Fissures in Hizballah's Edifice of Control

by Mona Harb , Lara Deeb | published October 30, 2012

For background on the struggles in the Bekaa Valley, see Marlin Dick, “Hizballah’s Domestic Growing Pains,” Middle East Report Online, September 13, 2010.

For more on the Hariri assassination, see Heiko Wimmen, “The Long, Steep Fall of the Lebanon Tribunal,” Middle East Report Online, December 1, 2010.

On August 15, Beirut awoke to the news that more than 20 alleged members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had been captured by a group calling itself “the military wing of the al-Miqdad family.” The group had sent footage to the al-Mayadin television network, which was quickly picked up by other local and international channels. In the clip, men dressed in camouflage and black ski masks, and gripping Kalashnikovs, surrounded two prisoners seated in a dark room. A man with his back to the camera posed questions to the prisoners, who replied that they worked for the FSA, on orders from Khalid al-Dahir, a Lebanese parliamentarian affiliated with the Future Movement, the Sunni-majority political party led by Saad al-Hariri. The questioner demanded the release of “our son” Hasan Salim al-Miqdad, abducted on August 13 by the FSA, on pain of further hostile action. [1]

Shortly after this video went public, more than 20 Syrian nationals and a Turk were kidnapped in the southern neighborhoods of Beirut, the area known as the dahiya, where the Shi‘i Islamist party Hizballah is the most powerful political presence. A journalist from Lebanon’s New TV, reporting live from the site of the al-Miqdad Family Association in the dahiya, interviewed a masked, Kalashnikov-toting man in black standing amidst several compatriots, similarly garbed. The kidnappings are “1 percent of what we can do,” he swore. [2]

The two broadcasts were ill received by the Lebanese political establishment, especially its March 14 segment, of which Hariri’s Future Movement is a major component. The predominant view in these circles was that Hizballah had orchestrated the abductions, using the al-Miqdads’ “military wing” as a proxy. Many found it inconceivable, in fact, that anyone other than Hizballah could be behind such operations in the dahiya, a place the party is thought to control completely. The FSA captors of Hasan Salim al-Miqdad had claimed he was a Hizballah member, supplying a plausible justification for a counterstrike. The deeper motive was assumed to be that Hizballah backs the regime of Bashar al-Asad in its bloody conflict with the FSA and other rebels.

This reasoning also resonated with the rampant conviction that the Syrian regime wants to export violence into Lebanon. Various figures denounced the abductions, attacking the state for its security failures, reprimanding the media for its generous coverage and bemoaning a premature end to the tourist season. March 14 MP Sami Gemayel of the Phalange warned, “If the government fails to carry out its constitutional obligations -- protecting the Lebanese, ensuring stability, putting an end to violations of the law and preventing the attendant use of arms -- a new Lebanon war is inevitable.” [3] Another March 14 MP and Future Movement leader, Nuhad al-Mashnouq, reminded Lebanese that “the current government was formed to sabotage the political situation and support the Syrian regime. It wants to put Lebanon on a path of confrontation with the Arabs and the West.” [4]

Many Lebanese, and the March 14 forces in particular, are wont to blame Hizballah for any and all security problems, especially those linked to the party’s next-door patron, Syria. Yet to do so is to miss the real story of the August abductions, which is that Hizballah does not in fact dominate the dahiya or the Shi‘i community in Lebanon. The kidnappings highlighted the growing clout of forces that are, in effect, rivals for power within that community.

The al-Miqdads

The al-Miqdads are a large extended Shi‘i family originally from Baalbak, the northeastern region of Lebanon bordering Syria. They are known in Lebanon as one of the main “tribes” (sing. ‘ashira, pl. ‘asha’ir) of that region, with “tribe” defined here as a “localized group in which kinship is the dominant idiom of organization, and whose members consider themselves culturally distinct,” but which does not necessarily have a single political leader. [5]

