as the heartland of the Druze and Christian communities, particularly the Maronites.

Over centuries, this region has been a testing ground for the coexistence of two distinct sectarian groups within a single geopolitical area and resulted in the formation of strong sectarian bonds within these communities.

While Mount Lebanon has traditionally been the heartland of the Druze and Christians, Sunnis have developed an urban identity.

This is in contrast to the Sunni community, which developed its urban identity within the confines of the Ottoman Empire, largely removed from the sectarian political strife prevalent in the mountainous regions.

Moreover, the formation of Greater Lebanon meant the addition of a third major sect, the Shiites, predominantly located in the south and the Bekaa Valley, where clans hold sway over the plains, reflecting a continuation of the Arab demographic patterns seen across neighbouring Syria.

This added a new layer to the already complex sectarian tapestry of Lebanon, further shaping its social and political landscape.

The nature of sects

To understand the political and social character of Lebanon's Sunni community and its role within the Lebanese framework, it helps to consider the differing natures and characteristics of other groups in a historical context.

All groups, including the Sunnis, have undergone complex internal transformations, many of which are ongoing.

In recent years, the Sunni community has displayed an increasing tendency towards asabiyyah — a communal bond of unity — influenced by the rise of Sunni populations in the north and the Bekaa, as well as the political, sectarian, and security tensions with Hezbollah that intensified since Hariri's assassination in 2005.

The site of the explosion that killed Rafik Hariri in 2005

Yet, the formation of Sunni asabiyyah has not been as formalised or as rigid as it has in other assabiyyahs, remaining more fluid and less defined.

When considering the potential of Hezbollah, an influential Shiite party, to infiltrate the Sunni socio-political fabric, it is crucial to recognise the Sunni community's relative adaptability, and possibly its vulnerability.

Consideration should also be paid to the nature of penetration sought by Hezbollah, and the current Sunni political landscape.

Hezbollah's role as a political entity with a deep-seated security dimension, part of a broader regional military and security network, is unparalleled in Lebanese history.

This alone makes Hezbollah's efforts to infiltrate various sects a unique and modern form of sectarian political interference.

For other sects, Hezbollah's involvement assumes different guises, shaped by historical narratives and shared experiences.

One example is the so-called 'alliance of minorities'. This does not apply to Sunnis, however. Rather, it was initially conceived in opposition to them.

Hezbollah's role as a political entity with a deep-seated security dimension, part of a broader regional military and security network, is unparalleled in Lebanese history. 

Hezbollah's presence within the Christian, specifically Maronite, community should not be seen as a thorough penetration, given the Maronites' historical inclination towards forming minority alliances ever since the Lebanese civil war in 1975.

The tendency also extends to the Druze community, despite the historic leadership of the Jumblatt family in the Druze Mountain.

This community's leaders have maintained a policy of appeasement towards Hezbollah without pledging allegiance to it, particularly since the intra-state clashes on 7 May 2008, when militias led by Hezbollah fought pro-government Sunnis.

Hezbollah's infiltration of any group is therefore most significant with the Sunni community, which is both a demographic majority and deeply-rooted in the region.

Exposed by a killing

Hariri's killing in 2005 was a pivotal and traumatic moment in modern Sunni history.

It ushered in a profound sense of vulnerability for a Sunni community that had, until then, felt relatively insulated from the intense and bloody conflicts of Lebanon.

The later invasion of Beirut by Hezbollah and Amal movement fighters on 7 May 2008 only deepened this sense of vulnerability.

It exposed the Sunnis, who had lived in relative stability in cities within the Empire, to a level of oppression and conflict they had not seen (unlike those who lived in conflict-ridden mountainous regions and impoverished rural areas).

After 2005, Sunni politics were largely shaped by this overwhelming sense of oppression and aggression, a trend that only intensified after the Arab Spring and civil war in Syria.

Hezbollah's active involvement in Sunni Syrian cities like Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo marked a significant shift from their presence in the streets of Beirut, directly impacting Sunni communities in these areas.

The Sunni cities of Lebanon became focal points for Sunni-Shiite tensions, both locally and regionally.

In this context, the slogan "Lebanon First," championed by the political Hariri faction post-2005, seemed increasingly disconnected from the complex realities of the time.

Despite an historical lack of strong civil and political asabiyyah among Lebanese Sunnis, they found themselves compelled to defend against Hezbollah's aggression.

