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Lebanon's Beirut blast shattered taboos around Hezbollah

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Beirut (AFP)

Hezbollah's emphatic defence of the political status quo in Lebanon has exposed it since the deadly Beirut blast to levels of public contempt and anger it was once shielded from.

The powerful Shiite movement remains the dominant player in Lebanon, but the special status it enjoyed and the fear it instilled were torn down by the explosion.

In a scene that was almost unthinkable only a few months ago, an image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was among the cardboard cutouts protesters hanged from their mock gallows this month.

"In the hours that followed the explosion, many blamed Hezbollah," said Fares al-Halabi, who has been active since an unprecedented anti-government protest movement that erupted in October 2019.

Last year, he said, "there had been a tacit agreement among the revolutionary camp not to raise the issue of Hezbollah and of its weapons."

The group is the only faction to have kept its weapons long after the 1975 to 1990 civil war. Its military might rivals the state's and is seen by many as one of the main obstacles to democratic reform.

The verdict of a special court based in The Netherlands on Tuesday found a Hezbollah member, Salim Ayyash, guilty in absentia of murder over the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, a Sunni.

The investigation did not establish a direct link with Hezbollah's leadership but it stressed the evidently political nature of the crime.

"Hezbollah operatives do not freelance," was how US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it.

By jumping into the mainstream political swamp, the militia group has exposed itself to being held responsible, if not accountable, for the shortcomings of the state.

Whatever investigations come to reveal of what triggered the August 4 port blast that killed more than 180 people, many Lebanese already agree one thing: that their entire corrupt ruling elite is the real culprit.

Whoever may have owned the stock of ammonium nitrate that blew up and devastated swathes of Beirut, the main powerbrokers of a system that Hezbollah dominates and protects all knew about it.

When protesters, in a rare show of non-sectarian unity, last year sought to bring down the system, it was Hezbollah that came to the rescue of Lebanon's reviled class of hereditary political barons.

- 'De-facto ruler' -

"To me that was a significant move. Hezbollah could have shielded itself from this role but chose to protect this house that's collapsing," said Sami Atallah, who heads the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies.

Hezbollah has long enjoyed some level of popular legitimacy over its history of resistance against Israel, which has spared it some of the spite directed at other parties.

The fervour surrounding Nasrallah as a religious leader also created a lese-majeste rule that made his fiercest opponents think twice about voicing their opinions with the same bravado they would use against other politicians.

That restraint was laid to rest after the August 4 deadly blast as an angry public let rip at their political leadership, Nasrallah included, in ways not seen before.

Many Lebanese saw the explosion as the starkest evidence yet that corruption kills. Tongues have loosened now and ridiculing Hezbollah is no longer sacrilege.

A widely shared meme had a screen grab of Nasrallah choking back tears over the killing of Iranian spymaster Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Iraq earlier this year, contrasting with another of him looking composed and smiling after the Beirut blast.

Lebanon's worst peacetime disaster left more than 6,000 people wounded and maimed, 70,000 jobless, and hundreds of thousands without a home.

Many victims said they will never forgive the state for failing to prevent the blast, and also for failing to respond adequately.

Activist Naji Abou Khalil said that before the explosion "Hezbollah had managed to cast itself as an anti-establishment party".

"Now Hezbollah's image as a governing party like any other dominates that of the resistance party," said Abou Khalil, also an executive committee member of the reformist and secular National Bloc party.

Hezbollah long had the best of both worlds, wielding considerable behind-the-scenes power without having to answer publicly for its decisions.

Now it is finding that being the boss comes with drawbacks, Halabi said of the movement which dominates parliament and government with its allies.

"Hezbollah is the de-facto ruler and everything that happens falls under its authority, and the... ruler is always the one who bears responsibility for any negative consequences that occur," he said.

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