By Tony Badran
April 24, 2020
In response to the pandemic, the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah has waged an aggressive public relations campaign aimed at displaying its primacy within Lebanon. This campaign has also demonstrated Hezbollah’s full integration with the organs of the Lebanese state.
Lebanon reported its first confirmed case on February 21. In mid-March, the Hezbollah-backed government imposed a lockdown, followed up by a nighttime curfew. The government took advantage of the curfew in downtown Beirut to remove tents belonging to Lebanese citizens protesting government corruption.
As of April 23, authorities have reported 688 confirmed cases, including 22 deaths. Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health, which is controlled by Hezbollah, provides these numbers.
It is unclear whether these statistics tell the whole story. While hospitals in Lebanon have not been overwhelmed, Hezbollah likely increased Lebanon’s exposure to the virus by bringing home personnel operating abroad with Iranian forces. The government also allowed flights from Iran, the pandemic’s regional epicenter, well into March. It is possible that Hezbollah is quarantining and treating infected personnel at its own private hospitals. However, videos and voice recordings circulated via social media, which depict a catastrophic situation at Hezbollah-owned hospitals, remain unverified.
COVID-19 in the Greater Middle East
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Data current as of 9:15 AM, April 23, 2020. (JHU Coronavirus Resource Center)
Hezbollah has a long history of using the media to its advantage, and the COVID-19 crisis has been no exception. The group’s crisis response campaign has followed a familiar template: Hezbollah put on display its Islamic Health Association (IHA) workers and medical units. The group also paraded for the media a fleet of ambulances and showcased various Hezbollah-run hospitals and health centers. The campaign, which has generated overall positive coverage in several prominent Western outlets, is designed to portray Hezbollah’s pandemic response as a parallel endeavor to its military “resistance” operations: “community-based resistance.”
The most prominent public faces during the crisis have been Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who makes regular video addresses in which he issues guidelines as a quasi-head of state, and the Hezbollah-appointed Minister of Public Health, Hamad Hassan. Mirroring its broader position in the country, Hezbollah’s crisis response campaign reflects seamless integration between the group and the state.
Indicative of this integration are the Hezbollah-run municipalities featured in the group’s campaign. For example, many of the ambulances paraded for the media belong to Hezbollah’s IHA, while others belong to various municipalities run by Hezbollah figures. Likewise, some of the health centers featured on the media tour belong to Hezbollah-controlled municipalities, which are government-funded. The government paid arrears to municipal councils last month, at Hezbollah’s urging.
Similarly, Hezbollah’s campaign has worked synergistically with public hospitals in Bint Jbeil, Nabatieh, Hermel, and Baalbek, all Hezbollah strongholds. These public hospitals are not experiencing a flood of COVID-19 patients, particularly compared to Beirut’s main government hospital, so generating publicity may be their primary role in Hezbollah’s campaign.
International institutions are also lending a hand to Hezbollah’s efforts. Hezbollah-led municipalities in south Lebanon have received medical and protective equipment directly from UN peacekeepers. The World Bank, meanwhile, authorized $40 million to strengthen the Hezbollah-run Ministry of Public Health’s “capacity to respond to the crisis by equipping governmental hospitals.”
What to Watch for
As Lebanon’s ongoing financial and economic crisis takes its toll, some protests are resurfacing in defiance of the government’s lockdown. In late March, people took to the streets in a Hezbollah-dominated neighborhood south of Beirut, protesting the curfew, the lockdown, and economic mismanagement. In recent days, protests erupted in the northern city of Tripoli. Baalbek has also seen limited demonstrations against rising prices and the depreciation of Lebanon’s currency.
Hezbollah’s public relations campaign notwithstanding, Lebanon’s disintegrating economy and the resulting public outcry will continue to pose a significant challenge for the terror group and government in the weeks and months ahead.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies