The Sectarian Image Reversed: The Role of Geopolitics in Hezbollah’s Domestic Politics

Bassel F. Salloukh, Lebanese American University

Hezbollah occupies a geopolitical space no other Armed Non-State Actor (ANSA) in the region is able to duplicate. Whether doing so to serve its own interests, or as part of the complicated Saudi-Iranian geopolitical contest, Hezbollah is present operationally or logistically in every area and battlefield involving the so-called resistance axis (mihwar al-muqawama), from Syria and Yemen to the Gaza Strip and Iraq. As the party’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah once declared, “where we have to be, we shall be,”[1] a position memorialized in a popular party propaganda anthem.[2]

How does Hezbollah’s growing involvement in regional politics fit into debates on the role of sectarianism in Middle East International Relations (MEIR) as examined in Morten Valbjørn’s contribution to this POMEPS collection?[3] Does it follow the pattern described by Gregory Gause of post-uprisings broken states opening up opportunity structures for other regional states to deploy sectarianism in defense of what are primarily external, balance of power threats?[4]  I will argue that we should also reverse the valence of the “second image” and consider another dynamic at work: of domestic sectarian political actors invoking geopolitical battles from the outside-in for strictly domestic political purposes.[5]

Hezbollah’s response to the 17 October 2019 anti-sectarian protests in Lebanon shows how Nasrallah framed the protests as part of a larger external geopolitical campaign (mu’amara) targeting the resistance axis – a dynamic similar to what Tamirace Fakhoury and Helle Malmvig label “geopolitization” in their contribution to this collection.[6] Nasrallah did so for two reasons: to insulate the party’s core Shi‘a constituency from the potential security and political fallouts of the protests, but also to harden the party cadre’s sectarian allegiances in anticipation of future socioeconomic hard times. This process proceeded gradually, and in response to threat perception and debates inside the party. Nevertheless, Hezbollah became embroiled in the kind of public sectarian agitation it has always tried to avoid, ultimately making a full reversal in its position vis-à-vis the Lebanese sectarian system: from being its most ardent critic to perhaps its most significant prop.

A Leap of Faith in the Sectarian System

Hezbollah denounced the Lebanese sectarian system in its very first communiqué of 1983, subscribing instead to the idea of an Islamic state and wilayat al-faqih. Its later rejection of the 1989 Taif Accord was based on the claim that it consecrated the very sectarian system the party condemned as unjust. Hezbollah’s position vis-à-vis the Lebanese political system started changing only after its decision to participate in the 1992 parliamentary elections, a shift dictated in large measure by geopolitical calculations as well as domestic ideological battles in Iran.[7]

The party avoided direct participation in the sectarian political system until after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005. Henceforth, the overlapping domestic and regional battle over post-Syria Lebanon brought Hezbollah to the center of Lebanese politics. But the party was always careful lest its politics and alliances assume a strictly sectarian coloring. Nasrallah always reminded his audiences that the overlapping domestic/external battle over post-Syria Lebanon between the 8 and 14 March coalitions was a political rather than a sectarian battle. The Memorandum of Understanding signed with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) on 6 February 2006 was in part meant to provide the party domestic political cover from a Christian partner for what had emerged as a wholescale contest over control of the state’s institutions and foreign policy primarily between the Future Movement and the Amal-Hezbollah dyad.[8] Even the military invasion of West Beirut on 8 May 2008, with all its sectarian ramifications, was considered a “yawm majid[9] – a glorious day, a phrase that would come back to haunt Nasrallah after the 17 October protests – that helped end the then political deadlock in the country and paved the way for a new political settlement, one that took the form of the Qatari-negotiated 21 May 2008 Doha Accord.

It was only after the Doha Accord consecrated a new tradition of compulsory national unity cabinets as the norm in Lebanon’s post-Syria consociational power-sharing arrangement that Hezbollah changed its official stance towards the country’s sectarian political system. The political document released in November 2009 makes no mention of Hezbollah’s desire to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon. It rather embraces Lebanese identity, rejects what it refers to as attempts to divide Lebanon under the guise of federalism, and calls for a strong, indivisible Lebanon. Such an outcome, according to the document, can only be obtained if Lebanon has “a just, capable, and strong state” and “a political system that truly represents the will of the people and its aspirations for justice, security, stability, felicity, and dignity.”[10] The document identified political confessionalism as the central problem of the Lebanese political system and as a hindrance to reform. In light of the defects of the confessional system and Christian sensitivity to deconfessionalization, however, consociational democracy is considered the best interim solution, embodying a spirit of mutual coexistence. Hezbollah had thus accepted Taif’s consociational formula while reserving for itself a strong unilateral veto power, especially on matters pertaining to what the party considers core-concerns, namely, cabinet formation and decision-making, foreign policy, and the future of its weapons arsenal.

Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria later exposed it to a heavy dose of sectarian demonizing, despite the party and its leader’s constant attempts to characterize the battle as one not against Sunnis but rather takfiri jihadi groups. Yet beyond the level of official discourse, and especially in the world of popular culture and social media, Hezbollah deployed a range of sectarian markers to mobilize its community behind the war in Syria.[11] This, in turn, unleashed the kind of sectarian rhetoric and symbols, nationally but also transnationally, the party would have liked to avoid. Sectarian markers and language now dotted more provocatively the landscape of its intimate community.

With mihwar al-muqawama in ascendance regionally, and the Lebanese Parliament and cabinet controlled by a cross-sectarian and cross-confessional alliance of political allies, Hezbollah’s main worry in the period leading up to the 17 October 2019 protests was the economic situation.[12] In fact, the party was a late comer to the domestic institutional and political economic scene. The Shi‘a share in the predetermined postwar sectarian quota was originally the privilege of the Amal Movement, which came to be known as “Lebanon’s deep state”[13] given its preponderance in the archipelago of clientelist networks embedded throughout the public sector.[14]  Hezbollah MPs led an anti-corruption campaign pertaining to public finances in a bid to insulate the party from public anger at deteriorating economic conditions.[15] The party was also critical of the Banque Du Liban’s (BDL) compliance policies with the 2017 US Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act (HIFPAA), targeting foreign individuals and companies who voluntarily offer financial, material or technological support to Hezbollah and its subsidiaries.[16] It considered BDL Governor Riad Salameh’s compliance and monetary policies an extension of the US administration’ strategy to dry up the party’s financial swamps.[17]

17 October Majid

It is in this context that the 17 October 2019 protests exploded. They expressed deep subaltern cross-sectarian and cross-regional economic frustrations at the postwar “anatomy of corruption”[18] undergirding the sectarian political system, and the failure of the postwar political economy, one that depended on a continuous injection of capital inflows to finance the country’s twin postwar fiscal and current account deficits.[19]  Hezbollah was initially taken aback by the violence and (very personal) anti-elite rhetoric expressed by protesters in what is otherwise its loyal subaltern Shi‘a constituency across the country – not only in Beirut’s southern suburbs, but also in the Beqaa and in the South.[20]

Its position vis-à-vis the protests would alter gradually as events unfolded, however. In his first speech after the protests, on 19 October, Nasrallah embraced the protesters’ genuine grievances and demands.[21] He anchored the protests – Nasrallah refused to use the term ‘revolution’ – in the country’s dire socioeconomic conditions and the inability of the political establishment to deal with these conditions, rejecting the claim that the protests were the workings of a political party, embassy, or foreign conspiracy. He even praised the protests for being “spontaneous and genuine and traversing confessional and sectarian and regional [divides] and political orientations.” Nevertheless, Nasrallah warned against political free-riders – namely the Maronite Lebanese Forces and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) – determined to undermine Michele Aoun’s pro-Hezbollah presidency. He consequently drew a number of red lines for the protests. These protests, he suggested, could not lead to Aoun’s resignation, the toppling of Saad al-Hariri’s national unity government, or lead to early parliamentary elections; nor was he in favor of a technocratic government that, he argued, could not survive the intense economic pressures buffeting the country.

Nasrallah’s second speech of 25 October struck a different tone – and body language – and was given on the morrow of two successive attacks by party partisans against the protesters in Martyrs Square and Riad al-Solh Street, the symbolic epicenter of the 17 October revolution.[22] In what amounted to the beginning of a calculated turn against the protests, Nasrallah claimed that the protests had swerved from their spontaneous and innocent beginnings; they had been infiltrated by politicians and external actors targeting, respectively, the pro-Hezbollah presidency and the country in what is a region-wide effort aimed at undermining the geopolitical achievements of mihwar al-muqawama. Albeit recognizing the diversity of protest groups – at one point in the speech he presented a typology of these groups – and a number of achievements unthinkable before the protests,[23] Nasrallah could not condone road closures or accept that the protesters had no leaders with whom the government could negotiate – a demand made by Aoun in a televised speech on 24 October. He repeated his red lines of the first speech, warning that any potential political “vacuum is deadly” (al-faragh qatel). Nasrallah then closed his speech by instructing Hezbollah’s partisans to exit the protest sites. Some of them, he explained, had joined the protests out of genuine socioeconomic sentiments, others to defend and explain the party’s policies against attempts to lump it with the rest of the corrupt political establishment – as in the slogan kilon ya‘ni kilon. This was no longer their right place, however. The protesters’ refusal to enter into dialogue with the presidency now meant only one thing: that Hezbollah itself was being targeted, even if inadvertently, in what is invariably a geopolitical contest with echoes reaching Iraq and beyond.[24]

