BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Challenged by a dramatic economic deterioration and an uprising that has shaken the ruling class amid a trend toward normalizing Israeli-Arab relations, Hezbollah is facing a new reality as the most powerful party in Lebanon.
The Iran-backed militant group, founded after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, has over the years created "a state within a state" with a growing arsenal, social services networks and businesses generating income to fund its activities. It grew in power when it engaged in the Syria war alongside President Bashar al-Assad in 2012 and got involved in military activities in Iraq and Yemen.
The 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the subsequent withdrawal of the Syrian troops months later, ending 29 years of Lebanon's political and economic domination, paved the way for Hezbollah to fill the vacuum and consolidate its influence.
"Hezbollah has been over the past 15 years part of the government, and it has gotten so deep into the state that now no cabinet can be formed in Lebanon without its consent," Riad Kahwaji, a Dubai-based Middle East security and defense analyst who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), told UPI.
With its Shiite and Christian allies, Hezbollah has full control of the parliament and can decide who will be the next prime minister or whether the government can survive or function, Kahwaji said. In November 2016, it succeeded in imposing the election of its Christian ally Michel Aoun as president after 29-month vacuum in the presidency.
"With such a capacity, Hezbollah can longer evade the accusations that it is responsible for Lebanon's misery. It can no longer defend itself, saying 'I am a resistance and don't do politics,'" he said. "Hezbollah has to now stand equally accused like all the other political parties for the anguish, corruption and failure of the state."
Hezbollah decided to heavily engage in Lebanon's political life to "protect the [anti-Israel] resistance from inside the system" on the basis that "a strong state is in its own interest, and so handling the state's internal affairs became a priority," said Kassim Kassir, an expert on Islamic movements and a political analyst close to Hezbollah.
Kassir said the party's efforts to combat the widespread corruption stumbled because of its keenness to avoid confrontation with its allies. But critics accuse Hezbollah of not only turning a blind eye on corruption but of becoming part of the "corrupt team" by operating its own funding system made up of financial institutions, illegal trade and smuggling activities, which deprive the state of much-needed revenues.
"Hezbollah is a major force but cannot rule Lebanon alone due to the [confessional] system in place. It can veto or prevent certain decisions but claiming that it rules the country is an exaggeration," Kassir told UPI.
However, the heavily-armed Hezbollah has the ability to intimidate the other political groups in the country and to decide unilaterally when to engage in war with Israel or extend its military expertise to other countries in the region.
It used such intimidation, in cooperation with its Amal ally, to foil the popular uprising that broke out on Oct. 17, sending supporters on motorcycles shouting "Shiite, Shiite" to beat up anti-government protesters and smash protest camps.
During the first days of the October 17 Uprising, Hezbollah encouraged the demonstrators but soon became suspicious when some "deviated" from the social and economic demands and called for disbanding and disarming the powerful group in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, Kassir said.
Hezbollah not only missed an opportunity to deliver on promises for fighting corruption and supporting the protesters' rightful demands but started to face declining public support, even within its own Shiite community. The massive Aug. 4 blast at the Beirut port and the mysterious explosion at a Hezbollah arms depot in the southern village of Ain Qana on Sept. 22 further fueled public outrage and fears of the party's stored weapons.
"There is a change, a different mood within the Shiite community with new Shiite faces who joined the protests, especially in southern Lebanon, challenging Hezbollah-Amal hegemony," Mohanad Hage Ali, an analyst and fellow at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, told UPI. "Hezbollah is facing a Shiite arena apt to change influenced by the anti-Iran mood in Iraq. This will pave the way for new forces that Hezbollah will have to deal with."
Hage Ali noted that the party "has regressed" and "is now in a 'controlling losses' phase" with very limited resources, reportedly having lost a large part of its funding from Iran, estimated by Washington at $700 million a year, due to the U.S. sanctions and dramatic fall in oil prices.
But this does not mean that Hezbollah will collapse. It still enjoys enough domestic support to maintain its control over the country, although U.S. sanctions that targeted some of its Lebanese allies have contributed to shaking its internal alliances.
Moreover, Hezbollah's regional adventures have almost come to an end. Recent reports have suggested that the group, which reportedly lost some 1,300 fighters in the Syrian war, withdrew forces more than a month ago but still maintains some positions in strategic areas.
"In Syria, its role is now limited, in Iraq it is over, while in Yemen its participation was limited to sending advisers and securing media support," said Kassir, who argued that Hezbollah was not ready to relinquish its external role, ties with Iran or the resistance.
However, he emphasized that Hezbollah cannot continue to run the country as it used to during the past 10 years.
"Hezbollah should accept that defending the country is a Lebanese decision, not a Hezbollah one, and its weapons and resistance should be part of a strategic defense strategy [with the Lebanese Army.] Also, it cannot keep on saying that it is part of the Iran axis and should engage in a direct dialogue with the other political components to say what it wants and doesn't want."
Lebanon-Israeli talks that opened this month to end 30-year dispute over maritime borders, without real objection from Hezbollah, and the fresh Israeli-Arab normalization deals are new challenges facing the militant group.
After the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain last month signed agreements to normalize ties with Israel, Sudan agreed to take similar steps, while more Arab states are expected to follow suit.
"We are entering a whole new phase in the region, and in this new phase, the economic impact is big," Kahwaji said. He noted that Lebanon, which is getting poorer, would be losing its special role and most likely "be left in the cold," especially if Hezbollah and Iran "keep it in the so-called resistance camp."
"This new reality will be engulfing the whole Middle East, and Hezbollah will have to deal with it. It will have to reconsider its position and the Iranians will have to help Hezbollah reposition itself," he said.