The al-Miqdads number 10-15,000, distributed across Lebanon. Members of the family have lived in southern Beirut since at least the 1950s and were among the first major property developers in the area. Early on, they worked closely with the mayor of Burj al-Barajna, who wanted to retain control of the communal land (musha‘) in Ouza‘i, along the sea, which the state was threatening to expropriate and sell to private agents. The al-Miqdads occupied the communal land and the mayor encouraged them to start building on it. At that time, rural in-migration was bringing more and more people to the southern periphery of the capital, where public works projects -- the airport, stadium and golf club, as well as embassies and government buildings -- offered plentiful jobs. By the 1960s, the al-Miqdads had initiated an informal real estate market in Ouza‘i, with basic infrastructural support provided by the municipality. They were thus supplying affordable housing to the hundreds of laborers moving to the city. During the late 1970s, the advent of civil war and the first Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon catalyzed a more urgent demand for land and affordable housing, as the Shi‘i population of the south was displaced and moved north. The al-Miqdads lost their exclusive hold on Ouza‘i real estate, but remained very influential there, having secured deeds through their connections to the Burj al-Barajna mayor.

Today, the al-Miqdads make up an important subset of the 30 percent of landholding Ouza‘i residents. Property owners in the seaside strip have consistently (and sometimes violently) defied the state’s infrastructural plans for three decades. In 1998, when the government’s Council for Development and Reconstruction wanted to resume construction of a highway connecting Beirut to southern Lebanon -- a project which required the bulldozing of hundreds of houses along Ouza‘i’s main artery -- residents clashed with the internal security forces. The Hariri representative on the ground was severely beaten. The highway was never built, as the Council resorted to an alternate route. It is common knowledge among Council decision-makers that urban planning in Ouza‘i must account for the demands of the locals, including the al-Miqdads.
   
The al-Miqdads are also involved in protecting the land and interests of the wealthy. The Golf Club of Lebanon is a private enterprise on public land in a zone of southern Beirut just inland from the Ouza‘i coast. Built in the 1950s, it brought the local elite together with foreign expatriates and tourists in an exclusive society with very expensive membership fees. The Club maintained normal operations throughout the civil war, even lengthening its course to 18 holes, as the informal neighborhoods just over the Club walls were expanding to house more displaced and impoverished Shi‘a. At no point, however, did the sprawl of shabby dun houses threaten to encroach on the well-watered greens; nor did its residents interrupt the elite at their play. Indeed, the young caddies carrying clubs and retrieving balls -- which often land unbidden in the yards and homes of the poor -- are mainly residents of Ouza‘i. Why have relations between the Golf Club and its environs taken this form? Anecdotal evidence points to the al-Miqdad family. In exchange for a number of informally negotiated privileges, including jobs for many al-Miqdads, the family has served as the Golf Club’s guardians for decades.

After the abductions, on the street and in social media, people began to joke about the al-Miqdads’ new means of making their influence felt. A mock Twitter feed called @MoqDaddy featured tweets about a “military wings” special at KFC and a request from the British government for advice on cutting off airport roads, so as to prevent WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from leaving London for asylum in Ecuador.

The humor bespeaks underlying anxiety about the al-Miqdads’ growing visibility in the country. In the summer of 2011, al-Miqdads were involved in a land dispute with the Maronite church in Lassa, a village inhabited by both Shi‘i Muslims and Maronite Christians in the mountains above the northern coastal town of Jubayl. Both groups claim rights to a plot owned by the church but historically farmed by Shi‘a. The media alleged that the Shi‘a were trying to usurp the territorial rights of the Maronites, and accused Hizballah of setting up a military base in Lassa. The dispute was eventually settled in the Maronite patriarch’s office after several meetings that included the area’s Maronite parliamentarians, Hizballah delegates and village dwellers. But the al-Miqdads and Hizballah are not simply two sides of the same coin.

