Researcher Lokman Slim was assassinated on 4 February 2021 after being abducted in mysterious circumstances. The Lebanese interpreted the incident in various ways, each according to their affiliations and positions, but the most important debate could be found within the Shia community itself. Supporters of Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent Amal, reviled Slim and a subset of the Lebanese Shia elite as “embassy Shia”—agents of the US embassy, a position they naturally reject. Such stigmas are a powerful way to mark individuals, institutions and groups, and even states. Once branded by an influential social actor or force, as is the case here, it is difficult to shake the stigma given the social, political, and psychological structures it touches.
The crime took place in Hezbollah’s stronghold, the south of Lebanon. Slim himself issued a statement in December 2019 holding Hezbollah responsible for any harm that might come to him, after Hezbollah “supporters” attacked his home in the southern suburbs of Beirut, another Hezbollah stronghold. Lokman’s family and friends, other reputed “embassy Shias,” and political and intellectual figures, particularly from the Shia community, thus accused Hezbollah—with Amal, the de facto local power—of being directly responsible for the assassination, or indirectly responsible by its incitement and character assassination. Hezbollah condemned the crime and warned of the media exploiting the incident, particularly since it mobilises its base with claims that all of Lebanon’s recent woes—the exploitation of the popular movement, the economic crisis, the port explosion and killings—are due to the country being targeted regionally and internationally.
Leaving aside the facts of the incident, the perpetrators and its aims, mutual media recriminations demonstrate growing hostility between Hezbollah and what it represents, on one hand, and this subset of the Shia community. This poses the question of whether a third Shia bloc is taking shape.
Features of the third Shia bloc
This Shia subgroup, which opposes Hezbollah in particular and Amal to a lesser degree, is limited and does not have clear grassroots influence, but it is another one of the various Shia populations that in the past have set themselves apart from the Shia political duopoly. Their defining features have come into relief with various political milestones, particularly those marking major domestic or regional shifts, most importantly:
1. The Cedar Revolution of 2005: Leaving aside the debate over the facts and the subsequent split between the forces of 14 March and 8 March, insofar as it proved an opportunity to mobilise Shiites on behalf of Syria and allowed for the Hezbollah-Amal duopoly to strengthen its influence in the Lebanese governing authority, it also gave rise to a new Shia elite that opposed Syria and/or the duopoly based on a cross-confessional, national discourse. Part of the left, which includes a narrow set of Shia elites, sided with the Cedar Revolution and paid the price with the assassination of leaders like Samir Kassir and George Hawi.
2. The Syrian war (2012): Hezbollah joined the war on an explicitly sectarian basis, making it seem that the Shia community was involved in a sectarian war in Syria. This impression was bolstered by the support, though at times ambiguous, of Amal. Regardless of the details of the war, a segment of the Shia elite opposed it. Deeming Hezbollah’s intervention immoral and not in the interest of Lebanese Shia, they saw it as nothing more than protecting a despotic regime from collapse. They also believed that it pitted Shias against Sunnis in one way or another, with adverse consequences for Muslims in general and particularly Shias. Moreover, they saw the action in Syria as a revolution, just like the other Arab revolutions. In the midst of this drawn-out debate, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in May 2015 called these opponents of Hezbollah “embassy Shia.” Hezbollah sees its intervention in Syria as against Takfiris and wholly justified, as well as in the interest of the “resistance,” against the “agents of America and Israel” in the region, and so on. As the Arab revolutions (of which the Syrian revolution was a part) came into focus, and with the evolution and repercussions of the Syrian war becoming clearer, particularly the way it served the interests of regional and international powers and not Lebanese or narrow Shia interests, the debate became fiercer and still continues.
