Baalbek, Lebanon (AP) — Thousands of men, women and children, waving Hezbollah flags and wearing the group’s signature yellow hats, marched in a large block of the ancient eastern city of Baalbek. Rally on land in support of heavily armed militant groups.
One by one, many attendees vowed to vote Sunday for Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon’s closely watched parliamentary elections, rejecting any attempt to disarm the powerful group.
Despite Lebanon’s devastating economic collapse and other multiple crises — the culmination of decades of corruption and mismanagement — the deeply divided issue of Hezbollah’s arms has been at the heart of the vote in the new 128-member parliament .
The disarmament of the group dominated the political movement of almost all of the group’s opponents. These include Western-backed mainstream political groups and independents who have played a role in protests across the country since the economic collapse began in October 2019.
“This is the biggest misinformation campaign. Why? Because they are enforcing the U.S. policy against weapons of resistance,” Hussein Haji Hassan, a senior Hezbollah official, told The Associated Press on Friday ahead of the Baalbek rally.
Hezbollah was the only group officially allowed to retain its weapons after the 1975-90 civil war as it fought against Israeli forces occupying parts of southern Lebanon. Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2000, but Hezbollah and others in the small Mediterranean country insisted that weapons were necessary to defend against Israel, which has one of the strongest armies in the region.
Hezbollah’s month-long war with Israel since 2006 ended in a draw, with the Iran-backed group sending thousands of fighters to side with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces after the conflict began in neighbouring Syria Fighting, helped him turn the balance of power. his favor.
Hezbollah rivals say its weapons and its support for regional forces such as Assad and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have damaged Lebanon’s ties with the oil-rich Persian Gulf state. The countries have classified the Lebanese group as a terrorist organization and withheld significant financial support to the country.
Haj Hassan, a legislator since 1996 and a three-time cabinet minister, said the claim that Hezbollah was responsible for Lebanon’s collapse was “a big lie”.
“They forget the political system, the economic system, corruption, the war in Syria and its impact on Lebanon, they forget the US sanctions,” he said from his home near Baalbek.
The bespectacled 62-year-old lost two brothers who fought for Hezbollah during Lebanon’s civil war and a nephew in Syria.
Hezbollah insists its weapons are for the defense of Lebanon, not for internal use. But the group used them against an adversary in May 2008 in the worst fight in years. Hezbollah’s offensive came after the government of Hezbollah’s opponent at the time, Fouad Saniora, decided to dismantle the group’s military telecommunications network.
“No Lebanese group should have the right to be armed, and other Lebanese don’t,” Sami Gemayel, leader of the right-wing Katab party, said in comments on local LBC station Friday night.
This year’s vote was the first since the economic collapse, which the World Bank described as the world’s worst in more than 150 years. It was also the first since the August 2020 Beirut port bombing that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and caused massive damage in the capital.
Three former Hezbollah-aligned cabinet ministers accused of involvement in the port bombing probe have refused to appear in court for questioning by an investigating judge. Hezbollah leaders have slammed the judge and demanded his replacement, and the investigation has been suspended for months after a legal challenge from politicians.
Parliamentary elections are held every four years, and the last vote in 2018 gave Hezbollah and its allies a majority of 71 lawmakers.
As Lebanon plunges deeper into poverty, many Lebanese criticize Hezbollah more openly. They blame the group – and the ruling class – for the devastating multiple crises plaguing the country, including a severe currency collapse and severe shortages of medicines and fuel.
Some expect the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by its main Christian ally, President Michel Aoun, to lose its seat. Others expressed dismay at Hezbollah’s unshakable alliance with Lebanon’s longtime parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, who is seen by many as the godfather of Lebanon’s corrupt sectarian and elite-dominated political system.
Nonetheless, Hezbollah’s victory is beyond doubt. The group has solid foundations and deftly manipulates its coalition and electoral system. Intimidation ensures no Shiite threat: Three Shiite candidates allied with Saudi-backed Lebanese forces withdrew from the race in the Baalbek region within days.
In a Shiite village in southern Lebanon, residents were attacked last month as they traveled to a rally for candidates against Hezbollah. A Shiite cleric against the Hezbollah-led coalition in Baalbek fired weapons into the air to disrupt a rally.
Hezbollah has been accused of intimidating Shiite candidates, a claim Haji Hassan denies.
“They don’t want opposition within the (Shiite) sect. That’s clear,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. Kashan added that Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Berry’s Amal bloc were trying to maintain control of the 27 seats allocated to the sect.
Little change is expected in the election as mainstream parties and politicians remain strong and opposition candidates are split. Still, Western-backed mainstream parties are hoping to wrestle a parliamentary majority from Hezbollah, while many independents are looking to break away from traditional party lists and candidates.
The vote came after the powerful Sunni leader, former prime minister Saad Hariri, suspended his political work. Some have warned that this could help Hezbollah’s Sunni allies win more seats.
“I think the ballot box is our line of defense,” nurse Hoda Falah said at the Baalbek rally. Hezbollah’s weapons have protected eastern Lebanon from Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked militants for years, Farah said.
Nabil Kaouk, a senior Hezbollah official, said in a speech last month that the election would show his group has the most support in the small country. He claimed that the flow of money from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States to their “tools” in Lebanon would not change the outcome.
“May 15 will prove that the U.S. program against resistance is futile and they will only reap disappointment,” Corker said.
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