Lebanon: Hezbollah seeks to deflect anger by fueling clientelism | Business and Economy News

Beirut, Lebanon – When the first convoy of Iranian diesel fuel brokered by Hezbollah arrived in Lebanon earlier this month, it drew a mixed reaction.

While some feared the Iranian-backed party would use it to further assert dominance, others hailed the fuel as temporary relief amid a crippling energy crisis. And for Hezbollah supporters, it was hailed as a victory.

On September 16, truck convoys crossed the Syrian border into the cash-strapped country and through its eastern province to Baalbek. Along the way, Hezbollah-affiliated municipalities posted banners with photos of the leader of the Iran-backed group, Hassan Nasrallah, alongside his trusted allies, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian Supreme Leader , Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Zealous Hezbollah supporters challenged Nasrallah’s orders not to congregate near the trucks. The women howled as they would at a wedding, waved festive flags, and threw rice and flowers at the trucks. They raised their fists chanting, “We hear your call, Nasrallah!

During this time, several men pulled out assault rifles and fired shots into the air. Some even fired rocket propelled grenades (RPGs).

Supporters saw this as a victorious challenge to US sanctions against Hezbollah and the Syrian government, which they say resulted in an economic blockade of Lebanon.

Iranian fuel from the Syrian port of Baniyas was transported to the warehouses of the Hezbollah-affiliated, US-sanctioned Amana Fuel company.

Hezbollah is giving away a month’s worth of fuel to some institutions in need – such as public hospitals, the Lebanese Red Cross, the Civil Defense Forces and orphanages – while giving it to others at slightly cheaper prices. than on the black market.

More Iranian fuel is expected to be delivered to Lebanon as part of a four tanker shipment which, according to Iran’s Oil Tanker Trackers export monitor, contains a total of 33,000 metric tons of oil and would need 792 trucks to deliver. the delivery.

A crippling electricity crisis that has worsened dramatically in recent months has left Lebanon in the throes of long power cuts, with ordinary Lebanese struggling to afford the rising costs of private generators and barely functioning hospitals as they struggle to get enough fuel.

The energy crisis comes as Lebanon is plunged into an economic crisis that has left nearly three quarters of the population in poverty. The currency has lost around 90% of its value since 2019.

Despite reports of the “blockade”, anger over the economic and energy crises has grown against the Lebanese ruling elite, made up of political parties and private sector cronies who represent the mosaic of religious sects in the country. Lebanon.

Hezbollah, a close ally of President Michel Aoun and President Nabih Berri, has not been spared this anger and resentment.

Analysts say Hezbollah is trying to fill the void left by the cash-strapped state in response to growing condemnation from a weary population of financial mismanagement and corruption.

“The ruling elite – whether it’s ruling political parties or the Central Bank – got us to where we are today, and then we have Hezbollah exploiting the situation and coming to the rescue. “said Sami Atallah, founding director of Beirut. think tank The Policy Initiative, told Al Jazeera.

“For their constituencies, they are presented as heroes. They are trying to show that they can take matters into their own hands to alleviate their suffering.

But some institutions are more willing to accept fuel than others.

“Demonstration of resistance”

Jihad Chihimi, who oversees maintenance at the government-run Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, told Al Jazeera that the hospital only receives six hours of state power a day and is forced to ” use generators to fill the gap.

“We have enough diesel fuel for the generators for a few more days, depending on the length of the outages. But it’s something that we try to secure on a day-to-day basis without any real stability, ”he said.

The hospital has relied heavily on donations for diesel, but continues to ration its supply, sometimes turning off air conditioners and opening windows instead.

But the hospital has yet to decide whether it will accept a fuel donation from Hezbollah.

Many fear that accepting the fuel will have undesirable consequences by possibly violating sanctions, making them beholden to the party as its beneficiaries, or even losing the trust of their clientele.

Chihimi declined to comment on this aspect of the fuel shipment. A spokesperson for the hospital said they had not contacted Amana for a fuel donation.

For others, the decision to accept the fuel negotiated by Hezbollah is straightforward.

“I say ‘khosh amadid’ [“welcome” in Farsi] Iranian fuel, ”said Assaad Nakad, who heads the private energy distribution company Electricity du Zahle in eastern Lebanon.

Atallah says that Hezbollah’s patronage and political patronage networks have always stood out from its political allies and adversaries because it has the “most resilient patronage networks.”

“All political parties have their patronage, but Hezbollah is much more institutionalized than all the others,” he said.

Amid the economic crisis in Lebanon over the past two years, Hezbollah has further expanded its social protection and economic support programs.

When Lebanese banks blocked depositors from their bank accounts, Hezbollah supporters turned to the party’s financial arm, the Al-Qard Al-Hassan association which, although registered as a charity, operates. like a bank with dozens of branches and even ATMs.

Supporters have used it as an alternative to safely deposit and withdraw dollars they’ve collected from commercial banks, and to take out small, interest-free dollar loans, at a time when most banks stopped giving. loans.

And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Lebanon, Hezbollah quickly introduced some 25,000 medical volunteers and a fleet of ambulances on a media tour, and unveiled two redeveloped testing centers and a hospital for patients. with coronavirus.

In response to Lebanon’s alarming inflation, among the highest in the world, Hezbollah has deployed a chain of supermarkets that sell Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi products at discounted prices to vulnerable families, with special cards issued by the left.

Joseph Daher, author of The Political Economy of Hezbollah in Lebanon, says the party has deepened its patronage networks in Lebanon to meet the immediate socio-economic needs of his constituency. But that’s only part of the story, he says.

“The main reason for this is political: to make statements against the United States and symbolically deliver to its constituents,” Daher told Al Jazeera.

“The key issue for Hezbollah is to consolidate its hegemony over the Shiite population in Lebanon, and that is why it has increased all kinds of services in Lebanon, even with a decreasing importance of the state,” he said. added.

Daher says that Hezbollah’s response to the Lebanese crises over the past two years undermines his claims that the party is in financial difficulty.

“When people say that they have had financial difficulties since 2011, well, I see just the opposite,” Daher said. “When you see the number of people who work for Hezbollah, it has increased. “

While Hezbollah’s sources of revenue are opaque, the United States continues to sanction individuals and businesses in a handful of countries it describes as “financial conduits” to the party.

“People think Iran cut aid to Hezbollah, but because of its economic suffering under the sanctions,” Daher told Al Jazeera. “But the funding does not go through official networks. “

Daher says that aside from Iran’s backing, Hezbollah is active with businesses in commerce and real estate, but “no one really knows how much it’s worth.”

Hezbollah and the Amana Fuel Company did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, despite Hezbollah-brokered fuel shipments, millions of people in Lebanon are reminded that the country is far from being on the road to recovery.

Even though Lebanon formed its first full government in more than a year earlier in September, many are skeptical of its ability to deliver on its promises to pull the country out of the quagmire and introduce economic reforms to unblock it. foreign aid.

Meanwhile, senior politicians continue to block the investigation into the Beirut port explosion that flattened the capital.

But with parliamentary elections slated for next year, Hezbollah’s resilient patronage networks have the ability to scale up where others cannot.

“You turn on the television and you see this show of resistance and power for a few seconds,” Atallah told Al Jazeera, of the footage of tankers entering the country.

“But then in the imagination and in the psyche of Hezbollah’s constituency, it will stay. I am sure they will bring him back to the election.

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