Municipal Management and Service Delivery as Resilience Strategies: Hezbollah’s Local Development Politics in South-Lebanon

Diana Zeidan, École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales

In May 2016, municipal elections took place in Lebanon amidst severe polarization and a tense climate due to the Syrian crisis. While Hezbollah appeared to have suffered important defeats during these elections at the national level, the party achieved a major victory in South Lebanon despite the unprecedented challenges it faced by independent candidates and the Lebanese Communist Party. These results reaffirm the ‘grassroots’ quality of Hezbollah’s local actors. Their political strategy is entrenched in the patron-client relations that regulate local politics in Lebanon, which points our attention to the discourses and narratives of Hezbollah’s ruling elite on social entrepreneurship and how they form “a tactic of neoliberal governmentality” (Dey 2014: 55).

Hezbollah’s political control of local political dynamics has typically been attributed in part to the large array of social services it provides to its constituency and the strong legitimacy the party has gained for its role as the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon. Recent scholarly works on Hezbollah have highlighted the need to contextualize Hezbollah in relation to other Lebanese Islamist group on the one hand, and within the context of contemporary neoliberalism in Lebanon on the other (Daher 2016). However, works that look at the nuts and bolts of Hezbollah’s local “politics of doing” (Goirand 2000) as consolidation and legitimacy mechanism remain rare, particularly in South Lebanon.

After the 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah took the lead in the reconstruction process in South Lebanon and became a necessary partner for most international relief agencies and reconstruction donors. To better understand how Hezbollah leadership adapted their organizational capacities and mobilization strategies to the south Lebanese rural terrain during the post-2006 reconstruction context, I look at the role played by the Party’s reconstruction experts from Mūʾasasat Jihād al-Bināʾal-Inmāʾiya or Jihād al-Bināʾ (Jihad for Construction) within the institutional and political apparatus of development aid coordination. Building primarily on in-depth interviews and informal conversations I conducted between 2009 and 2014 in South Lebanon and Beirut as part of an ongoing research on post 2006 reconstruction projects in Lebanon, I show in this memo that, similarly to the case of PJD in Morocco, Hezbollah’s experts act as both community leaders and “political brokers” by adopting a managerial discourse and claiming credit for successfully coordinating the reconstruction process. This allows Hezbollah to position themselves as the main coordinators of the reconstruction process in the local political landscape, while the “adoption scheme” initiated by the Lebanese government (whereby individuals, institutions, and foreign states could adopt an area and directly contribute to its reparation and reconstruction process) resulted in a patchwork of assistance rather than a geographically-oriented or needs-driven allocation of resources and donors’ priorities.

Expertise and development activism

Experts play an underappreciated role in Hezbollah’s success. In her comparison of the formation of regimes of “civic governmentality” in Beirut and Mumbai, Ananya Roy (2009) argues that the mediating role of Hezbollah is undergirded by a fundamental governing technology: the production of knowledge. In order to achieve sustainable results for the community, the reconstruction process requires that the community be rendered technical. It must be “investigated, mapped, classified, documented, and interpreted” (Rose 1999: 332). Technical expertise was needed in this context to make sure any reconstruction activity takes the community’s particular characteristics into consideration, and that Jihād al-Bināʾ would be best suited for the job.

For Jihād al-Bināʾ development experts, their social capital enabled them to constitute the community as a terrain of technical intervention, and thus reconfigure power relations at the municipal level. As technical experts, Jihād al-Bināʾ employers and volunteers played the role of social workers whose responsibility it was to bring the community together and create a common platform, using their “expert knowledge” to ensure active citizen participation. Using common result-based management techniques adopted by international NGOs and their local counterparts, Jihād al-Bināʾ developed their own parallel empowerment programs, which included various techniques like capacity-building workshops, videos, and participatory damage mapping. In Fact, Jihād al-Bināʾ‘s leadership take pride in the participation of their employees and volunteers in trainings and workshops offered by international organisations. Such opportunities provide them, they say, with important tools to be more responsive to local needs.

Municipality leaders were the first pillar of Hezbollah’s structure of local legitimacy. Building their legitimacy on a capacity to intercede at both local and national levels in favor of local populations, Hezbollah municipal leaders brought forward new rationalized, modern, and professionalized competencies and presented themselves as development experts within the new decentralized political competition (Harb 2009: 62). Hezbollah-affiliated mayors could count on the support of Jihād al-Bināʾ for “raising awareness” on reconstruction processes in their predominately Shia communities. As demonstrated by Melani Cammett, competition for political representation within the same sectarian group leads, counterintuitively, to more ethnocentrism and subsequently a narrower scope of welfare coverage (Cammett, 2014). In the municipalities where they faced political competition from the Amal Movement with whom they share the same sectarian identity, Hezbollah experts were significantly less present. Jihād al-Bināʾ first organized public consultation meetings in the main Hezbollah-controlled towns of Southern Lebanon to present their assessments and promote themselves as housing developers. At the same time, they began to actively coordinate capacity-building activities with United Nations organizations and their local partners in order to ensure the appropriate targeting of assistance. In Bint Jbeil and Marjayoun, for instance, Jihād al-Bināʾ officials took an active part in setting up the agenda and supporting local coordinators in technical details. Their participation was also key in selecting participants from local associations and municipality workers. One of my contacts stressed during an informal conversation the need to “empower…those who have the knowledge.” Training community colleagues in fundraising skills was, for him, a central activity of the initial phase of collaboration. Yet, even in this scheme, there were limits on participation. People were told that the complexities of the reconstruction of urban environments demanded professional expertise from architects, planners, and engineers.

