Tuesday, December 21, 2010

WikiLeaks, Pew and Hezbollah

Not one leak from Wiki about the Middle East, not even a single cable, qualifies as a shocker.

Beyond the gratification of catching rabbits in the headlights that has brought a big, toothy smile to the grumpiest of faces, we are today exactly where we were before Julian Assange hung, for all to see, our dirty Arab laundry.

That Elias (nicknamed Lulu) al Murr, the Lebanese (Christian) Defense Minister, felt free to advise our Israeli neighbors to hit, in the next war, only Shiite areas and spare “sympathetic” Christian ones, that he so kindly informed the American Ambassador to Lebanon that Shiites join the army to eat, while Christians do it for country, frankly, came as no surprise to most Lebanese. It was not so long ago that some of us were harrumphing openly about the odor of Shiite piss in the center of Beirut, when Hezbollah set up and manned much of the tent city in 2006 and 2007.

In effect, what Murr had downloaded to American ears, he and his ilk—and there’s plenty of them—were burping over dinner tables and expelling in drawings rooms for more years than one dares count. Which explains why Murr is still Defense Minister, why President Michel Suleiman, who chose him as part of his quota in the cabinet, did not feel compelled to issue a this-has-nothing-to-do-with-me statement, why Hezbollah has yet to pillory Lulu (must not be the optimal time to play this chip) and why life just goes on in this “prototype” of a country. It’s also why a smirk, and never shock, claims us for keeps when we’re done reading the day’s batch of disclosures.

Still, how could information so passé and predictable be so delicious? Well, first off, there is that Gotcha! moment that never fails to satisfy, especially us Arabs, precisely because it’s only the people high up who are always having all the fun.

Tell the truth, how lucky was John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, to be privy to the advice of Saudi Arabia’s king Abdullah on Guantanamo’s released detainees?

His Majesty: “You should put an electronic chip in the legs of those detainees. It really works. We do it to eagles and horses.”

Brennan: Humm... Nifty idea. Except that horses don’t have good lawyers.”

Besides, it’s one thing to know that hypocrisy (not to mention sheer idiocy) is alive and well in politics, it’s quite another to see it live, in action, and not to have to wait for the rare slip up or the history books.


But now that things might come to a head, once more, in Lebanon, WikiLeaks’ exposures do serve as a useful reminder of the very thorny terrain that meets the many-turbaned Hezbollah beyond its own diehard Shiite expanse. A terrain which the last, and just published, Pew Research Center Survey of Muslim Attitudes (April-May 2010) has rendered in telling numbers.

Of these results, three summarize succinctly the delicate realities that the Shiite movement has to work with as it erects different shields to protect it against various indictments that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is almost sure to issue against it for the murder of Rafiq Hariri: an extraordinary 94% of Lebanese Shiites have a “favorable opinion” of Hezbollah, while an equally potent 84% of Sunnis and 79% of Christians do not.

Adding a coat thick with meaning to these three brass tacks is the survey’s gauge of passions for and against the group: whereas 31% of surveyed Lebanese have “a very favorable” opinion of it, a heftier 51% have a “very unfavorable” one.  

And although the available report does not isolate the percentage of those Shiites who have a “very favorable” opinion as opposed to those who are “somewhat favorable,” which would give us an idea about how that 94% divides up between the real enthusiasts and the tepid ones, it is reasonable to conclude from the above data that much of the fervor that holds up the 31% comes from the Shiite community itself.

In simpler language: at home, Hezbollah is pretty much on its own. While it clearly can snuggle up content in the embrace of its folks, the rest of the country is lined up against it.

Not particularly irrelevant sentiments for the resistance as it revs up to deal with an anticipated offensive of the legal kind by the Special Tribunal and possibly of the opportunistic variety by an Israeli foe with one eye cast on its northern borders and the other gazing far at the Persian horizon.  

To those who have puzzled over the Party of God’s insistence, up to barely a minute ago, on aggressively upping the ante against Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri (reject the court or else!) at a time when it supposedly needs to be searching for a happy middle ground in a hostile climate, therein lies their answer: Hezbollah knows that, in Lebanon, it has already lost much of the non-Shiite audience, and whatever mediums there are, none looks remotely happy. With its back very close to the wall, the movement thought it might as well try some relatively high stakes tactics.

Moreover, Hezbollah also figured that, iffy as the situation clearly is, it’s still not doing too badly. Enveloped by the love of its “people,” stacked up to its teeth in arms, protected by devoted worriers, surrounded by foolish Lebanese adversaries and backed by crafty Syrian and Iranian allies, the party felt that it could afford to rattle the other side with some very intimidating maneuvers.

And so, as the Syrians and Saudis huddled to hammer out a solution, forefingers wagged, eyebrows locked lips, tenors rose, warnings were issued, “cell phone” evidence was bashed, false witnesses were displayed as proof of foul play, the cabinet was brought into a veritable standstill and red lines were drawn. Hezbollah was signaling that it is indeed agitated, pumped up and ready for action.   


This is where WikiLeaks and Pew’s survey reenter the scene and make a stronger stand.

Serious as the court challenge might be to Hezbollah--and, judging by its behavior, the evidence looks like it might well be packing a punch--its options are, in fact, very limited and chancy.

Although the movement has, as of late, retreated into quieter rhetoric, the gossip is that it would not hesitate, and is even planning, to take over Lebanon to “cut off the hands of the conspiracy.” But the truth is, if Hezbollah actually pursues this path, it would fire up rather than snuff out the plot against it.

Hezbollah’s juggling of its many intertwined identities is not easy in the best of times; in bad ones it can be downright perilous. This, after all, is a force that is at once a social movement, a single-sect political party, a member of parliament and the cabinet, a resistance against Israel and a strategic bridgehead for Syria and Iran.

By turns, and by choice, it is Shiite, Lebanese, Persian and Arab, depending on the day and the argument. It holds serious political sway but is very happy not to reign except over its own dominions. In many ways, it supersedes the Lebanese state but, for insulation, still craves its political cover. It likes to parade as if in no need of legitimacy but fights tooth and nail for every supportive parliamentary decree and cabinet edict.

It is feared but not liked, even by the followers of Maronite Michel Aoun, its most critical local ally. The Sunnis hate it, and those few who side with it for love of the resistance or dislike of the Hariris will decline—as they did during the violence of May 2008—to side with it if it directs its weapons against their sect.

Ponder the advice given only two days ago by ex Prime Minister Selim Hoss, a traditional Sunni friend of Hezbollah’s and perhaps one of Lebanon’s mildest and most decent politicians: “We believe that the resistance is one of the necessities of life…for the Arab people so long as Israel is bent on a policy of aggression, confrontation and unbridled greed. So let the resistors beware that they have no business in the internal affairs of Lebanon and that their main focus should be on the southern borders.” (Al Hayat newspaper, December 20, 2010).

Pointing its guns inside a very divided Lebanese house would dangerously expose and overburden Hezbollah at a time when it should be at its most lithe and lightest, not only for its sake but for those of Syria and Iran.

This leaves the Party of God with action of the strictly civil and political type: massive peaceful street demonstrations, collective resignations from the cabinet, parliamentary votes of no confidence.

No more and perhaps much less, depending on what Syria And Saudi Arabia work out on Sa’ad’s and its behalf.