Young men chanting “people want to bring down the regime” gathered outside the office of Lebanese legislator Mohammed Raad, the powerful head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc. A man grabbed a metal rod and swung it at the sign bearing Raad’s name, knocking it out of place as others cheered.
It was a rare scene in the southern market town of Nabatiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold. The protests engulfing Lebanon have united many across sectarian lines and shattered taboos, with some taking aim at leaders from their own sects, illustrating a new, unfamiliar challenge posed to the militant group.
Iran-backed Hezbollah built a reputation among supporters as a champion of the poor and a defender of Lebanon against Israel’s much more powerful military. It and its Shiite ally, the Amal party, have enjoyed overwhelming backing among the Shiite community since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, making them a political powerhouse that, along with allies, has dominated recent governments.
But now many protesters group Hezbollah with the ruling class they are revolting against, blaming it for wrecking the economy with years of corruption and mismanagement.
Protesters want the entire political elite removed. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and Amal’s chief, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, have not been spared.
“All of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one of them,” protesters have chanted at Beirut rallies. The demonstrations that erupted Oct. 17 spread throughout the country, including predominantly Shiite areas in the south and the eastern Bekaa Valley.
In several instances, men suspected of being Hezbollah and Amal supporters attacked protesters and destroyed their tents. Some of those who had criticized Nasrallah and Berri on social media appeared in videos, after apparently being beaten, to apologize for what they did.
Amal denied any link to those behind the beatings, saying in a statement that they should be arrested and that they violated the movement’s belief in freedom of opinion.
Hezbollah has survived many threats over the years, including charges by a U.N.-backed tribunal for killing former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 — an accusation Hezbollah denies — a ruinous war with Israel in 2006 and the war in neighboring Syria, where Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to back President Bashar Assad, losing an estimated 2,000 men.
But now Hezbollah is being “attacked by the very constituency they purport to speak for,” Heiko Wimmen of the International Crisis Group said.
Hezbollah is “on the defensive for having become part of the ruling elite, which is clearly a disconcerting experience for the leadership,” he said.
Hezbollah has sought to show it’s sensitive to the complaints. Last week, Nasrallah said authorities investigating corruption should start with looking at Hezbollah members. “Begin with us,“ he said.