Hezbollah is incurring significant losses in popularity among other sects due to rising crime rates in the northern Bekaa Valley – an area where the party enjoys wide influence and support – a senior political source close to the March 8 camp told The Daily Star Sunday. Since the the conflict in Syria erupted three years ago, organized crime rates, particularly kidnapping for ransom, have grown significantly. Kidnappers usually hail from the deprived, cannabis-growing province of Baalbek-Hermel, where Hezbollah dominates.
Though Hezbollah is believed to have turned a blind eye for years to illegal practices in the area – including cannabis cultivation, drug dealing, kidnappings and car theft to list only a few – in a bid to win the confidence and votes of the area’s clans, last week’s kidnapping of the son of a Lebanese Forces-affiliated Zahle businessman will prove to be a game changer.
When 9-year-old Michel Saqr, allegedly kidnapped by men hailing from the Baalbek village of Brital, was safely returned to his family in Zahle early Saturday, his father Ibrahim thanked LF leader Samir Geagea for making the necessary contacts to secure his release.
“Whether we like it or not, Hezbollah’s leniency toward security breaches in the Baalbek-Hermel area could be interpreted as giving a cover for criminals to pursue their activity,” the source said.
According to him, the abduction of a child was a “grave mistake committed by people who support Hezbollah, unfortunately.”
“Hezbollah has offered the biggest gift to its political opponents,” the source continued. “Hezbollah’s rivals will use this incident as part of their relentless attempts to diabolize the party.”
After Lebanon’s Civil War, Hezbollah struggled to erase the radical image associated with it and embrace a more open, dialogue-based one. The party’s efforts culminated in signing a memorandum of understanding with the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun in 2006.
The source, however, argued that Hezbollah currently finds itself stuck between a rock and hard place.
“We are all aware of the peculiar dynamics of the Baalbek-Hermel area, where not only Hezbollah but also authorities need to walk a fine line when dealing with the region.”
The families of Baalbek-Hermel are organized into clans, with the typical dynamics of tribal feuds, shifting alliances and vendettas.
Over the weekend, a local TV station was able to interview Michel Saqr’s suspected kidnapper Maher Tleis, but lacking adequate political cover, the authorities did not move to arrest him.
The source, who was once in charge of maintaining law and order in the Baalbek-Hermel region, said it was imperative for Hezbollah to join forces with authorities to come up with a long-term plan to curb crime in the northern Bekaa Valley.
“Let’s be realistic, it’s definitely not the responsibility of parties – Hezbollah in this case – to maintain law and order within their communities, but it is that of the state rather,” he said.
“We must also emphasize here that not all the supporters of Hezbollah, or any other party for that matter, are good or honest people,” the source said.
In order to avoid a bigger embarrassment for the party and taking into consideration the Lebanese authorities’ inability to devise long-term security plans to combat organized crime due the fact that it has exhausted resources in the war on terror, Hezbollah is urged to be proactive, the source said.
“Hezbollah, with the help of security agencies, should weave a solid network of contacts with the leaders of those clans so as to curb as much as possible the criminal activity or unruly members.”
But the source is realistic, saying that Hezbollah and the Lebanese security forces were preoccupied with other more pressing files.
“We should also note that times are changing and notions such as respect for the elderly and the rules of the clan are no longer valid,” the source said.
“Also, the people of Baalbek and Hermel used to grow and produce drugs but not consume them,” he explained.
“This is not the case anymore, and this renders individuals even bolder and more uncontrollable.”