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Hezbollah Sticking to Their Guns

24/12/2010

Hezbollah is often seen as one of the more politically mature and sophisticated Islamist groups in the Middle East. The view has some justification. In its beginnings, the movement was little more than an insurgent cell on the payroll of foreign powers. The average age of this cabal lay perhaps in the mid-twenties: in 1982 the elder statesman, ‘Abbas al-Musawi, was thirty years old; Hassan Nasrallah was twenty-two. Whether or not they were indeed responsible for the suicide truck-bombings of UN barracks in 1983, often taken as their introduction to the world stage, it is clear that the group’s initial contribution to Lebanese politics was violence and zeal, in spectacular doses.

Today, this role is regularly played out in the more prosaic form of parliamentary participation. Blueprints for that most improbable project, an Islamic State in Lebanon, have been shelved. For all the rhetoric of ‘resistance’ (muqawama), the post-2006 rocket détente on Israel’s northern border looks very much like observation of international ‘rules of the game’, one that has withstood notable tests. Perhaps most significantly, the secretive young revolutionaries of the 1980s now stand at the head of a dynamic social movement encompassing, in one way or another, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese.

This is an evolution that cannot be dismissed, and might legitimately challenge preconceptions about the trajectory of Islamist politics in the Middle East. But all is not well in Lebanon, and Hezbollah are not angels yet.

The case of Hezbollah is unusual in that official political participation has not come at the price of foreswearing political violence. A decade after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollahjustifies its continued militarism on the basis of external considerations: the necessity of deterrence and ‘resistance’, broadly defined. But in reality, this apparatus is frequently turned inward. Violence, or the threat of it, underwrites Hezbollah’s political life in Lebanon.

In May 2008, then Prime Minister Fouad Siniora attempted to shut down Hezbollah’s military communications network and dismissed the head of security at Beirut Airport, widely seen as Hezbollah’s man. The response was immediate, and emphatic: Hezbollah and its March 8 allies moved into west Beirut in force, routing pro-government gunmen and seizing government buildings while the national army watched from the sidelines. As militants threw up check-points, the offices of Future TV, media organ of Saad Hariri, were ransacked and set alight. Powerless, the Lebanese government spoke of “an armed and bloody coup”. As so often, the sense of crisis proved infectious: sectarian violence flared between Sunni and Alawi factions in northern Tripoli, while at the regional level, as we now know via leaked cables from the US Embassy in Riyadh, the so-called ‘cold war’ between Iran and Syria on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia on the other, threatened for a moment to turn ‘hot’, with the latter calling, apparently seriously, for the deployment of a Western-backed “Arab force” to Lebanon. Although Hezbollah eventually withdrew, the point had been made: for all the parliamentary debates attended and ballots cast, the law of the jungle would continue to be the final arbiter in Lebanese politics.

Hezbollah and Amal fighters clash with pro-government gunmen, Beirut, May 2008  

The ongoing tensions surrounding the UN Special Tribunal into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri have tended to reiterate this brute fact. Hezbollah has pursued an interesting dual policy of political obstruction and paramilitary intimidation, attempting to block the tribunal through official channels while also pre-emptively rejecting its outcome and warning that “the hand that will attack any of our Mujahidden will be cut off”. Recalling the events of 2008, Nasrallah stated: “whoever is behind [the attempt to blame Hezbollah] will come to regret it. Everyone must know that on May 7, [2008], we merely lifted our hand, but we are strong enough to overturn ten tables…” Still more explicit threats have been made through allies: the pro-Syrian newspaperAl-Akhbar reported that Hezbollah has detailed plans for an armed takeover of “large areas of Lebanon” within hours of the UN indictments, and Michel Aoun has similarly suggested that Hezbollah’s reaction will be violent.

Against this background, Hezbollah continues to complicate zero-sum theories of political engagement and participation as the antidote to political violence.