Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hezbollah’s Quandary

A friend of mine is a bank manager in Beirut’s Southern Suburbs, Hezbollah’s own dominion in Beirut. Neither she nor I have any proof of it, but her appointment to that location most probably was a clear concession to Lebanon’s sectarian method. Well educated (an MBA from the very French USJ, Universite De San Joseph), tough and, yes, above all Shiite, her superiors must have figure she would navigate the terrain as “natives” would.

In Hezbollah’s playbook, my friend is a difficult number: a supporter of the Resistance against Israel and a skeptic everywhere else. She will, on many occasions, cut it some slack in the very confessional politics of Lebanon, but she will do it with eyes wide-open, ears perked up and a mouth poised to ask all the awkward questions. The iffiest kind of supporter, you might say, for an organization that prefers its lovers of the diehard variety.

I can’t be sure of this woman’s strength on the ground--most opinion polls point to strong Shiite support for Hezbollah, but none attempts to gauge the quality of it. However, I think I can get away with proposing that the nature and intensity of the battles the group often has to wage make her count. As prized as Hezbollah’s ardent supporters are, the Hezb knows only too well that loneliness in Lebanon’s sectarian wilderness is not exactly smart positioning, especially for a party whose ambitions are way grander than and too audacious for the country to which it presumably belongs. If Hassan Nassrallah indulges his quarrelsome Maronite ally Michel Aoun a tad bit too much, he indulges him precisely for that.

A while ago, my bank manager friend told me that her most annoying days at the bank are typically those that come in the immediate aftermath of a Nassrallah speech. Everything and everyone grows to sizes bizarrely larger than life—the muscles, especially those around the chest area, the swagger of peacocked-men into the branch, the demands for fee discounts, easier access to loans, bigger overdrafts… I am, so to speak, the shadow of my master.

None of that now. Of course, the theatrics of defiance are imperative for a group that always stands accused of (or is often up to) something, but listen harder and you will notice that the boys’ mood has in fact turned quieter. The indictments of four Hezbollah men in the murder of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 (“circumstantial” though evidence might be) and the trouble in Syria are conspiring to keep normally high heads down. And just because it’s such a delicious Gotcha! moment for its detractors, the air is abuzz with Hezbollah’s double standard in embracing revolt in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain while shunning it in Syria.  

No doubt, the sight of holier-than-thou warriors having to openly pick their way through the Arab uprisings, much like their hypocritical nemesis the West, is the perfect setup for a smirk. But as embarrassing as the nitpicking is to Hezbollah, the true source of its discomfort is more disquieting still.

For a while now, the Party of God has been wrestling with the headaches that attach to an enterprise that juggles, with insistence, its multiple identities as a military resistance, a political party and a social movement whose devotion to Persia’s Wilayat al Faqih (Khomeini’s Guardianship of the Jurist) is at once an unabashed show of supranational loyalties (normal among Lebanese sects) and an explicit statement about political orientation if not intent.  

Call it the heavy price of success. It is no small feat to start out fringe, Islamist and Shiite and grow within two decades into a military powerhouse with a track record of credible wins against Israel, a thriving local operation and region-wide appeal even in the staunchest Sunni quarters. Everything its progenitors dearly wanted it to achieve, Hezbollah did, for unlike Lebanon’s other sectarian bosses, its business, from the outset, was never really meant to be strictly Lebanese and, as unavoidably Shiite as it is, its concerns were never merely parochial.

But now, arguably for the first time in its 30-year life, Hezbollah is being forced to choose between its precious identities. Worst still, for the first time since its signature label—the resistance against Israel--won it faithful followers in ideological camps not particularly keen on any of its other titles, it’s being called upon to spell out the definition of this resistance.  

Rhetoric aside, the real tension between love of freedom and indifference to democracy is common among many a liberation movement. The nature of the battle compels it: the do-and-die climate, the feverish passion for the cause, the need for a stealth existence, absolute secrecy, unwavering discipline, total loyalty… For Hezbollah especially, it’s always been just as much about politico-religious beliefs as it is about the struggle itself.

But until the Arab uprisings, none of this really mattered: the Israeli menace--even after the 2000 withdrawal from South Lebanon--remained real to enough people, the region’s authoritarianism hard-wearing to enough people, Lebanon’s democracy a joke to enough people, society’s sectarianism agreeable to enough people, Hezbollah itself flexible to enough people… Although, mainly due to the party’s increasing potency over the past ten years, friction began to appear between its different priorities, the situation was more or less manageable—that is until the Arab uprisings.

In Hezbollah’s defense, a few commentators (not all sympathetic to it) have been arguing that the Arab rebels are asking too much from a force whose overriding mission is the fight against Israel. For all of Hezbollah’s pretensions and talents, these commentators add, democracy is one particular practice it was never interested in mastering, let alone embracing as part of its cause.

All true. And all irrelevant. However persuasive the fine points and nuances, Nasrallah never thought he would actually have to tiptoe around them. And now he has to—all the time. Finally, Freedom for Palestine, in Arab discourse, is no more an orphan. To love it is to love all its other long lost sisters--democracy, dignity, justice…—everywhere, for the sake of Palestine and us Arabs as well.

Hezbollah’s diehards don’t care one way or the other, but my bank manager friend does, along with all those who were happy to lend the Resistance plenty of good will in the name of Arab and Palestinian dignity.

The extraordinary irony in this singularly challenging regional circumstance is that the American-Israeli conspiracy, real or not, is actually tangential to this part of Hezbollah’s quandary. In fact, pretty much like Nasrallah, Khamenei and Bashar, neither the US nor Israel, each for its own patently obvious reasons, is particularly happy to see Palestine reunited with its sisters.

The indictments, Syria’s anguish and the threat to strategic depth and breathing space, the Sunni-Shiite fault lines in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s own delicate internal power politics, the emergence of Turkey and its   clever game plan for Palestine and the Arab revolts: all these make for an unusually demoralizing suite of challenges for Hezbollah. But the pressures on it to come forward and own up on the critical question of resistance, in its full, unbridled meaning, may yet prove the most daunting of them all.