In January 2011, before the arrival of the wave of massive sociopolitical and geostrategic change that has spread through the Middle East, the regional balance of power began shifting in Beirut, when the Hizb Allah-led opposition forces resigned from Saad Hariri’s executive cabinet, leading to the collapse of the “pro-Western” March 14 government and to the rise of a Hizb Allah-dominated parliamentary majority. In the months following its “takeover” of Lebanese domestic politics, Hizb Allah is now capitalizing on its enhanced domestic status while attempting to improve its regional standing and power. To do so, Hizb Allah has been following the Arab spring closely, while using its political and military power to support—mostly indirectly—popular revolutions in the Middle East and to increase its regional involvement.
This article explores Hizb Allah’s response to the ongoing protests in the Middle East and analyzes both the group’s direct and indirect support for these movements, as well as the strategic shift that took place within the Lebanese-Shi`a organization in reaction to what the group views as a favorable shift in the regional balance of power.
Embracing the Protest Movements
Hizb Allah’s stance with respect to the ongoing protest movements in the Middle East has been one of unequivocal support. This should not come as a surprise. Since the end of the July 2006 war against Israel, the group has gradually shifted away from its traditionally conciliatory strategy with respect to existing Arab regimes. Instead, in the aftermath of its 2006 confrontation with Israel, Hizb Allah has been vocal in expressing its hostility with respect to the so-called “moderate Arab regimes,” while advocating in favor of radical change in the region. For instance, during the September 18, 2009 al-Quds (Jerusalem) day celebrations, Hizb Allah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah clearly stated that “we have to replace the regimes in the Arab countries with other regimes that are convinced of war in order to send their armies to war.” Under this predicament, regime change among “moderate” countries (including Mubarak’s Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) is seen as an important step to strengthen what the group defines as the Iranian-led “axis of resistance.”
Accordingly, following the outbreak of mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Hizb Allah has been extremely vocal in expressing its ideological support for these movements.
During his first public display of support for the Tunisian and Egyptian people on February 7, 2011, Nasrallah explained that his group’s initial silence over these movements’ achievements was a measure adopted to shield them from criticism. In fact, he argued that if Hizb Allah would have openly sided with them at an early stage, “it would have been said that the demonstrators in Tahrir Square…are motivated by cells affiliated to Hizb Allah or Hamas…or to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.” Following this initial expression of solidarity and vow to “defend” the revolution and campaign in the media to ensure its popularity, Hizb Allah has maintained a high level of indirect support for the protest movements in both Tunisia and Egypt.
The fall of the Egyptian regime, specifically, has been especially welcomed by Hizb Allah, which saw in the demise of Mubarak also the decline of one of the group’s main regional opponents. Defined by the organization as an Israeli and American puppet, Mubarak had been critical of the Lebanese-Shi`a group during the 2006 Lebanon war and, in the past few years, Hizb Allah has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the Egyptian regime, criticizing its relationships with Israel, its opposition to Hamas, and its role during the 2009 Gaza War, and going as far as calling for a popular uprising against the government.
In addition, the Egyptian ousting of Mubarak has another, very concrete, implication for the Lebanese group: it led to the escape of Sami Chehab (Muhammad Youssef Ahmad Mansour), the leader of the Hizb Allah-affiliated Egyptian cell who—along with 26 more alleged Hizb Allah militants—was convicted in April 2010 by the Supreme State Security Court on charges of conspiracy to perpetrate terrorist acts. On February 2, 2011, following the beginning of the popular unrest within Egypt, Chehab and the other Hizb Allah militants managed to escape from the Wadi el-Natrun prison, where they had been detained. A couple of weeks later, on February 16, 2011, Chehab was spotted during a Hizb Allah-organized demonstration in Beirut, where Nasrallah explicitly stated that “this [Egyptian] revolution was the true reason behind the liberation of brethren captive Muhammad Mansour who is participating in our celebration and whom we welcome whole-heartedly.”
In the weeks following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Hizb Allah continued with its line of indirect support, openly speaking in favor of the protest movements in Yemen and Libya, while investing particular efforts in supporting the popular protest movement in Bahrain.
In the case of Bahrain, Hizb Allah immediately spoke out in indirect assistance of that country’s Shi`a population, while sharply condemning what the group saw as “excessive” use of violence against the protestors. Nasrallah’s accusations against Bahrain in his March 19 speech eventually led to the country to file an official protest, with Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaykh Khalid bin Hamad al-Khalifah declaring they would hold Lebanon responsible for such statements and that, if the criticism continued, it would directly affect the bilateral relations of the two countries.
