Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Domestication of Lebanon and Hezbollah?

Lebanon has been lulled to sleep. Sa’ad Hariri and Bashar Asad got together two weeks ago to bury the hatchet right next to its many victims. The two men kissed, conversed, ate, and now a new era, we are told, has begun between Syria and Lebanon. It all started with a bang four years ago and ended with kibbet batata (potato pie) and tabouleh. And so, for the umpteenth time in our majestic history we Arabs have put a fleeting end to death, mayhem and fury over a dish of delicious mincemeat.

On one side of the aisle, there are sighs of relief and, it goes without saying, some gloating. On the other, there is the dumbest look you’ve ever seen on the face of a Lebanese. Syria and her local allies are kind of giddy; the so-called members of the so-called March 14th coalition are looking like chumps. As usual, where the regional winds blew Lebanon flew.

Why they raged this way yesterday and are rushing that way today can be found in places of much more consequence than ours, like Iraq, Israel, Iran, the US... As to why Lebanon always goes where these winds want to take it, the answer is, I am afraid, corny and very Lebanese: there has never been enough faith in, enough commitment to, enough love for, this country to help it change its wayward ways.

It has thus been decreed that this decade shall end on a quiet note. But Lebanon’s demons are just napping, you understand. Soon, sooner than you think in fact, they will rise again and feed, as they must, on the chronic maladies of this land: its hideous sectarianism, its sects’ addiction to foreign sugar daddies; the utter contemptibility of almost all of those who preside unhindered over it; its feebleness in a merciless Middle Eastern terrain; the lameness of its state… There’s more where these came from, of course, but why bother?

These afflictions are the fixed eyesores that give the lie to every painter’s touch up of Lebanon. They’re the backdrops that give permanent anchor to its ever-changing landscape. And now that Hezbollah has unveiled its new manifesto, they’re the guides that have to accompany every reader’s travels through the many folds of its purpose.


Ever since November 30, 2009, when Siyed Hassan Nassrallah appeared by video link from deep in the ground of an unknown location to announce his party’s platform, there has been speculation that roaring Hezbollah was finally purring its way into the Lebanese den.

At 32 pages, the document is Rubanesque: plump, curvaceous and palpably pleased with its heft. And so it should be. If the Party of God’s stern-faced, agitated 1985 letter was its open bid for a place in Lebanon’s sun, then this manifesto is its quiet declaration that it has secured for itself a wonderful spot in it.

From occupation to liberation, from the wretched earth of downtrodden Shiism to the heights of sectarian power, from the womb of Khomeini’s revolutionary Iran to the warm bosom of warring Lebanon; from resistance, pure and simple, to the infinitely trickier threesome of resistance, deterrence and governance: this has been the journey of Hezbollah over the past two decades. It’s a movement that’s been there, done that, and the manifesto is meant to reflect the wisdom it has acquired along the way.

It is interesting, if perhaps nothing more than a coincidence, that Hezbollah has chosen to commit to print this hard-earned wisdom at a time when Iran’s civil society has been harassing its Islamist regime to get some of its own. There is something to be said for Hezbollah’s effort to downplay the political meaningfulness of the very controversial, and indeed very political, Wilayat al Faqih, when it just so happens the position and its current holder are rapidly losing so much of their luster in their Persian birthplace.

Although Hezbollah’s situation in Lebanon at the moment is somewhat more comfortable than that of its colleagues in Iran, the Islamist movement has had its share of retreats and embarrassments, the latest of which have been the Salah Ezzeddine financial scandal, revelations about rampant prostitution and drug-related crimes in the Southern Suburbs and Hezbollah’s failure, in spite of its best efforts, to win for “the opposition” a parliamentary majority in the June elections, all of which have tarnished the party’s brand and undercut its credibility among its own community of followers.

True, Hezbollah can, with great satisfaction, point to its performance against Israel in the 2006 war and Syria’s recent comeback in the region and Lebanon. But the party’s violent and unnecessarily thuggish turn on West Beirut in May 2008 was the flipside to the sacredness of its resistance status. And as reassuring as Syria’s rebound is, the Iranian system’s palpable distress is enough to suck the pleasure out of seeing Sa’ad Hariri crossing, as many had to before him, the much travelled road to Damascus.

Moreover, Hezbollah may still be basking in Arab adulation for its 2006 “divine victory” against Israel, but it knows very well that its weapons are sure to remain a source of tremendous distrust in the inhospitable sectarian environment of Lebanon. However many fights Hezbollah takes up against Israel, however loud it champions the cause of the disadvantaged and marginalized around the world, in this Lebanon it is seen as what it actually is: An armed Shiite movement, mighty in its dominion but with much less ideological and political sway beyond it.

In this way, Hezbollah has been seesawing between good tidings and bad over the past few years, and the manifesto reads like the effort of a seasoned party trying to protect its achievements, internalize its limitations and anticipate what may prove to be rough days ahead. In effect, this new statement of policy and belief is a truce between the area’s hardnosed realities and Hezbollah’s sense of its own prerogatives. Where it knows it has to and thinks it can afford to now, Hezbollah has “magnanimously” marched forward, and where it sees no reason to and cannot be compelled to, it is staying put.


On every key issue that has shadowed the Party of God since the Lebanese civil war’s end in 1990 and Israel’s withdrawal from the south in 2000, the platform stakes for it a new positioning in the local and regional arenas, the essential elements of which are these:

Hezbollah is a Lebanese, Islamic resistance movement that embraces Lebanon as its home and recognizes it as a nation unto itself. It accepts, even respects, Lebanon’s pluralism and has no interest in pushing for an Islamic revolution in it.

Furthermore, this Islamic resistance is neither a tool of Syria’s nor a submissive daughter of Iran’s, but an ally of both based on shared strategic understandings about the area’s main challenges: Israel and American imperialist designs. And whereas the resistance’s hostility towards the US is negotiable, its rejection of Israel is visceral and undying.

Hence the weapons stay. Hezbollah shall not disarm until and unless either the Israeli menace is permanently removed or the Lebanese state itself acquires all the features of a modern republic: justice, the rule of law, equality of all citizens before the law, transparency, strength, uncontestable authority, accountability, respect of people’s civil and human rights, functionality… These preconditions should not be a cause for alarm but a source of comfort to the Lebanese. The presence of a combat-ready, steely resistance that is integral to the socio-political fabric of Lebanon is a boon to and not a defiance of its weak state. All the more reason then to forge a collaborative partnership between this “popular resistance” and the Lebanese army, under which the former protects Lebanon from Israel while the latter safeguards its internal security.

Hezbollah’s Islamist orientation clearly has not been a barrier to its popularity and friendships with international causes that share its opposition to unbridled capitalism and imperialism. But as admired as it is everywhere that counts, towards the Arab status quo it is willing to offer only rhetorical admonitions, and towards the Arab opposition, including Islamist parties-- which, by the way, are barely mentioned in the 32-page document--only rhetorical consolations.

Put in another way: now that it is one of the masters of the divided Lebanese house, this Shiite, politico-religious, armed-to-the-teeth behemoth does not want to bring it down, it just wants to rearrange the furniture, tinker with the fixtures a bit and keep guard over it.

Obviously, Hezbollah would like to believe that there can be a peaceful marriage between its insistence on being weaponized and its desire to be a full-fledged partner in the Lebanese state. It would like to believe that there is no friction between the demands of armed resistance and the imperatives of political governance. And so long as the threat of Israel and the frailty of Lebanon continue to offer the pretext and Syria and Iran continue to give cover, this marriage, peaceful or not, will last.