In Ba‘lbek-Hermel, there was support for the Lebanese uprising until the main Shi‘a parties gained the upper hand.
From the start of Lebanon’s uprising in October 2019, villages in the northeastern region of Ba‘lbek-Hermel openly backed the protest movement, joining the calls for change in domestic politics.
The region is known for its deprivation but also its resistance to the marginalization and poverty it has experienced since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990. It has became a symbol for Lebanese protesters who seek a just state and more balanced development. But the region’s protesters were forced to back down from their revolutionary ardor, for fear of provoking the opposition of peers and family members who had adopted the discourse of the two main Shi‘a parties Hezbollah and Amal.
Support for Lebanon’s October 17 “revolution”—which had reached every village in the northern Beqa‘ Valley, from Ba‘lbek and nearby Douris to Laboueh, as well as the Sunni-majority towns of ‘Arsal and Fakeha—has now waned. Early on, activists took the tactical decision to limit their protests to the region’s two urban centers, Ba‘lbek and Hermel, where the population had diverse political affiliations that could help the movement weather Hezbollah’s attacks. The movement saw that Ba‘lbek was capable of facing down Hezbollah, thanks to its political and confessional diversity, with its large Sunni population alongside its Shi‘a population.
But Ba‘lbek and Hermel, despite being active from the start of the uprising, have since retreated. Hezbollah, a dominant force in the region, began accusing those who expressed opposition to corruption of treachery. The party sought to label them in ways bound to raise hackles in the region—“foreign proxies” or “traitors to the Shi‘a sect”—which could overrule Christians, Sunnis, and others sympathetic to the uprising.
The situation in Lebanon’s provinces can only be understood in the context of the sectarian political system in place since independence, and the dominant political forces—or those who represent each region in parliament and the executive branch. A quick overview of the 2018 parliamentary election results gives us an understanding of the governorate’s demographic and political reality. Ba‘lbek-Hermel has some 308,000 voters, including 226,000 Shiites, 42,000 Sunnis, and the remaining 40,000 voters divided among Christian sects, including Maronites, Greek Catholics, and a Greek Orthodox minority.
Candidates on the various lists were competing for ten seats. The Hope and Loyalty list led by the Hezbollah-Amal Shi‘a alliance won eight seats, while the Dignity and Development list of the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement won the other two—a Sunni seat in ‘Arsal that went to Bakr al-Hujeiri and a Maronite seat in Deir al-Ahmar that was won by Antoine Habshi.
The Ba‘lbek-Hermel electoral district has been represented continuously by Hezbollah and Amal since the 1992 elections—the first after the end of the civil war—in which they had won eight seats. They increased that figure to nine in the elections four years later, and then in 2000 they and their allies won all ten seats. This continued until the 2018 vote, when a proportional representation-preferential voting law allowed the Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces to make inroads. But that meant little with regard to the Shi‘a voting lineup. Neither Habshi nor Hujeiri garnered the backing of more than 800 Shi‘a.
The 2018 elections demonstrated an important political reality, with the Lebanese Forces winning a majority of the Christian vote, even in Greek Catholic villages including Qa‘, traditionally a stronghold of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Habshi came first there, as well as taking 800 votes in the Christian town of Ras Ba‘lbek, beating local parliamentarian Albert Mansour, who won only 500 votes in his hometown.
Beyond the numbers, Hezbollah’s status among Shi‘a voters as the “resistance” had great significance in a region that has given many of its sons to that effort. Hermel is known as the “city of martyrs.” Hezbollah has also managed to market itself as protecting the region from Sunni Islamist militants based in the border hinterland of Qusayr, which encompasses 23 Lebanese villages, as well as shielding them from the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in the ‘Arsal hinterland—including the Christian villages of Fakeha, Jadida, Ras Ba‘lbek, and Qa‘. It is in this context that the region’s protesters launched their first rallies on October 17, facing ever more pressure after the uprising was demonized and portrayed as targeting Hezbollah.
An examination of political and family factors surrounding the “revolution” in the region shows that public support for it has dissipated in the Shi‘a villages between Ba‘lbek and Hermel. This started after Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s televised address on October 19, two days after the outbreak of the uprising, in which he asserted that nobody could bring down the government. This was followed on October 25 with an address shortly after an attack by what he called “undisciplined elements” who beat up protesters and smashed protest camps in Riad al-Solh and Martyrs Squares in Beirut.
Baalbek was not cut off from events in Beirut. The region’s public, largely supportive of Hezbollah, began exerting psychological pressure on activists as soon as Nasrallah had indicated that the Shi‘a partnership of his party and Amal did not support the uprising. In the village of Laboueh, the uprising had unified youths with those of ‘Arsal following years of tense relations following the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. But activists there paused, seeking to avoid dragging the village into conflict.
At the start of the uprising, young Sunnis from ‘Arsal had visited their nearby Shi‘a neighbors and organized a unified protest against the government and the marginalization of the region. But on November 20 Hezbollah, seen as the main protector of the political system, mobilized opposition from supporters of the two Shi‘a parties during a rally on the road joining ‘Arsal and Laboueh. This forced the activists to change their strategy and take into account that Hezbollah’s supporters rejected any pro-uprising activities in Shi‘a villages.
The example of these two villages quickly spread to other communities in the area. Given the great influence of family pressure in the Beqa‘, and in order to prevent any conflict in the region, activists from Shi‘a villages decided to move their protests to the Sunni village of Zaitoun, where the Shi‘a parties have little presence. A short time later the uprising had lost its momentum entirely in the region, except at the Khalil Mutran Square in Ba‘lbek. Even there, the protests waned after Hezbollah attacked protesters, including with gunfire.
On June 6, 2020, hundreds of Lebanese protesters returned to the streets to protest against the government’s inability to rein in an accelerating economic collapse. The protesters adopted a variety of slogans and demands—from demanding urgent steps to prevent a collapse to toppling the government and holding early elections. But a small number of people with little popular support also demanded implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the “disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias”—including the armed wing of Hezbollah.
There was far from universal support for the slogan from those backing the uprising, who wished to avoid provoking the Shi‘a with emotional links to Hezbollah. But the party immediately began spreading rumors in Ba‘lbek and Hermel that the protest movement was targeting Hezbollah, its weapons arsenal, and even Shi‘a who were supportive of the uprising. Many in Ba‘lbek-Hermel were influenced by this propaganda and withdrew their support on the same day. June 6 thus became a turning point in Lebanon’s uprising.
With these factors in mind, it is clear that Hezbollah, and especially its supporters in Ba‘lbek-Hermel, fear any opposition and will use any means to demonize such action or portray it as threatening the security of the region—of which Hezbollah poses as being the sole guarantor. But the security of Ba‘lbek-Hermel, and of Lebanon as a whole, can only be assured by laws and institutions.