Hezbollah, like other parties in Lebanon, makes use of formal state institutions and instruments, as well as political alliances, to build and maintain influence.
One way Hezbollah influences the state is by having formal representation at ministerial, parliamentary and municipal levels. Hezbollah moved from a position that was antagonistic to the state, as set out in its 1985 manifesto, to fielding candidates in municipal and parliamentary elections in the 1990s after the end of the Lebanese civil war, and later going on to hold ministerial posts. The acquisition of government seats not only puts Hezbollah – like other ruling political parties in Lebanon – in a formal position of power, but also allows it to have de facto authority over state institutions and thus benefit from their resources and direct their activities in line with its interests.
Unlike other parties, however, Hezbollah also relies on its March 8 allies – over which it has the political upper hand – to extend its influence indirectly. The March 8 Alliance between Hezbollah and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), together with other smaller parties, was formed after the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. Many in Lebanon blamed Hezbollah and the regime of Bashar al-Assad for Hariri’s death, and large protests had ensued against Syria’s presence in Lebanon. Hezbollah led the formation of the March 8 Alliance in order to strengthen its position in the face of these protests, on the basis that aligning itself with the (weaker) Christian parties would afford it a sense of domestic political legitimacy while maintaining its dominance over its allies. A coalition of parties opposed to the Hezbollah-led alliance responded by declaring the formation of the March 14 Alliance; this group is led by the Future Movement (headed by Rafic Hariri’s son Saad Hariri), but in reality the Future Movement does not have the power to greatly influence the behaviour of other major parties in the alliance (the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party and the Progressive Socialist Party). This means that while Hezbollah is able to set the direction for the March 8 Alliance, the Future Movement is unable to do so for March 14. For all ruling political actors in Lebanon, power is exercised primarily though informal rather than formal means, even within state institutions. All such political parties exert their influence directly through the presence of their members and supporters in state institutions. In the case of Hezbollah, its ability to rely on March 8 allies within state institutions to behave in ways that serve its political, security and economic interests also allows the group to extend its reach beyond the presence of its members and supporters in those institutions – and thus without being directly responsible for the actions of those institutions.
Use of ministries
Like other ruling political parties in Lebanon, Hezbollah uses ministerial representation to serve its interests, but since 2008 the group’s influence in government has extended beyond the presence of the two Hezbollah ministers in any given cabinet. From 2008 until 2019, the group effectively had veto power in the Lebanese cabinet, as its members and supporters held a third plus one of all ministerial posts. In the aftermath of the mass anti-government protests that broke out on 17 October 2019, Lebanon saw for the first time the formation of a supposedly technocratic cabinet of 20 ministers. In reality, however, this administration, formed in January 2020, was entirely under the de facto control of Hezbollah, as its political opponents refused to join the cabinet following disagreements among members of the March 14 Alliance over how to respond to the October 17 revolution.
Having control over certain ministries allows Hezbollah – like Lebanon’s other ruling political parties – to direct ministry resources in ways that benefit its own constituents. The agriculture portfolio, for instance, was held by a Hezbollah minister from 2009 until 2014. In 2011 the party’s then minister of agriculture, Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, was accused by Antoine Howayek, president of the Farmers Syndicate, of ‘selectively distributing’ the benefits of the government’s new measures aimed at improving agricultural infrastructure. According to Howayek, many areas where agriculture is a dominant activity but which happen not to be populated by Hezbollah’s constituents – Jezzine, Aley, Hasbaya, Keserwan and Zahle – had fallen off the minister’s radar.
Control of ministries is also a source of revenue for Hezbollah, as is the case for other parties. From late 2009 to early 2014, for instance, the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR) was headed by Mohamad Fneish, a long-time senior Hezbollah official. Under Fneish, OMSAR – one of the government’s designated anti-corruption authorities – handled the tendering for solid waste management plants to be built, with funding from the European Union (EU), in northern Lebanon. Several years later, an investigative report published by the Turkish news outlet TRT World alleged that many of Lebanon’s EU-funded waste management projects were bogus, and that EU funds had been embezzled. Lebanon’s public tenders are not transparent or subject to measures of accountability, and Hezbollah’s apparent use of tenders to divert funds to companies affiliated with it is not unique to the party.