Similarly to the case of Islamist parties in Turkey, my qualitative analysis on local development practices also suggests that Hezbollah’s leadership adapted their Islamic identity politics to the particularities of the south Lebanese reconstruction context. While Hezbollah had the monopole of the reconstruction in the southern suburbs in Beirut, they had to coordinate their efforts with those of other development actors and organizations in South Lebanon. When international organizations highlighted the secular aspect of Jihād al-Bināʾ development work in the South, Jihād al-Bināʾ officials accordingly foregrounded the purely technical aspect of their work when engaging in a relationship with them.

The politics of credit claiming for electoral gain

After the 2006 war, Jihād al-Bināʾ has played more of a political role by actively co-opting influential and prominent villagers and civil society representatives into their small coordination councils (see Brooke and Ketchley’s memo on the Islamic brotherhoods’ co-optation strategy in rural Egypt).

Due to the specific thematic nature of their expertise, Jihād al-Bināʾ experts were much sought-after by nongovernmental agencies, not only because they provided a link to the villages, but also because they had a vision about its problems and provided a type of knowledge about the villages and South Lebanon as a whole that was unavailable to governmental and municipal politics. At the same time, Jihād al-Bināʾ’s mode of interacting with national and international organizations’ officials was not only aimed at securing instrumental, material gains for the region, but also strove to include the Party in the post-2006 war development community. Studies on undeserved credit claiming have demonstrated how politicians at the local level exploit foreign aid project for electoral purposes (Cruz & Schneider 2016; Dietrich 2013; Labonne & Chase 2009). My fieldwork shows mayors and Jihād al-Bināʾ leaders advertised the receipt of foreign aid projects as a sign of their ability to extract resources from donors for the benefit for the benefit of their communities. However, in the Lebanese case, it was not the poor-quality information environment that enabled the politics of credit claiming, but rather the highly politicized context of post-2006 war reconstruction. The discourse of Hezbollah experts on selflessness and the moral obligation to serve marginalized communities was often coupled with a discourse on the conditions attached to foreign aid. When Hezbollah experts discredited foreign development actors by pinpointing the solely political and conditions-driven aspect of their interventions, they were trying to underline the importance of their local sociability networks, not only as a political advantage but also as the foundation guaranteeing success in meeting their commitments.

To secure legitimacy in a period of crisis, Hezbollah capitalized on the growing popularity of Jihād al-Bināʾ’s experts and integrated them within the party’s clientelistic system by highlighting their affiliation to notable families from the South. Moreover, the legitimacy they gained from their capacity to “do something” allowed them to position themselves within the local political leadership. Jawad, an agricultural engineer from Ibl al-Saqi who has been working for the organization for more than five years, explained that “people started to look for me in my village. They know I can help them. The olive harvest was very affected and many people lost their harvest and press machines. They know I have contacts within the party and they need the money as soon as possible… People started to call me on my mobile directly and come to my family house looking for me. I felt like the new mayor of the village!” Jawad comes from a very prominent family and his uncle is the local mukhtār, or locally chosen leader. He admits that his last name helped him gain people’s trust. Hasan, a civil engineer from Jdaydet Marjaʿyoun, thinks that “people started to believe that having scientific knowledge is good to govern the village. And when there are technicians in the municipality, NGOs start taking us seriously. Instead of spending all their money on capacity building, they can give the municipality the money to implement real projects that our community needs.”

In this context, local populations began to scrutinize the municipality council of their hometown for its representation of local families as well as its ada’ (performance). One of the most interesting outcomes of the 2010 and 2016 municipal elections was that Hezbollah not only carefully choose its candidates from within notorious local families but also according to the role they played in the reconstruction process. These elections also illustrate the malleability of the ‘a’ila (family) as an idiom that is entrenched in the larger social and political environment. In some villages, Hezbollah choose to present young candidates who did not belong to “traditional” local families and thus could be more easily co-opted within the Party’s local clientelistic network. To justify its political choice, Hezbollah “ennobled” these candidates’ families by inserting them within heroic and territorial representations of Shia history (Picard 2011: 50). In ‘Aytaroun, for instance, an agricultural city in South Lebanon with a population of 17,000 close to the border with Israel, the local memory of the population is deeply rooted in the long history of resistance against the occupation as well as the destruction caused by the 2006 war. During the elections, the Party capitalized on its reconstruction efforts in the region and the glorification of their own martyrs. Hezbollah also took advantage of the reconstruction campaign driven by a mayor who was able to channel Italian and German funds. This mayor, who had been assigned a high position at Jihād al-Bināʾ, came from one of the two main local communist families.


The case of Jihād al-Bināʾ is an interesting local adaptation of the neoliberal approach, an adaptation that has tried to be more culturally appropriate, cost-effective, sustainable, and empowering to the local population. To understand Hezbollah’s accommodation strategies within Lebanese and regional politics, it is important to shift our focus beyond its religious and ideological identity. In this case, looking at South Lebanon as a public space and not as a religious sphere helps clarify the problematics of euphemizating religious symbolism by Islamist parties and understand the interrelationships between the political and religious fields. This memo sheds light on how Jihād al-Bināʾ’s experts narrative on social entrepreneurship reinforced local systems of  patronage.  Moreover, the embeddedness of Hezbollah’s reconstruction projects in the party’s political  strategy, as well as their close cooperation with a large array of international organizations, reinforced the resilience of the party’s elite, not of the vulnerable members of the Shia community in rural areas. A closer look at Hezbollah’s capacity to reconfigure local networks of dependencies shows us how that the party is able to secure its resilience despite the crisis of legitimacy it is confronting due to its involvement in the Syrian war. 


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