Yaghi is accustomed to fighting for a losing cause. He served one term as Baalbek’s mayor, during which he said he focused on developing the economy and promoting tourism to the city’s exquisite Roman ruins. Lebanon was under Syrian occupation at the time, and when it came time for Yaghi to run for re-election in 2004, he said, the Syrian intelligence officer in charge of the area told him not to run. Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, the officer said, wanted to give the municipality to Hezbollah in order to show the Americans that the party was not a terrorist organization, but a political party with grassroots support. He defied the order and ran anyway, losing in what he called a rigged election.
Like all Shia candidates running against Hezbollah in the parliamentary elections, Yaghi steered clear of criticizing Hezbollah’s role as a military force. Its fighters have fought in Syria and Iraq, trained Iran-backed groups in both those countries, and likely provided some support to Tehran’s allies in Yemen as well. The group’s original sin, he said, was entering politics in 1992—it should have simply left the messy business of governance to others. “We’re not against Hezbollah as a resistance, so long as it resists in the right way,” he said. “Our quarrel with them is development. We want development for the city, and they want to wait until they’ve liberated everything and then look toward development.”
There is no question that Yaghi is right about the region’s need for economic development. Syrian refugees have poured into the region in recent years and now comprise one-third of the area’s population, according to Rami Lakkis, the founder of the Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training, a Baalbek-based development organization. They are competing with low-income Lebanese for jobs and putting a strain on the area’s weak institutions, he said, particularly its water supply—a crucial component of its agriculture sector. Lakkis said that his organization receives thousands of applications for work. “We are operating a kitchen to provide food for poor families,” he said. “We thought that it would be mainly for Syrians and we could not get Lebanese to come, but now we found that the Lebanese also need to come to get the food to feed their families.”
Hezbollah’s campaign rhetoric seemed to acknowledge economic grievances as a potential political weakness. In a shift from past campaigns, party officials focused on development and anti-corruption as major themes, instead of emphasizing its struggle against Israel or in Syria. “Hezbollah and their allies will address serious shortcomings and make up for mistakes made in the past,” Nasrallah vowed in his final pre-election speech.
For Hezbollah’s supporters, however, such mistakes pale in significance to its powerful security role. The party successfully convinced the vast majority of Shia voters in Baalbek that casting a vote for its candidates was akin to voicing their support for the party’s role in protecting them from what they see as threats in Israel and Syria. At the same time, Nasrallah lashed out at those running against the party: These figures, he said, “conspired with armed groups to occupy your towns,” reiterating his previous claim that opposition politicians are allies of the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadists.