BEIRUT: At a roadblock on the Beirut “Ring Bridge” in late October, Karim, a 19-year-old physical education student from Beirut’s southern suburbs, said the Lebanese uprising had made him realize that he had to cut ties with Hezbollah. “The most important thing in this revolution is that I put distance between myself and them,” he told The Daily Star, speaking in the early hours of the morning, as a fire crackled on the road in front of him.
“I already knew there were so many lies, but I mean, I live in Chiyah,” he said, referring to a Shiite-majority suburb where Hezbollah enjoys widespread support. “In the end the revolution revealed the game and gave me the bravery and reasons to move further away.”
Karim gestured to the protesters lounging on the road around him. “I am here to get rid of sectarianism. Look at us here, Christian, Sunni, Shiite - everyone is here. ... We can’t remove sectarianism if we stay with the sectarian regime.”
Karim is one of five former and current Hezbollah supporters who have told The Daily Star that they had become disillusioned with the party and its leadership.
Some noted the heavy-handed response to the protests from some Hezbollah supporters. Others said they had begun to question the judgment of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, a towering figure in Lebanon’s Shiite community.
In his initial speech on the protests, Nasrallah voiced support for the demands of demonstrators, but threw his weight behind caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government and President Michel Aoun, defying tens of thousands calling for their removal from office.
By Oct. 24, protests had not let up and Nasrallah took a more defiant tone. He called on his supporters to withdraw from the streets. He also claimed the uprising was being co-opted by political parties and funded by foreign embassies and the CIA. This coincided with the first of large clashes between Hezbollah supporters and protesters and security forces in Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square.
But even some in the crowd of pro-Hezbollah counterprotesters that day told The Daily Star that they believed party ministers and MPs were involved in corruption.
All they asked was that no one include Nasrallah alongside the other politicians being cursed on the streets.
“We are against all thieves and criminals, but the Sayyed [Nasrallah] is not one of them. We even hold the resistance [Hezbollah] accountable,” Hasan, an unemployed 21-year-old, told The Daily Star.
“There are many MPs, of course some of them are corrupt,” Ali, a 24-year-old who also said he was unemployed, told The Daily Star. “The important thing is that the sayyed has made sacrifices for this country. He is not a terrorist.”
Nasrallah, whose title “sayyed” denotes that he is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, is revered among a large portion of Lebanon’s Shiite community.
Still, Ahmad, a Beirut university student, said later that day that he believed Nasrallah should be criticized for his political decisions. “He is the one who appoints these ministers and MPs. OK, he is a religious figure, but he has a political side,” he said.
But Nasrallah’s speech, and the violence of some of his loyalists that day, had a chilling effect on the participation of those who were on the fence, said Kamal, who works in a Beirut mall.
Kamal reflected on his experience as a Shiite from nearby Zoqaq al-Blat, from where he had persuaded acquaintances to join him on the streets even though they had great respect for Nasrallah.
“When we came down to the revolution we were 10 to 15. By the end we were three. They all left because of the sayyed’s speech,” he told The Daily Star. “Even though many weren’t convinced, they became scared. ... There are some who would do anything he says - if he told them to burn the world they would do it. Many felt fear after the second speech.
“I didn’t go down to the protests for two days afterward, because there was no one to go with. No one wanted to go anymore, even if only 10 percent were convinced. They didn’t want to talk.”
He added that Nasrallah’s message had been clear: “We are with the regime.”
Hezbollah has for years worked to maintain an image of itself as uninvolved in the rampant corruption that has pervaded the Lebanese state for decades since the Civil War of 1975-90. In the lead-up to last year’s parliamentary elections, the party announced that battling corruption would be its priority and said no one would be spared.
Nasrallah devoted much of his most recent speech Monday to calling on the judiciary to fight corruption. He said Hezbollah would lift political cover from any public official or state employee associated with the party if the judiciary sought to pursue them.
“Start with us,” he said.
But for some, the image of Hezbollah being apart from the corruption of the state has been blurred by the party’s all-out support for Hariri and Aoun’s government.
The first days saw an unprecedented outburst of anger against the party in areas where it traditionally draws support, including Baalbeck, Nabatieh and Tyre.
At the outset of the protests, demonstrators attacked the office of the leader of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad, as well as two MPs affiliated with Hezbollah’s main political ally, the Amal Movement.
Despite repression from men affiliated with Hezbollah and Amal in Nabatieh and Tyre, protests have gone on defiantly in both locations, including Tuesday night.
Large protests have also continued in Baalbeck and Hermel, including in the town of Fakiha Sunday.
Rabih Tlaiss, a 25-year-old former Hezbollah fighter, was there.
Tlaiss counts several Hezbollah martyrs in his family and was himself wounded fighting in Syria. He left the group in 2013 and began advocating against it and “for a secular Lebanon free of sectarianism.”
“I felt like I was talking and talking and none of what I was saying led to anything,” he told The Daily Star at a tent set up by Baalbeck-Hermel residents near Riad al-Solh Square.
“Then this revolution came. Even after all the repression and games they have played, thousands from our society are coming out,” he said. “When I saw them in Fakiha Sunday, I felt I was seeing the fruits of my labor. You feel your heart grow.”
Still, Tlaiss said that for many poor residents of the region, financial interests were what counted. “Some people don’t even have the LL2,000 ($1.30) to get to the protest,” he said.
In a Nov. 1 speech, Nasrallah vowed that Hezbollah would keep paying salaries to people who worked for the party, even if the heavily indebted Lebanese state collapsed. But the Hezbollah leader also made a point of saying that the demonstrations had not made the party feel “anxious.”
“We are very, very powerful. There has been no time when the resistance was this strong,” he said. “Don’t say people have been shaken. No one has been shaken.”