That Lebanon’s ruling political parties treat state institutions as a source of income is one of the reasons the country scores poorly in global rankings on corruption.
In the context of its intervention in the civil war in Syria, and the high number of wounded fighters incurred as a result, Hezbollah has sought to gain control of Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health by having one of its affiliates appointed as minister. The health minister in the government formed in 2020 (which became the caretaker administration after the government resigned following the explosion at Beirut Port in August) is Hamad Hassan, who was nominated for this role by Hezbollah. Hezbollah is insisting on being assigned both the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Finance in the next cabinet, which would grant it direct control over two key sectors that are tightly linked to its interests. Tactics like these are not uncommon among other political parties in Lebanon. In negotiations over the formation of the government in 2018 (which fell in 2019), the Future Movement lobbied (unsuccessfully) for the social affairs portfolio to go to one of its members. At the time of writing, too, the FPM was attempting to claim the energy ministry in the forthcoming cabinet. In the case of the Ministry of Social Affairs, such lobbying can be linked to the flow of international funds (chiefly meant to support refugees), as a result of which the ministry is seen as a lucrative resource for cash-strapped parties. In the case of the Ministry of Energy, the natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean are regarded as a future revenue stream for Lebanon and therefore a potential opportunity for parties seeking to act as brokers in the gas trade. That Lebanon’s ruling political parties treat state institutions as a source of income is one of the reasons the country scores poorly in global rankings on corruption.
While corruption within state institutions in Lebanon is pervasive, and most of the country’s ruling political parties engage in it in some way, Hezbollah stands out because of its involvement in global illicit activities. Ministerial control can help cover up such activities. For example, having control over the Ministry of Finance would help safeguard Hezbollah’s involvement in money laundering against state scrutiny, particularly in relation to cash flowing to Hezbollah from the Shia diaspora – a source of funding not enjoyed by other political parties in Lebanon. According to a leaked 2010 document from the research group Stratfor, published by WikiLeaks, one of the reasons Hezbollah insisted on having control of the Ministry of Agriculture is because the group had (at the time) been increasingly relying on ammonium nitrate (commonly used in fertilizers) for the manufacture of explosives as it was struggling to purchase and obtain military-grade explosives. It was reported in the document that Hezbollah was purchasing fertilizer from Syria through the ministry, and that the then agriculture minister, Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, ‘allegedly sells fertilizer shipments from Syria to Hezbollah agents, who in turn forward them to Hezbollah warehouses’. According to an eyewitness interviewed by the author of this paper in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s influence over the Ministry of Agriculture has also facilitated its trade in illicit drugs, with transport paperwork being falsified to declare illegal goods as seeds for use in agriculture.
Use of the civil service
Hezbollah cultivates its influence within state institutions not just at the ministerial level, but also through the civil service. Other political parties use the civil service to award public sector jobs to their constituents, but Hezbollah does this more systematically. Although the number of places for the Shia community in the Lebanese civil service is limited by quotas, Hezbollah helps Shia candidates in preparation for the Civil Service Board entrance examinations; and also, by one account, uses its influence in parliament and in government to put pressure on the board – be this to reduce the pass mark, should Shia candidates otherwise fail the exams, or to leak examination questions in advance, so the party can better prepare its own candidates.
Hezbollah’s influence through the civil service is another channel for generating revenue, as is the case with other parties in Lebanon. The director-general of each ministry has access to dedicated funds that can be deployed without the minister’s signature. This allows Hezbollah, like other parties in the Lebanese government, to access funds regardless of who is minister at any given time. The parties in government, including Hezbollah, acquire such funds through having ministries give grants to NGOs (some of which may be bogus) affiliated with them. The Ministry of Social Affairs, for example, funds Al Mabarrat Charity Association, which came under Hezbollah’s control following the death of its founder, and whose assets have been frozen in Lebanese banks since 2016 as a result of US sanctions. Shortfalls in funding from Iran since 2018, as a result of the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions strategy on Tehran, and the heavy casualties among Hezbollah’s fighters in Syria (as well as, to a lesser degree, the cost of its involvement in Iraq and Yemen), left Hezbollah unable to maintain its customary level of social services to its own community through its usual channels. In these circumstances, Hezbollah is reported to have used its influence over the director-general of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Judge Abdullah Ahmad (a Hezbollah member), to persuade him to allocate more budget, resources and services to make up for Hezbollah’s funding gap.
