Shia versus Shia: The Amal-Hizbullah Divide. An Interview with Shady Alkhayer

By Katerina Karakatsanis 

CCC sat down with Shady Alkhayer, a PhD student of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. Shady is currently investigating the relationship of two Shia groups, Amal and Hizbullah, who both fought in the Lebanese Civil War which lasted from 1975-1990. Although it is no secret that animosity existed between Amal and Hizbullah, little research has actually investigated their relationship. For Shady this is important as many conflicts, including the Syrian War, are too often described in sectarian terms whilst on the ground fighting also occurs among the same religious group.

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What is this divide?

My research is an investigation of the dynamics between Amal and the Hizbullah, the two Shia movements in Lebanon. The reason why this is interesting is that no one has really researched and understood the detail of what happened on the ground in the Lebanese Civil War and the way it links to the current events in Syria and Lebanon.

My supervisor and I thought it was a good idea to look into the tension between the two and how this was reflected on the Syrian/Iranian lines as this was a very important element of the Syrian- Iranian intervention in Lebanon during the 1980s. Syria and Iran had different approaches toward Lebanon. Both had different interests and approaches, and while Syria was backing Amal movement and Iran was backing Hizbullah. And, thus, they clashed against each other and Amal and Hizbullah engaged in a very brutal Shia-Shia war. Although some have argued that this was a proxy war, others have claimed that both Amal and Hizbullah had their own agendas and were not merely acting on behalf of Syria and Iran. Nevertheless, very few have looked into these events and, more importantly, barely anybody wants to talk about it and I discovered while trying to do interviews for my fieldwork. It isn’t that I want to dig up things again, but I think the reason why these events are interesting and need to be examined in further detail is because it can give us a completely different picture of the Lebanese conflict from the ground.

How did this research topic come about?

When I submitted my proposal to King’s to do PhD, being a Syrian student, I naturally had in mind to do something about Syria and I thought maybe I can do research that can help my country in the future. However, because the war has been shifting, doing PhD research on something that is changing was not very recommended. Also, it is not very safe to travel around Syria for data collection or interviews and if there is no data collection, how do you do fieldwork in Syria? So I was thinking about the next best thing and decided that it was Lebanon. Although Lebanon also has been undergoing political and economic turmoil, it still remains a relatively safer place to carry out field-work and a better place to find archival materials, so I picked a historical topic.

At this stage, I began thinking of which Lebanese historical aspect might be interesting and original for a PhD topic. My supervisor advised that I should benefit from my background and being native Arabic speaker because I can research original archival material and conduct interviews. Still, during the first year, my proposal remained general and I spent most of the year reading and trying to narrow down the proposal and focus on one specific aspect that can be built up and become a dissertation. Through my reading on the Lebanese civil war, I found that the aspect of the Shia mobilization during the war, the emergence of Amal movement and then Hizbullah and the intra-Shia dynamics were less focused on. Although there are many books on Hizbullah, there are very few on Amal movement, and even less on the Amal-Hizbullah relationship.

What are the implications of this?

Although my topic is historical, it tries to link the ground-level with the ideological and political aspects of these events and conflicts. This might be useful when trying to understand the most pressing issues of today. Take the current conflict in Syria and the Vienna Peace Initiative for example. While all the focus by the international actors has been on finding a political settlement to the Syrian war, the way that this political settlement might be implemented and reflected on the ground is still largely misunderstood. Through my research, I have learned that who controls the ground will have the upper hand in any settlement, and this in turn, explains the failure of the Istanbul-based Syrian Opposition Council that have no authority on the ground. For this reason, even if the regime would agree to a ceasefire with this opposition, there is very little chance of this actually being reflected on the ground. During the Amal-Hizbullah conflict, the leaders of both parties agreed on a ceasefire many times, however, it was never implemented on the ground and fighting which had its own momentum. It didn’t stop until a firm Syrian-Iranian intervention forced the two sides to reach reconciliation (and the Syrian army remained on the ground to enforce this reconciliation).

The case of Amal-Hizbullah also highlights how the emergence of new movement from within a traditional movement often leads to the clash of these movements. Both of these movements, while having similar ideological and religious background are also competing for the same constituency, were resulted in direct conflict.

After forming the core basis of my research argument, I began thinking; how am I going to do this? What kind of primary sources can help? And are these primary sources available? Answering these questions is essential to pass the first year upgrade and then begin the actual fieldwork.

Fieldwork is the most interesting and ‘revealing’ part of the research. Before you do your fieldwork, you usually have previous impressions or hypothesis of what might have the answers to your research questions. Then when you go and actually study the archival materials and do the interviews, you finally understand both the extent and the direction of your research.

Did you do a lot of archival research?

