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Lebanon fuel crisis hits Hizbollah heartlands

Lebanon’s crippling fuel shortages have already forced baker Ali Moazen to cut his production by a quarter and ration bread sales. Now they are threatening to put his entire business on ice.

“Today’s the last day for me,” said Moazen, 54, who needs diesel to bake and deliver goods in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, long a bastion of support for Hizbollah, the influential Shia Islamist paramilitary group and party.

“If there’s no diesel, then I’m not opening tomorrow.” Nor did Moazen have petrol — he said his car had been parked for five days. “I’m angry,” he added.

Nationwide fuel shortages, the latest manifestation of Lebanon’s long-running financial crisis, have not spared Hizbollah’s heartlands and are now testing support for the Iran-backed group, which with a powerful militia force and muscular political wing is considered the dominant power in the country.

As the crisis has deepened, Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, has blamed western powers for what he calls “an economic war”. As public resentment swelled in late August and queues lengthened at petrol stations, Nasrallah announced Hizbollah had arranged for its patron, Iran, to send oil to Lebanon.

“We are not taking the place of the state,” said Nasrallah in a televised speech of the oil shipment, which opponents said could put Lebanon in breach of US sanctions. “The aim is to help all Lebanese, [not just] Hizbollah supporters or the Shia.” Pro-Hizbollah newspaper Al Akhbar reported last week that one tanker had arrived in Syria, and its contents would be trucked to Lebanon.

Motorists come from all directions to try to fill their cars up in Jiyeh © Hassan Ammar/AP

It is little surprise to analysts that the group felt the need to take action. Districts that have traditionally supported Hizbollah are estimated to be among the areas worst-hit by deprivation. A study by a UN economic agency last week cited the regions of Bekaa and Baalbek-Hermel in the east, and Nabatiyeh in the south as particularly badly affected.

There is no polling data to show whether the crises are denting Hizbollah’s support. Its charitable organisations still provide aid to many while the state has been slow to help. But as the crisis hurt its constituents, Hizbollah had been unable to fulfil its traditional role of provider and protector, threatening an important source of its legitimacy within its community, said Hanin Ghaddar, fellow at the Washington Institute, a think-tank that has taken a hawkish line on Iran. With its heartlands reeling from the fuel crisis, the Iranian fuel was “part of their strategy to calm people”, added Ghaddar.

Chris Abi-Nassif, Lebanon programme director at the Middle East Institute, said: “Loyalty [for Hizbollah] is very pronounced, [but] it might not be unconditional, which might be why Hizbollah is trying to solve this [fuel crisis].”

Randa Slim, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said Hizbollah was under pressure to live up to promises to take care of its community. “If they are at least able to provide a short-term solution that can provide tangible improvement . . . Hizbollah’s credibility, reputational capital will improve.”

In recent years, Hizbollah, designated a terrorist group by the US and most large European nations, has increased its influence through alliances, becoming a dominant political player, “[but] the same power-sharing game has led the country nowhere”, said Mohanad Hage Ali, a Beirut-based fellow with the Carnegie Middle East Center. Now Hizbollah, deeply implicated in Lebanon’s state failure by its participation in successive governments, faces “difficult challenges, starting with their own areas”, where it increasingly faces questions about its role in a rotten political status quo.

A year after the blast at the port in Beirut devastated the capital, Lebanon has yet to form a government and Hizbollah’s opponents blame the group for this paralysis. At sporadic street protests, demonstrators have chanted slogans against Hizbollah and Nasrallah along with other political leaders and forces they blame for Lebanon’s deterioration.

Hizbollah is considered to effectively run a shadow state in southern Beirut’s suburbs, the eastern Bekaa Valley and much of south Lebanon, providing social services from education to health. As is the case elsewhere in Lebanon, fuel shortages in Hizbollah-run territory have disrupted supplies of everything from bread to water bottles.

In Nabatiyeh, the petrol shortage is so acute that Najdeh Chaabia Hospital had sent ambulances to collect nurses, said Mona Abouzeid, general director. Lack of staff had forced the hospital to merge general and paediatric wards two days earlier.

The non-politically affiliated hospital needs diesel for generators, because state-produced electricity supply has all but collapsed. “I didn’t [buy fuel from the black market] until now,” said Abouzeid. “But now I am obliged.”

Villages surrounding the hospital are festooned with black flags from recent annual Ashura rituals, observed by pious Shia. Streets feature posters of men who died fighting for Hizbollah. Loyalty has been reflected at the ballot box, too: Nabatiyeh’s Hizbollah representative, Mohamad Raad, won more votes than any other parliamentarian in 2018 elections, before the crisis started.

Despite these daily struggles, many in Nabatiyeh accept Hizbollah’s line and blame others for the problems. The Americans “are choking us”, said Hassan Raman, 67, who works at a water-bottling company struggling with price rises. “The Americans don’t want the Iranians to be in Lebanon because it’s not in their favour.” Raman credited Hizbollah’s control of the south with keeping the area safe. He held “the government and the [Lebanese] people” responsible for the crisis.

After Nasrallah announced Iranian oil deliveries, US ambassador Dorothy Shea unveiled a US-supported plan to bring Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to Lebanon via Syria. Raman considered that a cynical ploy: “Why didn’t they bring gas from Egypt before?”

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