Mitigating tensions at home

Sectarian tensions that escalated after 2005 fostered, for the first time, a sense of urgency and defensiveness among the Sunnis.

This newfound assertiveness led Hezbollah to re-evaluate its approach, recognising the need to mitigate tension and safeguard its own position within Lebanon at a time when it was deeply involved in heavy fighting across Syria.

It was significant, therefore, that Hezbollah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called on his Lebanese opponents — particularly Sunnis who supported the 'Syrian Revolution' and opposed his party — to shift their fight to Syria, not Lebanon.

Beyond this rather surreal suggestion, Hezbollah sought to mitigate Sunni-Shiite tensions by facilitating over 40 dialogue sessions with representatives of the Future Movement, under the guidance of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

A notable point of contention during this dialogue was the Saraya Al-Muqawamah (Resistance Brigades), reflecting Sunni unease with Hezbollah's security 'interventions' in Sunni areas.

The Saraya Al-Muqawamah, established by Hezbollah in the late 1990s, aimed to recruit non-Shiite fighters, thereby diminishing the overtly sectarian appearance of its resistance.

Hezbollah sought to mitigate Sunni-Shiite tensions by facilitating over 40 dialogue sessions, but a point of contention was the Saraya Al-Muqawamah (Resistance Brigades)

In the years following 2005, particularly amid escalating Sunni-Shiite tensions, these brigades were increasingly deployed in regions like the Bekaa and Sidon, serving as an alternative to Hezbollah's direct involvement.

They have thus been a focal point of Sunni-Shiite conflict over the years and are still seen with suspicion by Sunnis.

During the Syrian civil war, these brigades were redirected towards Christian and Druze areas, as Hezbollah sought domestic support for its involvement in Syria, support it could not garner in Sunni areas.

Moreover, a past clash between youths affiliated with these brigades and supporters of MP Osama Saad in Sidon's old neighbourhoods proved that the brigades were not always welcome. This incident is particularly telling, since Osama Saad was closely aligned with Hezbollah.

Living with each other

Hezbollah's security foray into sectarian domains, particularly the Sunni community, are not seen as successful, and exemplifies its broader political penetration.

A key factor in this dynamic is the negligible popular support for Hezbollah among the Sunni populace. This is partly due to longstanding tensions, the impacts of which, though dormant, have the potential to resurface unexpectedly.

The current lack (or diminishment) of Sunni opposition to Hezbollah is not primarily a result of changes within the Sunni community itself, which is grappling with a leadership void following the decline of Haririism.

This void has led its elites to appear more amenable to cooperation with the ruling forces, namely Hezbollah. Yet the shift owes more to Hezbollah's own rebalancing.

The group now has a strategic interest in reducing Sunni-Shiite tensions to maintain the level of influence it has already established vis-à-vis the Sunnis as a social and political group.

The improbability of a significant change in the Sunni perspective towards Hezbollah is rooted in the latter's reliance on sectarian-driven mobilisation.

The Sunni response has either been a similarly cautious mobilisation, or profound suspicion of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah now has a strategic interest in reducing Sunni-Shiite tensions to maintain the level of influence it has already established vis-à-vis the Sunnis.

Consequently, the advances Hezbollah is thought to have made in the Sunni sphere, both politically and socially, are merely situational and transient.

Any gains were seeded by the political instability that has plagued the Sunni community since the decline of Haririyya leadership.

Notably, this very leadership, despite its deep-rooted legitimacy in the Sunni community, faced criticism for its perceived thaw with Hezbollah following the political settlement that resulted in the election of General Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally since 2006, as the President of the Republic.

This situation highlights the entrenched disconnect between Hezbollah and the Sunni community, despite the apparent conciliation.

Hezbollah its security presence through the Saraya Al-Muqawamah is precarious and inconsistent, maintained through a complex web of political and financial interests.

Hezbollah is aware of this and operates accordingly, aiming to secure any gains without deluding itself into believing it can win over the collective Sunni psyche.

There are Sunnis who have been willing to align with Hezbollah, perhaps motivated by the potential of power and protection. Yet such affiliations are at an individual-level. They do not signal a communal Sunni shift.

The rhetoric of "resistance", as championed by Hezbollah, is merely a superficial guise for those Sunnis who do join its ranks.

It has failed to resonate as a genuine rallying cry for the wider community, even though the concept of resistance historically holds a place in the Sunni consciousness.

According to several Sunni sources, e general sentiment is one of disbelief and scepticism towards the nature of Hezbollah's "resistance".

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