April 7, 2017 | Policy Brief

Hezbollah Tests Lebanon’s Limits with “Drug Raid”

April 7, 2017 | Policy Brief

Hezbollah Tests Lebanon’s Limits with “Drug Raid”

Armed, masked Hezbollah units carried out an unprecedented police raid Friday night in the Dahiyeh, the extremist group’s south Beirut stronghold. The black-clad militia members targeted what they claimed were a number of drug warehouses. But rather than a demonstration of Hezbollah’s campaign against vice, the group ultimately meant the show of force as a challenge to the Lebanese state itself.

To maintain a broad base of Lebanese support, Hezbollah has traditionally been cautious about appearing to take over governmental prerogatives, even as it quietly works to erode the state’s legitimacy. With its motto “Army, People, Resistance,” Hezbollah seeks to convey the impression that its armed activities complement, rather than replace, those of the Lebanese Armed Forces. Even when its gunmen forcefully seized swathes of Beirut from the government in May 2008, it shortly handed those areas over to the army.

More recently, Hezbollah presented its push for a new electoral law framework – one that unsurprisingly would increase its own parliamentary share – as a bid for more equitable representation of all Lebanese. And while Hezbollah’s security units have been deployed in Beirut’s southern suburbs in the past, it was previously only to provide security for its events or visiting VIPs.

By contrast, Friday’s show of force was a police action, which in Lebanon, as anywhere, is the prerogative of the elected, civilian government. Hezbollah black shirts hit the streets without the coordination of Lebanese police, and targeted drug dealers and gangs whom the group and its supporters claimed the state’s security forces were incapable of arresting.

The fact that Hezbollah undertook this police action in its own Dahiyeh stronghold should not minimize its significance. Since adopting a strategy of outward moderation and pragmatism in the early 1990s, the organization has pursued its goals – which are ultimately sectarian and theocratic – in gradual, often imperceptible steps. Rather than an indication that the group had “Lebanonized,” that shift was an attempt to forestall other Lebanese uniting against it.

That is precisely what happened in Friday’s “show of power,” as the group’s supporters are billing it. For one, Hezbollah was attempting to demonstrate its own prowess and the state’s impotence in handling even everyday matters. Equally important, Hezbollah sought to test how far it could push, and gauge the Lebanese response. If it could get away with taking over the prerogatives of the state in Dahiyeh, it would create a new status quo for maintaining order in areas under its control.

It is true that some Lebanese officials and politicians responded forcefully, enough for Hezbollah to dubiously claim that the incident was the initiative of local activists without the consent of the party’s central command. But the Lebanese who mattered most – Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally – said not a word. It was three days before Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, whose ministry controls the police and whose authority Hezbollah had directly challenged, denounced the move.

Hezbollah may work through Lebanon’s institutions, but is neither loyal to them nor has accepted the state’s legitimacy. The group’s end goal remains replacing the secular state with a Shiite Islamist model based on that of its patron, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Still, the group is too savvy to do so all at once. Given the tepid official response to last weekend’s blatant usurpation of government authority, Hezbollah will be emboldened to try again soon. If the Lebanese give up on their country, the Party of God will be more than glad to take it.

David Daoud is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on Hezbollah. Follow him on Twitter @DavidADaoud


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