Over the past few years, numerous, not very complimentary stories about the al-Miqdads have made the rounds in Beirut. The family lives mainly in “Hayy al-Miqdad,” a neighborhood close to Ruways, and named -- as many districts are -- after the majority of its residents. Hayy al-Miqdad has seen a great deal of construction during the 2000s, as older family buildings and garden houses are replaced with newer apartment complexes. The word on the street is that al-Miqdad men frequent construction sites asking the developers and foremen for money in exchange for protection for their new buildings, at the rate of $5,000 per completed floor. One developer who refused to comply arrived at his site one morning to find that the concrete slab poured the evening before had collapsed because someone had removed its steel retaining poles. The “accident” caused substantial damage to the completed floors below, and cost the developer thousands of dollars. Area residents are convinced that it was the al-Miqdads’ doing. Since then, developers have been careful to negotiate the “protection payments” to secure their operations. The only buildings spared these costs are those being built by people with family ties to the al-Miqdads.

Unrelated people who live nearby have begun to express other fears of the family. As one long-time Ruways resident told us in July 2012, “Our area is no longer safe. You can’t walk around anymore. You never know when the al-Miqdads will start shooting at someone.” This woman was not only complaining about the family, but also describing her sense that Hizballah no longer polices her neighborhood as in the past. Other southern Beirut dwellers point to the al-Miqdads’ involvement in drug trafficking and other crime. It is not just hearsay: Hizballah has called in the army at least twice to help settle inter-family conflicts in which al-Miqdads have used firearms.

The family may be best understood as a mafia, or a criminal syndicate organized around kinship. Lebanon’s political and economic life is usually analyzed in terms of confessions or sects, but kin-based enterprises -- legitimate business, illegal activity and all that lies in the murky space in between -- are just as typical, if not more so. The kidnappings in August, however, are the first time that the al-Miqdads have advertised a “military wing,” marking a new phase in the flexing of family muscle in the dahiya and beyond.

Unsettled State

The August abductions have further unsettled the position of Hizballah in Lebanese society, as well as within the Shi’i community. The tension has been mounting for years, starting in 2005, with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the polarization of the country between the March 14 coalition demanding the departure of Syrian troops and the Hizballah-led March 8 coalition that rallied to “thank” Syria for its good offices. From early on, the Islamist party was accused of having a hand in Hariri’s killing -- allegations made formal in 2010 by a special international tribunal. In 2006, Hizballah fought a 33-day war against Israel, boosting its popularity with some, but drawing condemnations from the March 14 prime minister for having brought destruction upon the country. In 2007, March 8 partisans mobilized in the streets and squares against the government, and Hizballah was charged with occupying downtown Beirut. In 2008, Hizballah raided the Future Movement’s facilities in Beirut and found hidden weapons, but was blamed again for stirring up trouble. Perhaps worst for the party’s reputation has been the Syrian uprising, during which Hizballah’s support for Bashar al-Asad’s regime has seemed more related to geopolitical calculations than to a commitment to shield the oppressed or to champion the views of its Lebanese constituents.

Now come the al-Miqdads to put additional stress on the fissures in Hizballah’s edifice. Since the 2006 war, the party has tried to exert greater control over its turf, most overtly with regard to the rebuilding of southern Beirut, much of which was undertaken by the party’s construction wing, Jihad al-Bina’. Hizballah has closed ranks in other ways -- for example, access for researchers to the dahiya has been more tightly restricted. At the same time, the party’s constituency among Shi‘i Muslims has expanded as sectarianism becomes more entrenched in the country. The base of support now encompasses people who do not share the party’s ideology, but simply view it as the most powerful voice of “their sect.”

But Hizballah’s increased attention to domestic politics after 2006, as well as its focus on rebuilding and rearmament in the south, seems also to have stretched its resources thin when it comes to policing. They are simply unable to keep the dahiya quiet without the assistance of the Lebanese state. At the same time, with greater economic insecurity in the country, illegal activity is on the rise across the capital, including in Ouza‘i and other peripheral neighborhoods.