Yes, I went to AUB (the American University of Beirut) and spent around five months studying their archives. They have an excellent collection of archival materials which are well-organized and preserved on microfilms. The only setback was that there was no searching system so I had to manually go through each newspaper, page by page, and this was very time-consuming but also very rewarding. I focused on the Lebanese newspapers of the 1980s that reported the emergence of Amal and Hizbullah and their conflict and I have found everything that I need.

Studying the newspapers of Hizbullah and Amal was very revealing and interesting. I couldn’t help but wonder why there are so many books on Hizbullah, especially by native Arabic speakers, but only very few who actually studied these original materials.

Now that I am back in London, I’m still working on these primary sources. Transcribing and translating them in order to incorporate them into the dissertation. Although this is time-consuming work, it is very important and relevant.

What do you think is the most surprising thing that you have found?

 The most surprising thing that I have found in my fieldwork is what I have found in the Hizbullah and Amal newspapers. In their reporting of their mutual conflict, I have found the depth of the ideological, political, and territorial clash between the two groups that was manifested in the language they’ve used against each other.

Unfortunately, I was not very successful in revealing a similar depth in my interviews. I contacted and tried to interview Hizbullah and Amal movement, but with no luck since they have decided not to talk about these old black days and “dig-up old wounds”, as one Hizbullah MP argued.

What is the situation now between the two groups?

One should understand the current Amal-Hizbullah relationship in the context of the pragmatism that shapes the Lebanese politics. Although signs of traditional competition and rivalry remain between the two groups, necessary alliance and accommodation is required to face mutual opponents. Still, the balance of power has greatly shifted in Hizbullah favour, being the dominant Shia party in Lebanon. More importantly, while Amal had surrendered its arms following the end of the civil war, Hizbullah (with Syrian patronage) remained the only armed Lebanese militia after the war.

This is actually how they were superior to Amal because Amal was not very powerful as a political party. Amal used to have Musa al-Sadr as a very pragmatic leader but then he disappeared [he disappeared in 1978 while visiting Libya]. With the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr, they lost their charismatic leader figure. So it went down-hill and turned out to be more of a militia. But then, after the war all of the militias were dissolved.

From Fighting to Joining the Political System: How does this tension work?  

In order to understand the evolving dynamics of tension and cooperation between Amal and Hizbullah, I tried to introduce three levels of analysis that could bring better understanding this conflict; ideological, political, and ground level.

For example, on the ideological level, the two parties sharply diverged. Amal was representing the traditional, moderate and pragmatic- Imam Sadr social and political movement which was later transformed to a pragmatic militia that gave less important to ideology. Hizbullah began as a purely ideological movement that was closely tied to the Iranian Islamic revolution and Khomeini’s Velayet el-Faqih and fully rejected the political system in Lebanon (in sharp contrast to Amal).

However, by the end of the civil war, Hizbullah reduced the radical tone of its ideology in parallel with the shift in the Iranian foreign policy toward more moderation. During this time, Hizbullah increased the political side of their activism in Lebanon.

Still, the ground-level analysis remains the key to fully understand what has actually happened. It’s very interesting to notice that while Hizbullah’s self-portrait on the ground remains unchanged and the party continues to stress the notion of armed Islamic resistance against Israel, its political side and engagement in the political system emerged in the forefront while ideology receded to the background.

With this new political Hizbullah, how will the recent situation in Lebanon, with the YouStink protests etc., affect their image? 

For the most part, Hizbullah tries to play a balanced political role in Lebanon. For this reason, they tried to stay neutral and not get involved in the YouStink protests. Hizbullah still tries to maintain the nostalgia of old days of their image being ‘above the dirty politics’ and they stress being the face of national resistance against Israel.

On the other hand, Amal movement remains very engaged in the daily ‘dirty’ Lebanese politics. Although it lost much of its ideological and political appeal inside the Lebanese Shia community, it maintains a network of political-business clientele.

This sounds like how in the Balkans, it wasn’t just Muslim-Serb-Croats but there were Muslim-Muslim clashes etc. So how do you think your research can help with research of what is going on in Syria?

Yes exactly. The war in Syria, although it seems to have a sectarian face, in reality is more of a political conflict that developed to a regional and international proxy power struggle. In this respect, studying the Lebanese civil war in general, and Amal-Hizbullah conflict in particular, will reveal that the Lebanese conflict was not sectarian. The same applies to Syria, although this case is more difficult because of the daily dramatic shifts and changes of this war.

Still, it is easier for the media and some scholars to try to explain the Syrian war in sectarian terms which is overly simplistic and misleading.

What do you think about Shia identity? If this divide isn’t talked about, do you think the new generation in Lebanon feels like one Shia group or another Shia identity divide depending on these groups?

This is a very interesting question. I’m not sure how the post-war Shia generation of Lebanon have perceived the Amal-Hizbullah conflict. Of course, the conflict has shaped the contemporary Lebanese Shia identity, but to understand how this was reflected on the new generation in general requires further research, which is will be very interesting.


Photos above from left to right: By Aflyhorse (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons & By Lurifox (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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