After the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, the Lebanese society was divided over Hezbollah and its firepower, either supporting the March 8 Alliance or the March 14 Alliance. This rift was also evident in civil society groups that were formed after the 2011 protests calling for the "fall of the sectarian regime".
Disagreements among these groups over Hezbollah's arms intensified and subsided correspondingly with political developments. In the 2017 demonstrations against additional taxes, the civil society groups were ostensibly united, yet different stances on Hezbollah have largely determined their relations with each other.
Hezbollah was once again a contention point during the summer of 2017. The Beirut Madinati (my city) Alliance, which amassed around 40% of the Lebanese capital's votes in the 2016 municipal elections, suffered a severe split over the same issue, and whether the alliance should cooperate with groups that did not push for the disarmament of Hezbollah.
With the approaching much anticipated parliamentary elections slated for May, many civil society groups announced that they would take part by either fielding members of theirs or backing certain candidates.
The "You Stink" protest campaign -- which was founded in 2015 amid the country's perennial waste crisis to stand out the most among the civil society groups -- has introduced some of its figures as potential candidates in different constituencies. According to Wadih Al-Asmar, an active member of the group, You Stink supports building the nation and stands firmly against any group whose members carry weapons, saying armed movements pose a challenge to state sovereignty.
Seemingly rather pragmatic, the Badna Nhasseb campaign, meaning we want accountability in Lebanese colloquial Arabic, does not have a clear stance on Hezbollah's arms. Various politicians have participated in the campaign, including members of the People's Movement, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Socialist Democratic Vanguard Party and independent leftists.
Wassef Al-Haraka from Badna Nhasseb says there are disagreements within the campaign over Hezbollah. He believes the Islamist movement has added a religious dimension to the resistance and is now perceived to be a state within the state. Al-Haraka also said firearms must be directed towards enemies, not compatriots.
Although he is convinced that no one should possess arms except for governmental forces, George Azar, a Lebanese American photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, supports an armed Hezbollah as a major player in the resistance. He also agrees with the Islamist power that the resistance has to be part of a state-sponsored defensive strategy aiming at confronting Israel.
There are also different views on Hezbollah within the Helo Ana (leave us alone) campaign, founded in 2015. According to active member Ali Tai, some believe only state forces are entitled to carry weapons, while others think the opposite out of their support for the resistance.
The Beirut Madinati Alliance was formed to partake in the city's 2016 municipal elections, having introduced itself as an alternative to "corrupt" authorities. The group believes only state forces are allowed to carry weapons.
The alliance's general assembly was split over cooperating with groups that do not oppose Hezbollah's armed strength during the coming parliamentary election. Eventually, the alliance decided to take no part in the polls to preserve its "unity" while allowing members to nominate themselves through other groups.
Some members from Beirut Madinati Alliance joined the Labaladi political group, meaning for my country in Arabic. The group aims at enhancing the representation of the public at the parliament, and rebuilding the relationship between the state and the citizens on the basis of citizenship, not sectarianism.
According to political analyst Gilbert Doumit, who is also a member of Labaladi political group, only authorities should be entitled to use arms, a principle that he says should be attributed to building a strong and just state, which he says will be achieved when people's loyalty is restored upon giving them their social and economic rights.
Different Ways to Build a State
Almost all civil society groups agrees on the necessity of building a strong state. The Civic Influence Hub (CIH), a group established by businessmen and various faces from the civil society, seeks to form a lobby that plays a role in Lebanon's prosperity.
According to CIH member Youssef Mortada, the group is promoting the idea that the foundation of a state must be based on the rule of law and constitution, which only enables official security personnel to carry weapons.
Conversely, Zeyad Abbas, head of the Sah (correct) group, said on his Facebook page that in accordance with the memorandum of understanding that the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah had signed, the latter does not violate sovereignty by carrying weapons. Sah and groups adopting similar positions have faced criticisms.
Sah is a newly formed group joined by people who parted company with the Free Patriotic Movement over disagreements with its leader, Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
The Lebanese Assembly, a civil society group consisting of independent figures from all across Lebanon, is taking part in the election with a political and economic program that stresses the importance of sovereignty and stands firmly against forming ministates, according to Hana Saleh, member of the group's coordination committee.
Coalitions and Settlements
During discussions over the new electoral law, scores of coalitions were formed by civil society groups, each is calling for certain amendments ahead of the polls. After the parliament enacted the law last year, the Qasm coalition was established.
The Qasm coalition later expanded, with the likes of You Stink, Badna Nhasseb and Sah joining in. Under the same umbrella, the three groups reignited the debate over Hezbollah's arms. Meanwhile, some member groups refused to have under the coalition's umbrella two parties that "equivocate" on their support for Hezbollah's military wing. This disagreement instigated talks that lasted for over three months, before the coalition's name was changed to Watani, meaning patriotic in Arabic.
Under the new name, the coalition put an end to disputes over Hezbollah by adding an ambiguous paragraph in its political document to explain part of its vision. It says that the coalition supports "extending and strengthening the sovereignty of the state on its territory through a comprehensive political, economic, social and defensive strategy, and through developing the capabilities of the army and the security apparatus without succumbing to any conditions imposed by any party. This will allow the state to wrest back its occupied territories, protect its borders, deter any aggression on the Lebanese territory and extend its authority to all Palestinian camps".
From Division to Unity
Despite the division over Hezbollah's arms, the topic was no longer on the table for discussion, with the focus switching to building a capable and just state. According to Al-Asmar, the You Stink campaign will participate in the election by fielding two candidates, and will stick to the Watani coalition's stand on Hezbollah's firepower. He said this feud has divided Lebanese people for over 15 years and cannot be solved overnight.
Al-Asmar says the civil society's battle with a corrupt authority should not aim at ending the prolonged saga of Hezbollah's arms. Instead, he opined, the case should be brought into discussion to find a reasonable solution. "Whoever wants the civil society to disarm Hezbollah can go ahead and do it themselves, and may their battle be with Hezbollah and not with other groups that disagree with them," he said. Gilbert Doumit of Labaladi, which is part of the Watani coalition, said the latter would not cooperate with any political party or a civil society group that adopts different political views.
Outside the coalition, Ali Taiy from Helo Ana said the disagreement over Hezbollah's arms would not hinder the group's cooperation with others during the election, saying the priority is to build a state of institutions that is capable of fighting corruption.
Meanwhile, Hana Saleh said the Lebanese Assembly would introduce two candidates while supporting full sovereignty. He also says the Watani coalition does not represent change or the real civil society groups, especially that some of its members back Hezbollah and believe that the 2006 memorandum of understanding, which Hezbollah signed along with the Free Patriotic Movement, is a "understanding of peace". Saleh has described the memorandum as a "pro-arms paper".
On the other hand, some of the Watani coalition's members believe civil society groups are too ambitious over the prospect of disarming Hezbollah, saying their stance will gradually change once the electoral lists have been formed, as their position is nothing more than as a bargaining chip.