Hizballah and the al-Miqdad family have had a working relationship for years. The party could not have come to such prominence without the support of large Shi‘i families and tribes; it depends on their electoral endorsements, as well as their funds and other kinds of support. The party cannot afford to antagonize these family organizations. At the same time, the al-Miqdads and others have been a thorn in the party’s side, especially in the Bekaa Valley, as Hizballah is unable to prevent or even regulate their criminal activities. Party members are very worried, for example, about rising drug use among youth, referring obliquely to an unstoppable inflow through Ouza‘i. In at least one instance, members of a major Hizballah politician’s family had a violent run-in with members of one of the large Bekaa families. The politician’s relative’s vehicle and other belongings were stolen. The party was powerless to retrieve the property and, indeed, family members were concerned for the safety of their children. Through such incidents, faith has eroded in the party’s vaunted capability to protect its own. Today Hizballah walks a fine line between distancing itself from the al-Miqdads’ misdeeds and turning a blind eye to them.

Elephant in the Room

Hizballah was eager, for example, to disavow any connection to the kidnappings of August. The party’s security apparatus, in fact, assisted the Lebanese army in gathering intelligence about the kidnappers, intelligence that led to a raid on Hayy al-Miqdad and the capture of the members of the “military wing,” who are now in prison. They had released all of the captives a few days earlier.

The day following the kidnappings, Hizballah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah had announced in a televised speech that Hizballah left it to the government to settle the matter, for the party “did not control the situation on the street.” [6] In many ways, the party seemed content that the army was seriously engaged in restoring the fading sense of public safety in the dahiya. Hizballah’s cooperation with the army did not quiet the March 14 critics, however. They continued to accuse the party of using the al-Miqdads as pawns, lamenting the collapse of the state and the growing insecurity on the streets.

The elephant in the room is, of course, Syria. Hizballah’s position in favor of Asad’s regime was clear from the beginning of the uprising there: In the assessment of the International Crisis Group, Nasrallah “labeled any Syrian who expressed dissatisfaction with Assad’s meager package of reforms an Israel supporter and enemy.” [7] While Hizballah has maintained its rhetorical support for the regime in Damascus, its cooperation with the Lebanese army in the al-Miqdad case shows that the party may be preparing for the day after Asad.

Can the abductions episode be interpreted as a shift in the party’s position vis-à-vis the Syrian regime? Perhaps. It is well known that the fall of Asad will seriously impede Hizballah’s presently unrestricted margin of military maneuver in Lebanon. It will cut off the channels of arms and other materiel that reach the Islamist party via Syria. Yet even in this case, Hizballah can sustain its local and national political and social roles through its networks of institutions -- clinics, schools, dispensaries and so on. The importance of these institutions in times of increasing sectarian polarization cannot be underestimated. They serve the needs of much of the country’s Shi‘i community.

It is quite possible, in fact, that the party’s fortunes will rebound after Asad’s fall, despite the necessary downscaling of its military might. Hizballah may be diversifying its strategies in anticipation of that scenario. On the one hand, the party continues to speak in support of the Syrian regime, though not in the same radical terms. On the other hand, the party is distancing itself from Asad. Perhaps even more telling than the party’s aid of the al-Miqdads’ arrest was the silence of Hizballah’s cadres when one of Syria’s men in Lebanon, Michel Samaha, was detained in August and charged with conspiring with high-ranking Syrian officials to plant explosives throughout Lebanon. [8] Hizballah’s opponents in Lebanon and abroad have accused the party of working with the Syrian regime to assassinate the intelligence officer who spearheaded that investigation, Wisam al-Hasan, on October 19. Such accusations ignore the subtle shifts in Hizballah’s discourse on Syria and overestimate the extent of the party’s domination in Lebanon. Hizballah is beginning to hedge its bets, preparing in its typically pragmatic style for an uncertain regional future.

Endnotes

[1] See the al-Mayadin broadcast here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNL-p3R5Zfc.
[2] See the New TV interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoI6i2e2JUI&NR=1&feature=fvwp.
[3] Daily Star, August 20, 2012.
[4] Daily Star, August 19, 2012.
[5] The term “tribe” is thus defined by Richard Tapper. Quoted in Philip Khoury and Joseph Kostiner, eds., Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991), p. 5.
[6] Al-Akhbar, August 18, 2012.
[7] International Crisis Group, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics (Damascus/Brussels, November 2011), p. 4.
[8] Daily Star, August 11, 2012.

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