BEIRUT -- Almost a year after top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US strike in Baghdad, his malign influence continues to be felt in Lebanon through his close associate, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah.
Lebanon is facing a political and economic crisis of staggering proportions, exacerbated by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and an August 4 explosion at the Beirut port that donors said will cost $2.5 billion to correct.
Many Lebanese say Hizbullah is at the root of the country's problems, and also blame the party for Lebanon's seeming inability to pull itself out of crisis.
Soleimani's legacy is directly linked to his close relationship with Nasrallah.
Former Future Movement MP Mustafa Alloush described Soleimani as Nasrallah's "commanding officer", saying Nasrallah's role was "overinflated" as he was in fact subordinate to Soleimani.
Soleimani's role and his relationship with Nasrallah "are clearly evident from the influence he had on the party and the direct military, logistical and material support" he provided to Hizbullah, he said.
This influence directly impacted what happened inside Lebanon, Alloush said.
Hampering Lebanon's progress
"For 40 years, Hizbullah has been the reason for Lebanon's instability, because it is a state within a state," Alloush said.
Hizbullah has "dragged Lebanon into destructive wars", most notably the Syria war, in violation of its policy of dissociation, he said, and has "led the country into the maelstrom of terrorism".
It has harmed Lebanon's relationship with its neighbours, including the Gulf states, which had provided it with a major source of financial remittances and aid, he said, as well as damaging its relationship with the West.
Without Hizbullah, Lebanon's political parties "would have turned to democratic compromises", he said. But its presence as part of the country's political system "hinders the formation of a government, due to the sanctions imposed on it".
Academic researcher and Li Haqi movement activist Maher Abu Chakra says that Hizbullah bears the primary responsibility for Lebanon's instability because it has dominated the political system.
It has protected the existing, dysfunctional system since the outbreak of popular protests in October 2019, he added.
"Hizbullah is an armed party and has an integrated economic and military system and an empire with deep roots inside and outside the country," he said. "As such, it has become more powerful than the state and poses a serious threat to the state and the people."
The party's strength stems from its "direct relationship with Iran and the relationship that existed between Nasrallah and Soleimani", he said.
Its internal strength, however, comes from corrupt political forces in the country shutting their eyes to its expansion and joining forces with it in governmental, municipal, parliamentary and trade union elections, he said.
Nasrallah was Soleimani's subordinate
"Soleimani did not hide his relationship with Hizbullah," said political activist and Hizbullah opponent Luqman Salim.
No one can claim to know everything about this relationship, Salim said, "but the little of what we know suggests that it is a relationship between a superior and his subordinate".
"Soleimani counted Hizbullah's success in carrying out its tasks as his own success," he said, noting that Hizbullah's operations in Syria, Yemen and Iraq were all in areas where Soleimani was seeking to extend Iran's influence.
In the relationship between the two men, it was "clear who orders and who obeys", he said, adding that "Soleimani's liquidation damaged and scratched the image of Iranian deterrence as it has never been scratched before".
It also weakened Nasrallah, he said.
He said the party's image mirrors that of Hizbullah operative Salim Ayyash, who on December 11 received five life sentences for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.
"After the explosion at the port, it became clear that two sovereign entities cannot co-exist within one country, i.e., 'the state and the statelet'," Salim said.
"Lebanon today has to choose between turning to the Iranian model, where the statelet governs while the state serves as a false witness, and restoring the state," he added.
Hizbullah-linked ministers charged
Lebanon's lead investigator into the Beirut port blast on December 10 charged outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab -- a Hizbullah ally -- and three ex-ministers with negligence, AFP reported.
The four were charged with "negligence and causing death to hundreds and injuries to thousands more" in the first such official indictment of a serving prime minister in Lebanese history, a judicial source said.
After the blast, it emerged top security officials and politicians had known for years about hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored haphazardly at the Beirut port but had failed to take precautionary measures.
The decision by judge Fadi Sawan came after the investigation confirmed the suspects had received "several written notices warning them against postponing the disposal of ammonium nitrate fertiliser", the source said.
"They also did not take the necessary measures to avoid the devastating explosion and its enormous damage," added the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak on the issue.
The other senior officials charged are former finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil and ex-ministers of public works Yusef Fenianos and Ghazi Zaiter.
The United States in September slapped sanctions on Khalil and Fenianos for alleged corruption and support of Hizbullah.
Lingering questions remain
Alloush said there are lingering questions that still need to be answered, such as why the ship carrying the explosives was routed to Beirut and who decided to store its cargo in Warehouse No. 12.
It remains to be determined if any of the ammonium nitrate, a known component of explosives, was used in Hizbullah's military operations, he said.
Alloush said the answers to these questions "must be reached with a transparent investigation by the authorities, which unfortunately are subordinate to the authority of Hizbullah's statelet".
Abu Chakra, the Li Haqi activist, said that Hizbullah, "being part of the political system, is responsible for the port explosion and for the presence of dangerous and neglected materials" near populated areas.
However, "it is doubtful that the investigations will name who is responsible", he said, as the members of the culpable political class cover for each other.