For Hezbollah, having hybrid rather than ‘full’ state status is ideal for maintaining its objective of possessing and exercising power without responsibility to the Lebanese people.
It is sometimes assumed that non-state actors aspire to take over the state. The Lebanese group Hezbollah, however, follows a different trajectory in which having hybrid status rather than ‘full’ state status is optimal for the group’s objective of possessing and exercising power. This is because while Hezbollah has the military capability and coercive power to take over the Lebanese state, and while the latter regards Hezbollah as legitimate, the group has neither wide international legitimacy nor domestic legitimacy beyond its Lebanese loyalists; nor, too, does it hold ‘ideational power’ over Lebanese non-constituents – that is to say, it does not have the power to persuade non-followers to embrace its ideas. It therefore draws on hybrid tactics to acquire and sustain power in Lebanon. Since its inception in 1982, in the aftermath of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah has risen to become the most influential political party in Lebanon and to hold sway over the Lebanese state.
As a non-state actor, Hezbollah had to abandon its early objective of replacing the Lebanese state with an ‘Islamic state’ (as per its 1985 manifesto), as it became clear that in a multi-confessional country where no religious grouping or sect is the majority, there cannot be an absolute ‘winner’ representing one sect that is able to fully impose its ideology or authority beyond its core constituents.
Hezbollah spent years as an ‘outsider’ in Lebanese politics, focusing its activities in the 1980s and 1990s on social issues among its constituents and military operations to liberate the country from Israeli occupation. Social outreach to the Shia community was the first step in a process that the group presented as returning dignity to this community following years of government neglect, since southern Lebanon, where a large proportion of Shia reside, had often failed to benefit from the Lebanese state’s urban and rural development programmes. It achieved domestic legitimacy beyond the Shia community on the basis of its military operations against the Israeli occupation in Lebanon. But its status as a non-state actor meant that Hezbollah had limited power that came with an expiry date, in the form of an eventual Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon (as took place in 2000): critically, Hezbollah had to anticipate how to retain relevance the day after. It concluded that access to power in Lebanon is not achieved through sheer coercion, but through elite pacts and through taking advantage of weaknesses in the Lebanese state system and infrastructure. But Hezbollah equally did not want to acquire power by becoming an ordinary member of Lebanon’s elite political class. In order to retain power but not lose its exceptionality, it needed to straddle both sides of the state/non-state demarcation line. It had to become a hybrid actor.
Hezbollah’s hybridity can be defined as a status in which it is regarded as an actor from outside the Lebanese state, that does not take orders from the state, but that is granted legitimacy by the state on the basis of playing a supporting role in the defence of the state from external threats. Hybrid status therefore came to mean that Hezbollah acquired power without responsibility. This in turn allowed Hezbollah to have de facto public authority in Lebanon, whether alongside the state, in competition with the state, or in collaboration with the state.
While there has been significant focus on Hezbollah through the conceptual frameworks of its so-called ‘Lebanonization’, or of its being a ‘state within the state’, this paper instead shows that Hezbollah has grown in stature to be able to influence and control the state in Lebanon from within state institutions as well as outside them. A lot of Hezbollah’s actions vis-à-vis state institutions (like siphoning off state resources) are also done by other political parties in Lebanon. Unlike other parties, however, Hezbollah has always projected an image of itself as being ‘above’ corruption; it has cultivated influence and control over the state through a long-term, systematic approach that differs from the short-term approaches usually used by other parties; and it has managed to acquire sufficient control to become the strongest political actor in Lebanon, playing the role of power broker and agenda setter that Syria used to enjoy in Lebanon before 2011. This paper focuses on the methods that Hezbollah uses, and the factors it takes advantage of to hold sway over the Lebanese state.
The paper is mainly based on findings from field trips conducted by the author in Lebanon between 2005 and 2020, involving site visits in Beirut and southern Lebanon and face-to-face and online research interviews, as well as informal conversations with a wide variety of actors and stakeholders including members of political groups, the civil service, the military and the media. Information obtained from any one source was cross-checked with data gathered from other sources. The citations in the paper refer to the most recent main source relevant to the information cited.