In addition, in the case of Bahrain, the group’s involvement could have extended beyond indirect support, into direct participation, although evidence proving this is thin. While the Bahraini government’s accusations against Hizb Allah should be taken lightly—as the Bahraini government has a direct interest in depicting the local protests as a “foreign plot”—there have been past connections between the local Shi`a community in Bahrain and the Lebanese-Shi`a militia. As a result, Hizb Allah’s involvement in Bahrain is not an entirely new phenomenon: a recently leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008 already contained allegations that the country’s opposition had been receiving training from Hizb Allah. More recently, in the wake of the local protests, the Bahraini authorities arrested a number of Lebanese nationals, accusing them of being Hizb Allah militants. On March 30, the Bahraini foreign minister, in an interview with the Saudi newspaper al-Hayat, accused Hizb Allah of involvement in the local protests, stressing that the country defined the group as a “terrorist organization.” Hizb Allah responded to these accusations by denying any link or involvement, consistent with the group’s strategy of rejecting accusations of any regional activism.
The only exception to Hizb Allah’s indirect and alleged direct support for the protest movement across the region has been, unsurprisingly, with respect to Syria. In the case of its traditional political ally, in fact, the group has refrained from supporting the protests, while the Hizb Allah-controlled media has been engaged in a campaign to discredit the anti-regime movement by downplaying its size, or by accusing the protesters to have been paid to take part in the anti-regime demonstrations. In addition, since February 2011 there have also been reports of Hizb Allah units deployed along the Lebanese-Syrian border to monitor the situation and assist Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Hizb Allah’s Strategic Realignment: Emerging as a Stronger Regional Actor?
In Hizb Allah’s worldview, the ongoing protest movements, from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, are seen as marking a watershed for the region, and the group has been trying to capitalize on the ongoing social and political unrest to strengthen its regional standing and increase its strategic alliances.
To accomplish this, the group has linked the protest movements to its own “resistance” agenda and has attempted to portray the ongoing revolutions as part of a regional realignment away from the West and closer to the Shi`a organization and its allies, especially Iran. For instance, in his February 7, 2011 speech, Nasrallah claimed that the ongoing protests represented “the revolution of the poor, the free, the freedom seekers and the rejecters of humiliation and disgrace which this [Egypt] nation was subject to due to giving up to the will of America and Israel…It is the revolution…against…the regime’s policy in the Arab-Israeli struggle.”
In addition, he compared the protest movements to “the Lebanese resistance in July War 2006 and the historic steadfastness of the Palestinian resistance during Gaza War in 2008,” again riding the wave of regional turmoil to promote its cause.
In addition to this propaganda campaign to shape the understanding of the ongoing political unrest in a way that is favorable to the group’s agenda, Hizb Allah has also been promoting the idea that—as a consequence to the regional changes—the group’s strength and power have increased exponentially.
In Hizb Allah’s discourse, the end of the Mubarak regime is described as tantamount to the beginning of the “ousting” of the U.S. allies from the region and to the parallel rise of the “resistance axis.” In his February 16, 2011 speech, Nasrallah eloquently explained this paradigm by stating: “The major blow to the resistance…was the participation of the Egyptian regime in Camp David Agreement and consequently the emergence of Egypt from the Arab-Israeli struggle.” The fall of Mubarak is then seen as marking the end of the Israeli-Egyptian detente, which will in turn change the balance of power in the Arab-Israeli conflict in favor of the “resistance.” Similarly, the political unrest in the broader Middle East is also seen as a sign of the local populations embracing Hizb Allah’s agenda of “resistance.”
In other words, Hizb Allah believes the current regional changes are weakening Israel and the United States and strengthening itself, along with its main regional partner, Iran. As a result of this perceived geostrategic advantage, the group has been more vocal in articulating its post-2006 military strategy with respect to Israel. This new approach, first disclosed in the aftermath of the 2006 war, is centered on strategic parity and proportional retaliation in the context of a renewed conflict with the Jewish State. Even if the shift in military doctrine is not necessarily a new element, in the aftermath of the Arab spring Hizb Allah has been more eager to publicly articulate this notion. As early as mid-February, Nasrallah stated that, in the course of the next round of confrontation with Israel, Hizb Allah would respond to territorial invasion by the Israeli Defense Forces with its own territorial invasion, by sending its units to occupy the Galilee region. This concept was further reiterated by Hizb Allah MP Hassan Fadlallah, who said that Hizb Allah was planning on “taking control of land in return for taking control of land,” also confirming the group’s renewed self-perception of power and its desire to use the regional events as a weapon in the psychological war against Israel.
Moreover, the same self-perception of strength has led the group to pursue an even more aggressive foreign policy with respect to the Arab regimes that it deems too “moderate” or hindering the formation of a regional “resistance axis.” The ongoing campaign against Bahrain, for example, has to be interpreted as part of this larger anti-status quo policy. Within Lebanon, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri explained this posture by stating that Hizb Allah wants to use Lebanon as a “base to fuel internal conflicts in the Arab countries,” while attempting to export the revolution “Iranian-style.” Hariri also specified that the “campaign targeting Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and all the GCC states is—to say the least—the implementation of a foreign operations order,” alluding to the strategic interest of Iran in forcing the implosion of the “moderate” Arab regimes and the regional shift toward its sphere of influence.
