How illiberals, uncivil society transition from protest to power


Civil society activists have often struggled to make the transition from protest to politics, to effect a shift from social movement to party in power. Illiberal and authoritarian movements – uncivil society groups – appear to have had more success, at least judging by the relative success of Hamas, some of its fellow Muslim Brotherhood offshoots and, preeminently, Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Founded with Iranian guidance in the 1980s as a resistance force against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah became the prototype for the kind of militias Iran is now backing around the region. Hezbollah has evolved into a virtual arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), providing the connective tissue for the growing network of powerful militias, The New York Times journalist Ben Hubbard reports:

Iran and Hezbollah complement each other. Both are Shiite powers in a part of the world that is predominantly Sunni. For Iran, a Persian nation in a mostly Arab region, Hezbollah lends not just military prowess but also Arabic-speaking leaders and operatives who can work more easily in the Arab world. And for Hezbollah, the alliance means money for running an extensive social services network in Lebanon, with schools, hospitals and scout troops — as well as for weapons, technology and salaries for its tens of thousands of fighters…. It is from Beirut that Hezbollah runs the wide-ranging political, social and military operations that give it power at home and increasing clout abroad. Hezbollah does not control the state as much as maintain the power it needs to block any effort to undermine its force, diplomats and Lebanese officials said.

“The center of its operations is the southern suburbs of Beirut, which serve as the party’s headquarters and a virtual diplomatic district for its regional allies,” Hubbard notes. “Inside, Hezbollah bureaucrats run a private school system and social services network. Representatives of Iraqi militias and Yemen’s Houthi rebels maintain a presence. And a range of satellite television stations run by Hezbollah and its allies blanket the region with pro-Iranian news.”

Hezbollah effected its apparent transition from terrorist group to quasi-state operative by exploiting the opportunities afforded by civil society, supposedly one of the pillars of a healthy polity, Barnard College’s Sheri Berman [a Journal of Democracy contributor] and Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose write for The FT:

Private voluntary associations – known in the US as civil society and sometimes in Britain as the “third force” – are widely touted on both sides of the Atlantic as not only an efficient way of delivering services but a harbinger and foundation of democracy. What advocates of these associations often fail to appreciate, however, is that the nature of their impact depends on the political context. Where states are legitimate and effective, civil society activity can complement and reinforce them. But where states are illegitimate and ineffective – as in much of the Arab world today – such activity can undermine them further while serving as a base from which radicals can launch challenges to the status quo.

Consequently, Hezbollah acquired political legitimacy and a mass base by becoming one of Lebanon’s most important and competent service providers.

Hezbollah’s social service provision is rooted in the nature of Lebanon’s state and society, notes Brown University’s Melani Cammett, the author of “Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon” (Cornell University Press, 2014) and co-editor of “The Politics of Non-state Social Welfare” (Cornell University Press, 2014). In Lebanon, sectarian differences are sharply politicized and institutionalized, and virtually all political players (as well as religious groups and secular NGOs) offer social welfare in one form or another, she writes for The Washington Post:

The Lebanese state is notoriously weak with respect to social provision and religious and sectarian organizations have long played a vital role in the health, education and social assistance. Competition between sectarian groups typically shapes the extent and intensity of welfare provision. More than electoral politics is at stake. Some sectarian organizations aim to build “street power” and engage in militia politics, and not just to win votes – which shapes their distinctive strategies of allocating social welfare.

“Hamas, the Tamil Tigers, and Hezbollah all organized themselves into quasi-governments in the territories they control, while still undertaking militant actions,” notes Stanford University’s Colin J. Beck. “Terrorist groups that sustain action for a long period of time are thus formal organizations and are likely constrained and enabled by the same dynamics of resources and organization as social movements.”

In the Middle East, organizations like Hamas (right) or Hezbollah operate simultaneously as sophisticated armed organizations, complex political entities and as highly developed social movement organizations involved in administering and delivering social services at the grassroots level, notes Benedetta Berti of the Ben-Gurion University’s Institute for National Security Studies. Elsewhere in the region, the rise of the “Islamic State” offers an entirely distinct example of a socio-political project established by an actor commonly defined as a non-state armed group (NSAG):

Despite the significant ideological, organizational and strategic differences between these organizations, all three actors fall broadly within the “non-state armed groups” category. Yet, both in their use of armed force, as well in their relationship with the state, these organizations appear as characterized by multi-layered identities and strategies that defy simple labelling. Moreover, these groups’ different roles as alternative providers of governance de facto blur the line between state and non-state actor and create an evolving dynamic that simultaneously challenges, contests and redefines concepts like statehood and sovereignty.

Hezbollah’s origins as a social movement helped create a degree of ambiguity about its real identity and purpose as it emerged as a major terrorist group.

“If you think about Hezbollah in the context of [unconventional warfare] as an insurgent movement sponsored by the IRGC, then the strategic utility of the social movement approach becomes quite self-evident,” analysts Doowan Lee and Glenn Johnson write for the Small Wars Journal. “In essence, Hezbollah is a sponsored social and radical movement that has exercised the IRGC’s strategic influence in a foreign country for over three decades.”

Hezbollah sees the authority of the Lebanese state as secondary to that of the regime in Tehran, notes a recent analysis which challenges the myth of moderation – “the theory that Hezbollah is going through a ‘Lebanonization’ process. This process of political integration, it is said, is causing Hezbollah to evolve from a violent Iranian-inspired jihadi group to a mainstream part of Lebanese society and politics.”

Hezbollah is Lebanon’s “most efficient and dynamic actor …which…is both integrated within the political system and in some ways stands above or outside the system,” analyst Peter Seeberg wrote for Democratization:

Hezbollah is a strong or even dominant actor, competing with the official government for political hegemony, thereby constructing a ‘dual power’ situation in Lebanon: a situation where two sources of authority are competing for power and legitimacy. Hezbollah is a well-organized movement. As well as being a huge social movement and having one of the most potent militias in the Middle East, it is represented in the National Assembly and sets up political alliances and electoral pacts with most of the other parties.

“The failure of Arab regimes to cater for public security interests facilitated the rise of alternative transnational security providers,” according to analyst Andreas Krieg, Assistant Professor for Defense Studies at King’s College London. “Decades in opposition against the patronage systems of authoritarian regimes had provided alternative patrons, most notably Islamists, with public appeal and a social base.”

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