Sectarian Unity as a Form of Governmentality: Assessing the dynamics of Development Policy Making in Lebanon’s Shia Territories

Diana Zeidan, École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur les Enjeux Sociaux (IRIS), Paris

*This piece was drafted as part of the New Analysis of Shia Politics workshop. See POMEPS Studies 28 for the full collection.


Hezbollah has been involved in an impressive range of construction and development programs in southern Lebanon. This economic activity has been expressed through an intriguing combination of sectarian rhetoric and neoliberal practice. How has Hezbollah mobilized sectarian rhetoric as a governing technology within a neoliberal Lebanese state? What, if anything, does this have to do with sect or sectarianism, concepts too often “used more often as explanatory concepts (independent variables) than phenomena themselves to be explained,” (Farsoun 1988: 101)?

This memo assesses use of sect-specific rhetoric by Hezbollah’s development agencies. Such rhetoric mobilizes and socializes constituents and fosters their party’s popular support. It reconfigures patronage networks as well, and is used as a means to exert pressure from the bottom-up, to negotiate demands with local patrons and international organizations. Hezbollah’s affiliated social organizations create a representation of their party’s Shia identity within tight networks of aid recipients. Development programs in general and reconstruction policies in particular represent an “opportunity to reconfigure the urban landscape… and reshape or consolidate political and power dynamics” (Berti 2017).

Performativity of Hezbollah’s Shia-specific social services narrative 

In Lebanon, religious groups played a major role in reproducing and preserving “enlarged clientelist networks” (Ṭrabulsi 2007: 23) that ultimately preserve the power of certain families and members of the political elite. In the south of the country, the occupation by Israel from 1982 to 2000 established an everyday reality that exerted a determining influence on the population’s identity and political engagement. After the Israeli withdrawal, in May 2000, Hezbollah played a significant political role in making the borderland region a sanctuary from which it was able to organize the political and military infrastructure required for its objectives (Meier 2015: 101) and secure the political and territorial authority of the Party through the deployment of an array of social and charity services.

Hezbollah’s position towards sectarianism has always been ambivalent. The party’s integration into the Lebanese political system in the early nineties increased the representation of the Shi’i community and enhanced, in turn, the viability of the sectarian system. Since the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, the organization reinforced the sectarian division of power. It developed a holistic policy network (Harb 2000) by operating an array of institutions active in specific sectors (education, health, research, development, and sports) in Beirut’s suburbs, the Beqaa, and South Lebanon. These institutions are the most prominent service providers in Lebanese Shia regions. Since the 1998 municipal elections, they have acted as partners of local governments who rely on their expertise for developing and implementing local development strategies. Hezbollah’s institutions “disseminate codes, norms and values that produce a particular type of social and cultural environment, structuring daily life practices, as well as subjective and collective identities” (Harb 2008). In this sense, they contribute to the (re)production of the Islamic Sphere, the social and cultural environment shaped the norms and values diffused by the party’s affiliated organisations (ibid). This sphere allows Hezbollah to ground its social work in kinship and family networks around pious practices.

The social welfare institutions of Hezbollah developed in part thanks to generous funding from Iran (DeVore and Stähli 2014) but also as a result of donations from individuals, investments in private businesses, and revenue from religious taxes. In her study of distributional politics in Lebanon, Melani Cammett suggest that spacial locations of Hezbollah welfare institutions “tend to operate in more homogeneous areas with in-group members than other parties” (Cammett 2014:155), particularly in areas of residence of the party’s most fervent supporters, such as the southern suburbs of Beirut, where the party capitalizes on Shia constituents who vote in South Lebanon (ibid). These welfare services played an important role in reinforcing local dependencies by shaping a particular “language of stateness” (Hansen and Stepputat 2001: 7).

Since its involvement in the Syrian war, Hezbollah has capitalized on pro-Shiite allegiances, linking the survival of the Syrian regime and the eradication of the radical Sunni threat to the notion of resistance against Israel and Western imperialism. Drawing on the main argument of securitization theory that security is a speech act used to justify extraordinary measures in times of crisis, recent studies depict how “political elites use sectarian discourses as powerful sources of legitimation and persuasion” (Malmvig 2015). This “emergency” framing has been used by Hezbollah leadership and “shows how actors have created discourses that prompted their societies to believe that they were threatened by the mere existence of the ‘Other’ sect’’’ (Darwich and Fakhoury 2016:713), thus positioning itself within the politics of sectarianism that Syria’s conflict has amplified. However, securitization theory’s primary concern lies in the narrative of securitizing actors, mainly political elites. Looking at the ways in which such narratives are played out in everyday politics and internalized by the audience is one way to avoid the “parochialism of security studies” (Gusterson 1999).

Erminia Chiara Calabrese (2016) shows how, in a context of ideological confusion around the party’s involvement in the Syrian war, Hezbollah’s militants internalized the religious narrative by drawing upon their Shia consciousness (see Shirin Saeidi’s memo) to redefine their belonging to the party and their attachment to its values. Similarly, Hezbollah’s welfare institutions played a major role in forging a sense of belonging to the same community and a shared destiny. They operate as effective policy makers in the context of local development, disseminating policy norms that can be easily related to international development paradigms, namely economic growth, modernity and progress, and using policy tools rooted in participatory and community-based practices. At the same time, they strengthen the religious and political identity of the party’s constituents and therefore construct the physical landscape of its Islamic milieu.

The case of Jihād al-Bināʾ: Building Hezbollah’s identity through development

Hezbollah founded Jihād al-Bināʾ (Jihad for Reconstruction) in 1988 with the main objective of providing development services to neglected and impoverished Shii areas. It is “an interesting organization because it is chock-full of professionals – contractors, engineers, architects, demographic experts” (Allers 2006). As the reconstruction and development arm of Hezbollah, it mainly relies on financial assistance from its Iranian sister organization Jehad-e Sazandegi (Jihad of Construction). In Iran, Jehad-e Sazandegi was essential to the Islamic Republic’s state formation and consolidation. The organization used the development rhetoric to “challenge the status quo,” while it simultaneously “mitigated the risk of informal or non-routine contention, such as protests and demonstrations, erupting at the societal level, and confined or relegated contentious politics to developmental and socioeconomic issues rather than ones focused on political reform” (Lob 2017:19).

Jihād al-Bināʾ plays a key role in shaping and reinforcing Hezbollah’s Islamic sphere by prioritizing faith based project that help religious and ideological dissemination. Between 1988 and 2008, the organization mainly built and renovated mosques, religious centers and private schools, most of them in South Lebanon (Daher 2016). At the same time, Jihād al-Bināʾ “has developed ‘deep roots’, to the extent that many Shiites expected it would provide for them in a clientelistic manner” (Makarem 2014:95). In a previous POMEPS Studies publication, I demonstrated how Hezbollah experts from Jihād al-Bināʾ acted as both community leaders and “political brokers” by adopting a managerial discourse and claiming credit for successfully coordinating the reconstruction process after the 2006 war. Their narrative on social entrepreneurship reinforced local systems of patronage. International organizations played a major role in integrating Jihād al-Bināʾ into the post-war development community and were indirectly complicit in reinforcing patronage and dependency networks. In fact, when these 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. However, at the other end of the process, in their exchanges with members of the village community, the organization’s political ideology and the political community were consequently constituted as fundamentally Shia” (Zeidan, 2018).


Reconstruction as a governing technology to promote communal unity

What emerged from the 2006 reconstruction in Lebanon is a complex political environment in which multiple actors are attempting to sway multiple audiences. In this sense, the reconstruction followed the key principles of neoliberalism in which “the state is not so much ‘rolled back’ but restructured and redeployed to reduce welfare expenditure and to expand the realm of market relations” (Baumann 2017: 642). The Lebanese state regarded itself as a reconstruction facilitator, allowing space for reconstruction actors to fill the vacuum. Donors could directly sponsor reconstruction projects, make in- kind donations, or lodge monies with the Central Bank. Jihād al-Bināʾ and the Lebanese government had very little contact with one another. The Iranian Contributory Organisation for Reconstructing Lebanon bypassed the Prime Minister’s office, which was considered corrupt and biased, and, instead, channelled the funds directly to ministries, municipalities, and the Council for of Development and reconstruction. Iran’s reconstruction activities concentrated on infrastructure repair, although it also funded compensation schemes for damaged and destroyed housing, and adopted villages in the south.


Given the multiplicity of actors involved in the reconstruction process, it was “unsurprising that people made comparisons between the visibility and perceived usefulness of the various actors”. The symbolic battle shows how, through their involvement Lebanon’s post-2006 reconstruction, governments were sending messages across the region that they should be regarded as regional power brokers. In this context, it became clear that Iran sought to buttress the Shia community. The Iranian investment in large, expensive, and highly visible projects such as infrastructure and housing sent a powerful message in support of the “resistance” and a reminder to the Shia communities of Iran’s generosity. By emphasizing the community’s well-being, Hezbollah experts adopted the narrative of a neoliberal market of piety and charity and gave the impression that Iranian government and Hezbollah were “doing something” during the war.


My fieldwork shows that in several villages in south Lebanon, the Iranian Contributory Organisation for Reconstructing only approached local authorities for paperwork, while Hezbollah experts of Jihād al-Bināʾ often bypassed the municipalities by publishing parallel survey reports that undermined the work of municipalities. Ultimately, the reconstruction apparatus allowed these non-state organizations to “become the de facto statehood of the targeted territories in terms of political and technical decision-making” (Carpi 2017:120), a statehood in which “emergency-driven programmes become a modality of governance and a proliferating professional sector” (ibid). Indeed, as “social entrepreneurs,” Jihād al-Bināʾ experts developed close ties with professionals from other institutions working on local development, which in return were helpful in securing projects for the population. Moreover, the interweaving of the urgent, technical, and administrative temporalities created a narrative of closeness to the Shia community similar to the one advocated by international donor. The “strategy of extraversion” with regards to participation (Bayart and Ellis 2000) provided Jihād al-Bināʾ the means to supervise very closely the consultation with civil society, which facilitated its synchronization with the time constraints imposed by the other political and technical dispositifs.





Most research affirms, more than it questions, the sectarian and authoritative dimension of Hezbollah. Such relatively Manichean readings present their development strategy as an “instrument” outside society, placed at the service of building the consensus by which the party perpetuates its hegemony. I have instead tried to show that the reconstruction process is not so much the instrument of consensus as it is its “object” and its “product.” At the same time, the analysis of state-society relations in Lebanon through a sectarian lens “has led to an undefined ‘sectarianism’ overshadowing more relevant factors such as geographic and class divisions and geopolitics in analyses of the socio-political issues facing the region” (Haddad 2017: 364). Within this framework, Rima Majed invites us to look at sectarianism as a manifestation of “interests-based politics,” through which social movements are co-opted by political and religious elite (Majed 2017).

Reconstruction dispositifs “highlight the strength of the interpenetration between the state and society and the many forms it takes, whether through the dependencies, the competition, the workarounds, or the ‘resistances’ that have led the players to shape it” (Hachimi Alaoui 2017). In the post-war context, the ability to “do something” became an important legitimation requirement shared by most actors in the field. However, “by capitalizing on their embeddedness in the community, Jihād al-Bināʾ experts know they can offer long-term clientelistic relations to villagers who believe that informal relations with the political leadership facilitate access to resources and opportunities” (Zeidan 2018).




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