3. The uprising of 17 October 2019: This is the most important milestone because it set the Shia governing duopoly against the Lebanese movement demanding change and an end to corruption and, in turn, the Shia citizens who participated in the movement. The latter made inroads in areas thought to be under the sway of the Hezbollah-Amal duopoly in the south and the Beqaa, as well as Beirut, and popular Shia leaders joined the movement, though less as confessional leaders than as Lebanese citizens. The movement in the south offered a choice and a national discourse geared to the south based firstly on a defensive, national strategy, not limited to any particular group, to protect Lebanon and the south, and secondly on Lebanon’s independence from regional politics. The Lebanese popular movement rose in tandem with the Iraqi movement, which was primarily based in the Shia community, some of whose activists were, and continue to be, assassinated. This led some of the opposition to warn that Lebanese activists, particularly Shias, could face a similar fate because, like their Iraqi peers, they were in opposition to Iran and its local allies.
All of these Shia subgroups share a common feature: their independence from or disagreement with the duopoly and a divergence of interests from it, even if their points of disagreement differ. In general, they tend to align themselves with Lebanese groups and prioritise domestic economic and political “reform” and independence from regional forces in order to keep Lebanon out of their conflicts. Clearly, these subgroups adopt a discourse at odds with the religious discourse coming out of Iran, whether secular or a more local religious discourse; and they wholly reject the duopoly’s claim to represent the Shia confession in government, rejecting Lebanese confessionalism entirely.
Challenges to a third Shia bloc
Despite the emergence of dissident forces, the Shia community is the most cohesive confessional community in Lebanon due to the workings of the Hezbollah-Amal duopoly, which is based on a division of roles, enforced either through acquiescence to controlled competition or by mutual agreement. This accommodation has served the interests of both parties while also strengthening the position of the Shia confession as a whole in the Lebanese system, thus entrenching the duopoly itself.
If political developments have helped and continue to shape a third Shia bloc composed of disparate subgroups with common features and an influential, though modest cross-confessional voice in Lebanon and the region, this bloc has still not become an influential political player within the Shia community itself. In this respect, it faces challenges and must meet certain conditions. For one, it must articulate a vision that can politically unite the diverse subgroups that are independent of or harmed by the duopoly. This is not an easy task because political conflicts in Lebanon are not purely sectarian in nature but involve disputes between sects and between ideological and political outlooks, at times with regional and international resonances. In addition, the collapse of the Lebanese state means that the priority of some of these subgroups, particularly the most significant of them, is the larger battle with other Lebanese against corruption and the ruling political class. The latter, despite all their disagreements, may have a common interest in preventing the rise of new political actors in the Shia community in order to prevent a similar development within their own confessions.
Another challenge is the difficulty of finding popular support, even relative, in a community that is overwhelmingly conservative and religious, and at times with a frame of reference and identity that is regionally defined. This community has a sectarian narrative and vision of its interests and future, and most of it continues to see its core interests from this perspective. It is moreover part of a larger regional alignment, in which states like Iran and Syria support the leadership of the duopoly. In contrast, those groups opposed to the duopoly have a different culture, whether in their relationship to religion, the sect or the state, and they have no regional or international patron state. Their cultural, intellectual and political influence among the Shia community continues to be limited.
One can reel off numerous challenges to the crystallisation of a third, politically organised, influential Shia bloc with staying power in the Shia community. These opposition subgroups could nevertheless influence the behaviour of the Shia public or even that of the duopoly itself towards specific political issues—at least those that carry some measure of justice or urgency for the public—without becoming an alternative to the duopoly or a third politically organised player. This has happened at previous junctures with the rejection of corruption and cronyism, boosting national resilience and prioritising domestic over regional interests.
Theoretically, any deterioration in the relationship between the duopoly powers or a decline of either party could present an opportunity for a third bloc, even one of diverse groupings, to bolster its position. Domestic developments in Lebanon—the economic crisis, the fallout of the 17 October uprising, and regional shifts—could also open up new spaces for new forces from all Lebanese confessions, including Shias, especially since the promises of the political class have yet to be fulfilled. Their accomplishments may yet be undermined, and they may be discredited by regional conflicts or make concessions to achieve stability. At that point, relationships between all forces in every confession in Lebanon will shift, first and foremost among the Shia community. Until that time, we can say that there is a new strand within the Shia community composed of critical forces advocating a reconsideration of the actions of the Hezbollah-Amal duopoly.