Decades later in 2009, when the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) attempted to inspect what it believed to be secret Hezbollah arms depots south of the Litani River—where Iran’s proxy militia is not allowed to operate—the same term, ahali, made a comeback as local inhabitants clashed with UNIFIL personnel, burning tires and hurling stones. Because only a few believed that those who had interrupted UNIFIL’s mission were actually civilian ahali, and not Hezbollah combatants in civilian clothes, the term came to denote Hezbollah’s under-cover militants.
In May 2012, eleven Lebanese men returning from a Shi’a pilgrimage in Iran were kidnapped in northern Syria. The families of those kidnapped, also using the term ahali, met with senior officials, urging them to do whatever it takes to free their loved ones. When officials of both the Lebanese state and Hezbollah failed to free the hostages, their families became impatient and started organizing sit-ins, which at times turned into violent confrontation in the streets.
The kidnapping was claimed by one of Syria’s rebel groups, calling itself the Northern Storm Brigades. The hostages are being held at an undisclosed location presumed to be near the town of Azaz near the Turkish border. The families of those kidnapped hold Turkey responsible for securing their release. Turkey is believed to hold significant sway over the movements of Syria’s rebel groups.
Last week two Turkish pilots were kidnapped by armed men in Beirut. Their shuttle-bus was intercepted while traveling from Rafic Hariri International Airport to a hotel. A previously unknown group, the Zuwwar Al-Imam Rida (“Pilgrims of the Imam Rida”), claimed responsibility. Soon after, a link was established between this group and the families of the Lebanese hostages. Although the families deny carrying out the kidnapping, a relative of one of the Lebanese hostages, Mohammad Saleh, has been detained on suspicion of involvement in the abduction of the pilots. The families of the hostages also welcomed the kidnapping of the pilots in the hope it would spur Turkey into action. Hayat Awali, a middle-aged woman whose husband is among the remaining hostages, stated that “a large group of the families of hostages in Azaz are heading to Beirut streets and any Turk seen there will be kidnapped.”
Since the abduction of the Turkish pilots, Awali, who identifies herself as the spokesperson of the families of the hostages, has become a bit of a celebrity. Her intimidation of Turkish nationals was a slap in the face for the already fragile Lebanese state whose security forces seem powerless in their bid to free the pilots, or at least hold people like Awali responsible for their threats.
The Lebanese state has not always been this helpless. At the end of the civil war in 1991, the state did an admirable job in restoring most of its power. One unresolved issue, however, remained: the heavily armed Hezbollah.
Until Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah was very popular in Lebanon and in the wider region. Post-2000, the party lost its raison d’être as a resistance group, and with it the justification for its possession of its arsenal in the eyes of many Lebanese. To contain the growing frustration with the militia group, Hezbollah used the country’s sectarian rivalries to deflect criticism. Then the party forced what it considered its legitimizing formula of the “the union of the army, the people, and the resistance” on to every successive cabinet since 2006.
When Hezbollah is considered the equal of the army and the sovereign state, the concept of the state as the world knows it cannot be applied to Lebanon. This sets the scene for the kind of unchecked threats we have witnessed in recent days. If Hezbollah can bear arms and not come under the purview of any elected state institution, then any other non-state actor, including the families of the hostages, can do so as well. And if Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah can threaten domestic and foreign rivals, so can Hayat Awali and her newly-founded group of heavies.
Hezbollah may not be directly connected to the kidnapping of the two Turkish pilots, but its behavior undermined the state long ago, leaving people to their fate and replacing laws with anarchy. Hezbollah’s continued armament is a menace to Lebanon. Even when these arms are not used, they set a dangerous example for Lebanon’s civilians, the ahali.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.