These warnings were reiterated even more forcefully in Nasrallah’s third speech of 1 November,[25] delivered after Hariri’s resignation and hence that of his government. He accused those who were free-riding the protests of engineering a political coup against Hezbollah and its allies, namely Aoun and the FPM, and warned that the protests may lead to a complete collapse of state institutions and even civil war. This speech represented the highpoint of Nasrallah’s campaign against the protests, one that ultimately backfired among the public, even inside the Shi‘a community, for it portrayed Hezbollah as the main defender of the sectarian system with all its corruption and distortions.

Taken together, Nasrallah’s second and third speeches underscored Hezbollah’s apprehensions of the popular protests that exploded on 17 October. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the party did go through some sort of internal deliberations as to how to react to the protests.[26] One view suggested embracing the protests as reflecting long-time party demands for economic reforms and the fight against corruption. Another perspective interpreted the protests from a strictly domestic security and geopolitical perspective: an attempt by overlapping domestic and external actors to alter the balance of political power in Hezbollah’s favor in Lebanon and the geopolitical balance of power in favor of mihwar al-muqawama. Nothing symbolized more the apprehensions of this latter group than that graffiti dotting the walls of Beirut’s downtown area in the aftermath of the protests: “17 October majid” it read – a glorious 17 October. The glory was for those protesting violently the country’s dire socioeconomic conditions and corrupt sectarian political establishment, not Hezbollah’s 2008 invasion of Beirut.

Back to the Sectarian Citadel

Hezbollah’s incremental reaction to the 17 October protests saw it gradually, but surely, withdrawing to its core sectarian citadel. Whether by demonizing the protests or condoning an unabashedly aggressive sectarian discourse: the “shi‘a, shi‘a, shi‘a” chants across the country sometimes against same-sect Shi‘a protesters, multiple rounds of violent invasions of protest sites and Martyr Square, the burning of protesters’ tents, waves of party flag-waving motorbike convoys across Beirut, all by Amal Movement and Hezbollah, these tactics amounted to a deliberate attempt to mobilize core constituencies, this by a party known for eschewing open sectarian rhetoric. In so doing it was obvious that Hezbollah had decided to react to the potential threats posed by the 17 October protests with a security rather than a political mindset.[27] Invariably, road closures jeopardized routes Hezbollah considers of strategic importance for its daily operational activities and the wellbeing of its core community – but especially those from the South and the Beqaa to Beirut. The party could also argue that some protest sites – especially around Beirut’s Fuad Shihab (or ring) highway connecting the city’s eastern and western sides – were too close for comfort. All this could have been managed through close coordination with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), however.

What then explains the insistence on demonizing the protests and deploying open forms of sectarian mobilization and agitation? The party invoked demonizing tactics and sectarian agitation in a deliberately provocative strategy to achieve two overlapping objectives. It wanted to insulate its so-called “street” – the preferred term deployed by Lebanon’s sectarian elites when referring to their sectarianized subjects – from the threat of security penetration by hostile intelligence agencies,[28] and from exposure to alternative ideological and political narratives than those manufactured by the party’s official organs. On this view, then, the presence of some parts of Hezbollah’s mujtama‘ al-muqawama (resistance society) in Martyr Square exposed the party and its supporters to security and political penetration. Nasrallah’s demonization of the protests as part of a larger domestic and geopolitical coup, coupled with aggressive sectarian mobilization, was thus meant to retrieve the party’s ‘street’ from Martyr Square’s open spaces back to the party’s immune citadel and its controlled environment. Demonizing the protests and intensifying the sectarian mobilization of the party’s card-carrying constituency is also the party’s preemptive strategy in anticipation of the coming economic collapse and its inescapable effects on its own supporters. The party seems to have concluded that the worst is yet to come as Lebanon’s socioeconomic woes will soon increase in an exponential rather than linear manner. With its own material resources stretched to their limits, and ongoing costly military intervention in Syria, Hezbollah decided to fall back on unabashed sectarian mobilization as the best strategy to retain the loyalty of its core Shi‘a constituency. But in demonizing the protests and intensifying sectarian modes of mobilization, it may soon discover that it will have to own a socioeconomic collapse that it had long warned against and is not entirely of its own making.


[1] See “Nasrallah: Sanakun Haythu Yajeb wa Nahnu Akher al-Mutadakhelin fi Suriya,” al-Akhbar, 15 June 2013, at:

[2] See the video of the anthem at:

[3] See Morten Valbjørn, in this collection.

[4] See F. Gregory Gause, III, in this collection.

[5] See Lisel Hintz, Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[6] See Tamirace Fakhoury and Helle Malmvig in this collection.

[7] See Shoghig Mikaelian and Bassel F. Salloukh, “Strong Actor in a Weak State: The Geopolitics of Hezbollah,” in Mehran Kamrava, ed., Fragile Politics: Weak States in the Greater Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 119-143.

[8] See Bassel F. Salloukh, “Democracy in Lebanon: The Primacy of the Sectarian System,” in Nathan Brown and Emad El-Din Shahin, eds., The Struggle over Democracy in the Middle East (London: Routledge Press, 2009), pp. 134-150.

[9] See extracts of his 15 May 2009 speech in Daily Star, 16 May 2009, at:

[10] Quoted in Bassel F. Salloukh and Shoghig Mikaelian, “Hezbollah in Lebanon,” in John L. Esposito and Emad Shahin, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 520.

[11] See Helle Malmvig, “Allow Me This One Time to Speak as a Shi’i: The Sectarian Taboo, Music Videos and the Securitization of Sectarian Identity Politics in Hezbollah’s Legitimation of its Military Involvement in Syria,” Mediterranean Politics, (2020).

[12] See “Liqa’ Nasrallah-Basil: Min al-Muwazana ila al-Boukamal,” al-Akhbar, 12 October 2019.

[13] See Rabie Barakat, “Harakat Amal: Dawlat Lubnan al-‘Amiqa,” al-Safir, October 26, 2016.

[14] See Bassel F. Salloukh, “Taif and the Lebanese State: The Political Economy of a Very Sectarian Public Sector,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 25, 1, (2019), pp. 43–60.

[15] See “Fadlallah: Qadamna lil-Qada’ ma Ladayna wa Lam Nara Fasidan Wara’ al-Qudban,” al-Nahar, 18 November 2019.

[16] Joyce Karam, “US Senate Unanimously Passes Two Bills Sanctioning Hezbollah,” The National, 12 October 2018, at:

[17] See “Basil ila Dimashq … Qariban: Hezbollah ila al-Share‘ li-Muwajahat al-Masaref,” al-Akhbar, 14 October 2019.

[18] See Bassel F. Salloukh, “Anatomy of Corruption in Postwar Lebanon,” The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), May 2019, at:

[19] See Bassel F. Salloukh, “Here’s What the Protests in Lebanon and Iraq are Really About,” Washington Post, Monkey Cage Blog, 19 October 2019, at:

[20] For an excellent survey of the first weeks of the protests see Joey Ayoub, “Lebanon: A Revolution against Sectarianism,” CrimethInc., 13 November 2019, at:

[21] The text of the speech is reproduced at:

[22] The text of the speech is reproduced at:

[23] Namely, cabinet’s willingness to endorse a new budget without deficit.

[24] Well before the 17 October protests the pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper was reporting the protests in Iraq as part of a KSA and UAE plot to turn the tables against Iran. See, for example, Ibrahim al-Amin, “al-Iraq: Ayam lil-Ta’amur wal-Fasad wal-Tufuliya al-Thawriya,” al-Akhbar, 14 October 2019.

[25] The text of the speech is reproduced at:

[26] Interviews in Beirut throughout the first weeks of the protests with journalists with access to Hezbollah MPs.

[27] See the excellent analysis by Rabie Barakat, “Hezbollah wa Bo‘bo‘ al-Mujtama‘ al-Madani,” Awan, 27 November 2019, at:

[28] Hezbollah’s intelligence cadres were ubiquitous in Martyr Square during the first days of the protests.