Hezbollah Faces Rising Discontent in Lebanese Heartland Ahead of Election

BRITAL, Lebanon—Hezbollah has expanded its regional clout by recruiting thousands of young men from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to fight in Syria. But the war next door is producing a tide of discontent at home for the Lebanese militia and political group ahead of elections on Sunday.

Critics point to Hezbollah’s failures to produce much-needed economic progress in its Shiite heartland and complain about the dominant influence Iran wields through it in Lebanon.

“Hezbollah is now part of Iran. It is not good for Lebanon, or for Shias,” said Sheikh Abbas Jawhari, an influential Shiite cleric campaigning against Hezbollah for a civil-society electoral group called Dignity and Development.

Mr. Jawhari, who joined Hezbollah in the 1980s at age 16 but later grew disillusioned, is among the critical clerics, former fighters and families of fallen militiamen who have emerged as the group’s ad hoc opposition in an area where it has long had no discernible competition.

Few places are as important to Hezbollah as the Bekaa, a fertile valley in northeastern Lebanon. More than 1,200 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since 2012, according to Ali Alfoneh, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

Some 28% of those killed came from the Baalbek-Hermel governorate in the Bekaa—the heart of the valley, with a population of 400,000—according to the Washington Institute, a research organization tracking the war in Syria.

Reflecting that heavy price, highway banners in the Bekaa Valley express open opposition to Hezbollah candidates. “We care for the resistance, but our loyalty is to Baalbek-Hermel,” one slogan read, suggesting that the local community’s welfare matters more than Hezbollah’s military ventures abroad.

Some staunch Hezbollah foot soldiers are among those voicing dissent.

In April, Ali Mazloum, an ex-fighter in Syria whose father died fighting Israel, published an open letter to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, berating him for not tackling corruption within the movement. His letter drew support on social media.

In apparent response to criticism, Hezbollah has recently shifted its message. Giving an unusual number of get-out-the-vote speeches, Mr. Nasrallah has refrained from talking about Syria much at all, focusing instead on economic concerns in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s spokesman, Mohammad Afif, said the group was looking to get more involved in Lebanon’s economic policy and the fight against corruption. Hezbollah currently forms part of Lebanon’s government, where it wields influence far beyond its 13 of parliament’s 128 seats.

The poverty rate in the Bekaa stands around 36%, one of the highest in the country, according to the World Bank and Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics. That doesn’t include the nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees who have temporarily settled in the valley, adding pressure on the area’s resources.

Despite the grass-roots discontent, a tradition of low voter turnout and strong Shiite adherence to Hezbollah means the group isn’t in much political danger.

Lebanon’s other main parties are also under fire. Corruption and nepotism have weighed on voter turnout and spawned new political entrants, especially from the small nation’s vibrant civil society.

In the Bekaa Valley, there is still widespread support for Hezbollah’s self-proclaimed resistance as well as for its Iran-inspired brand of Shia Islam. Hezbollah is still widely seen as a critical line of defense against border threats from Israel and the extremist group Islamic State.

In many of the valley’s towns, cemeteries have sections dedicated to Hezbollah fighters killed over the past three decades. In a cemetery in Brital, near the Syrian border, a young man clad in fatigues walked among the graves.

“That’s my friend,” he said pointing to a grave to his left. “That’s my brother-in-law,” he said, gesturing to another. “I am on the same path of martyrdom as them, God willing.”

Some see Hezbollah’s the group’s alignment with Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as problematic, however. “Shias have a history of aligning with the oppressed, not with dictatorships,” Mr. Jawhari said.

“We are a resistance [movement], and you don’t do resistance by going to war in Syria,” said a former militant whose brother died fighting Israel in the 1990s. “I will gladly go to fight Israel. But I won’t send my sons to die in Syria.”

The former fighter scoffed at Hezbollah’s election promises to bring development to the Bekaa.

“This is all empty talk,” he said. “They drop in by parachute, give us these promises and after elections we see nothing.”

Hezbollah brooks little dissent, Mr. Jawhari said. The cleric said he was arrested in March in Beirut on drug charges, which Lebanese authorities later dropped for lack of evidence. A week later, he said, gunmen shot at his driver. Mr. Jawhari said those incidents reflect the group’s rigid, totalitarian approach to even minor dissent. Hezbollah said it had no comment on the allegations.

However slim the chances are that his group will win a seat in parliament, Mr. Jawhari sees dissent growing.

“There is a generation that has discovered that their ambitions will not be achieved through Hezbollah, which at this point is going from one war to the next,” he said. “The reality is that they have thousands of casualties in Syria, but very little to show for them.”

Corrections & Amplifications Hezbollah has 13 seats in the Lebanese parliament, and the defense ministry is controlled by the Free Patriotic Movement, a party that belongs to the country’s coalition government. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Hezbollah has 14 seats and that it controlled the defense ministry. (05/03/2018)

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com

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