Use of other state institutions and decrees
Cabinet decrees regarding ‘public benefit associations’ are a mechanism by which Hezbollah and other Lebanese parties are able to import customs-exempt goods. However, Hezbollah also uses these decrees to create a cover for some of its security activities. Once designated a public benefit association, an organization is eligible for aid from government and municipalities and is exempt from all taxes and fees as well as from customs on all purchases. One of Hezbollah’s organizations to have been granted a decree is Jihad al-Binaa Association (date of decree: 25 October 2000). Jihad al-Binaa is directed by Hezbollah’s Executive Council, and includes various entities dealing with construction, agriculture, water, roads, industry and environmental protection, in addition to a technical department. It operates in partnership with many Lebanese government entities, especially through municipalities and unions of municipalities in Shia-majority areas. Hezbollah uses its influence to compel municipalities and state institutions to work with the association, especially when it comes to agricultural planting projects, water and sanitation, and vocational training for farmers. In 2014, the Ministry of Agriculture, then under Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, signed an official cooperation protocol with Jihad al-Binaa to provide a wide range of agricultural activities and training. This way of working allows Hezbollah to take credit for any project undertaken by the ministry through Jihad al-Binaa.
Jihad al-Binaa has additionally been able to import construction materials (among other goods) to Lebanon without paying customs duties, and has used its ties with the Ministry of Transport and Public Works as a means to expand Hezbollah’s security infrastructure. Jihad al-Binaa covertly uses public money to expand Hezbollah’s underground infrastructure and security facilities. In 2005, Jihad al-Binaa registered a private sector company, Arch Consulting, that played a major role in developing Hezbollah’s technological capacities by cooperating with a company named Compu-House that sells computer software and imports technological devices. Compu-House’s founder and owner is the former director general of Jihad al-Binaa, Sultan Khalifa Asaad. The US Department of the Treasury sanctioned Arch Consulting and designated Asaad in September 2020.
The Martyr Foundation is another Hezbollah organization designated as a public benefit association (date of decree: 17 August 1995) that gains from working closely with a ministry. Through its receipt of funding from the Ministry of Public Health, it has effectively been able to acquire state-subsidized medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and ambulances. During the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic – at a time of rising public concern about the inadequacy of provision within Lebanon’s public hospitals – Hezbollah directed considerable media attention to its own possession of ambulances and medical equipment. But Hezbollah neglected to mention that its own resources had been acquired through the state mechanism. In this way, Hezbollah benefited from the Lebanese state materially, as well as through the public’s perception of state institutional weakness, which in turn made Hezbollah appear like a necessary complement to the state.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the pharmaceutical trade – both licit and illicit – is an important source of revenue for the group. Its activities in this area point to some of the extent of its entanglement in corruption.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the pharmaceutical trade – both licit and illicit – is an important source of revenue for the group. Its activities in this area point to some of the extent of its entanglement in corruption. In 2012, a scandal erupted whereby pharmaceutical companies linked to Abdel Latif Fneish, brother of senior Hezbollah official and former minister Mohamad Fneish, were found to be dealing in counterfeit medicines and forging the signature of the then health minister (Ali Hassan Khalil, who is close to the Amal political party, the other main Shia party in Lebanon and a close ally of Hezbollah). Abdel Latif Fneish did turn himself in to the authorities, but he was released on bail in 2014 and the case was closed. In 2021, the Ministry of Public Health (under Hamad Hassan) granted a licence to New Allpharma, owned by Abdel Latif Fneish, to import the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine into Lebanon. Other private companies affiliated with political parties not connected with Hezbollah received similar licences, as vaccines against the coronavirus became a new tool of political patronage and potential profiteering in Lebanon.