Hizb Allah reacted to the ongoing processes of sociopolitical and geostrategic change at the regional level by openly siding with the revolutionary protest movements. For the most part, this support has expressed itself indirectly, with the group employing its media apparatus and its grassroots network to promote the Arab revolutions. In addition, in the case of Bahrain, the open political support may have been matched by more direct involvement in the protests, allegedly through providing logistical assistance to the local protesters (although the evidence provided by the authorities in Bahrain to substantiate this claim is at the moment thin).
The reason behind the group’s unequivocal standing behind the local protest movements goes well beyond ideological affinity with these movements and their agendas, or “Arab solidarity.” Specifically, Hizb Allah sees the wave of regional change as a key element in shifting the regional balance of power away from the West and its local allies, and in empowering the “resistance axis.” Furthermore, Hizb Allah believes that such changes are equally beneficial to the group, boosting its regional status and power, as well as its military leverage on Israel, and leading it to more openly embrace its post-2006 “tit-for-tat” military doctrine with respect to Israel.
Whether Hizb Allah is accurate in its assessment of a new era of regional alliances remains to be seen. Yet the fact that Hizb Allah currently believes it is in a position of strength domestically, regionally, and with respect to Israel will have an important impact in its future strategy and foreign policy.
Dr. Benedetta Berti is a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University specializing in terrorism and political violence in the Middle East. She holds a Ph.D. and an MA in international relations and security studies from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
 “Nasrallah Commemorates Al-Quds Day,” speech transcript, September 18, 2009, translation by Mideast Wire.
 “Speech Delivered By Hezballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah During The Solidarity Rally With Egypt That Was Held In Ghobairy Municipality Square – Jnah,” press release, Hizb Allah, February 10, 2011.
 Benedetta Berti, “Hizb Allah’s Domestic Containment and Regional Expansion Strategies,” CTC Sentinel 2:11 (2009).
 Yasmine Saleh, “Egyptian Court Convicts 26 Men Of Hizballah Links,” Reuters, April 28, 2010.
 “Sami Chehab and Members of the ‘Egypt Cell’ Escape Natroun Prison,” al-Rai al-Aam, February 2, 2011, translation by Mideast Wire.
 Dominic Evans, “Hezballah Chief Threatens To Seize Control Of Galilee,” National Post, February 17, 2011.
 “Speech Delivered By Hezballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah During A Ceremony Marking The Anniversary Of The Martyr Leaders Held In Sayyed Ashuhada Compound On Wednesday February 16, 2011,” press release, Hizb Allah, February 19, 2011.
 “Hizb Allah Condemns ‘Heinous Crimes,’” al-Manar, March 18, 2011.
 “Commenting on the Bloody Repression that Targeted Protesters in Bahrain,” press release, Hizb Allah, March 17, 2011.
 Youssef Diab, “Lebanese Officials Trying to Contain Effect of Nasrallah’s Statement,” Asharq al-Awsat, March 22, 2011, translation by Mideast Wire.
 Oren Kessler, “Iran’s Opposition to Hold Mass Protest Today. Demonstrators Return to Bahrain Capital’s Central Square. Wikileaks: Bahraini Opposition Got Training From Hezbollah,” Jerusalem Post, February 20, 2011.
 “Bahraini Security Arrests Hezbollah Members, Controls Turbulent Areas,” al-Watan, March 18, 2011; Al-Akhbar, March 23, 2011, translation by Mideast Wire; Sandeep Singh Grewal, “‘Hizbollah Links’ Five Arrested,” Gulf Daily News, March 24, 2011.
 Raghidah Dirgham, “Interview with Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaykh Khalid Bin-Hamad Al Khalifah,” al-Hayat, March 30, 2011.
 Yusuf Diyab, “Lebanon: Hezbollah Denies Training Bahrainis and Underlines its Political Support for the Opposition. Source in ‘14 March’ Warns of Danger of its Interference in Other Countries’ Affairs,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 1, 2011.
 “Lebanese Hezbollah TV Reports ‘Million-Strong’ Rallies Backing Syrian President,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, March 30, 2011.
 “Hizbullah Used in Syrian Security,” Middle East Newsline, February 7, 2011.
 “Speech Delivered By Hezballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah During The Solidarity Rally With Egypt That Was Held In Ghobairy Municipality Square – Jnah.”
 “Speech Delivered By Hezballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah During A Ceremony Marking The Anniversary Of The Martyr Leaders Held In Sayyed Ashuhada Compound On Wednesday February 16, 2011.”
 “Resistance Setting New Equations to Protect Lebanon,” al-Manar, February 19, 2011.
 “Al-Hariri: Hezbollah Demanding Change, Iranian-style,” March14.org, March 22, 2011, translation by Mideast Wire.