Unlike other non-Shia political parties, Hezbollah also sustains influence through Lebanon’s municipalities. In Beirut’s southern suburbs, all municipalities are exclusively controlled by Hezbollah, or otherwise nominally by Amal. The two groups formed the Union of Municipalities of Beirut Southern Suburbs, which acquires its own funds and can also pool funding from municipalities for projects, often financed by international assistance. The Union is responsible for running the area’s municipal police force, which works under the direction of Hezbollah but whose 1,000 members receive salaries from the state. Hezbollah directs the municipal police by appointing a local liaison officer from the group to coordinate with the head of the municipality.
Hezbollah’s control of the membership of Supreme Islamic Shia Council – a state institution affiliated with the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and therefore exempted from taxes and customs fees – also allows it to import a wide variety of goods through Beirut’s airport and port without paying customs fees.
Use of allies
Hezbollah has formed two major political alliances – through a mix of coercion and collusion – due to convergence of interests. Since the 1980s, Hezbollah has sought to subdue or crush its opponents, whether Shia or not. (With regard to the former, Hezbollah won battles against its then rival Amal in the 1980s. With regard to the latter, its members or affiliates have over the past decade and a half been linked to a series of assassinations of public figures associated with political groups opposing it, with one Hezbollah member having been found guilty by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon of the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005.)
Hezbollah’s alliance with Amal is particularly significant because the leader of Amal, Nabih Berri, has been speaker of the Lebanese parliament since 1992. In the context of the severe financial crisis that intensified in Lebanon in 2019, parliament responded to public calls for an audit of the Bank of Lebanon (the Central Bank) with the adoption of a non-binding decision – essentially, a watered-down measure – rather than legislation to require that a forensic audit be conducted. This can be partly attributed to the desire of the political elite to avoid scrutiny of their involvement in the banking sector, including money belonging to Shia individuals close to Hezbollah and Amal in the banking sector. Adopting reform principles but creating layers of procedures to make those principles impossible to implement sustains avoidance of accountability.
Since 2005, Hezbollah has also been in the March 8 Alliance with the Christian parties Marada and the FPM. The alliance with the FPM – the founder of which, Michel Aoun, is the current Lebanese president – has notably given Hezbollah oversight of the Lebanese state through having a key ally on the political front line while Hezbollah pulls the strings in the background. This alliance has allowed Hezbollah to maintain a relatively minimal direct presence in the government, as the flow of services to its constituents and support for its interests can be channelled through its allies, most importantly the FPM. And the FPM, through its alliance with Hezbollah, has been able to increase its support base within the Christian community by controlling more ministerial portfolios than any other Christian party and having the largest parliamentary presence among the Christian groups.
In entering an alliance with the FPM, Hezbollah had to support that party’s access to state and other financial resources, thereby consolidating Hezbollah’s collusion in the Lebanese system in which political and economic elites conduct deals to sustain their wealth and power.
The alliance has grown in influence since its inception in 2005. In 2018, Hezbollah and its allies gained the majority of parliamentary seats for the first time, winning 72 of the 128 seats, up from 44 for the Hezbollah-led alliance in the last set of elections in 2009. In both 2009 and 2018, Hezbollah candidates won a total of 13 seats. Working with allies thus allows Hezbollah to influence legislation in Lebanon. Even before the Hezbollah-led alliance secured a parliamentary majority, Hezbollah was able to mobilize alliance members to absent themselves from parliament – thus making it inquorate – during sessions at which a matter that was against Hezbollah’s interests was due to be discussed. From May 2014, when Michel Suleiman’s second presidential term expired, Hezbollah and its allies blocked the parliament and the cabinet for two years by not participating in sessions, in a concerted and ultimately successful effort to impose the election of Michel Aoun to the presidency.
Hezbollah is also able to exert influence through the work of parliamentary committees in which it and its allies are members. These committees review, amend and approve the content of legislation to be voted on by MPs. Hezbollah’s MPs and their allies are represented on all parliamentary committees, including the anti-corruption committee, and – like other members of the committees from other parties represented in parliament – are able to push for the indefinite postponement of reviews of legislation as a means of blocking measures that they regard as detrimental to their interests.
For instance, Hezbollah plays a significant role in the parliamentary committee for women and children, where it has blocked legislation intended to raise the age of consent for marriage, seeing the reform as taking power away from religious institutions that currently control personal status laws, such as the Shia Jaafari court.