Not the "people power" Bush had in mind

Sending hordes of supporters into the Beirut streets, Hezbollah upstaged the opposition. But can the militant group decide what part it wants to play?

Published March 11, 2005 8:49PM (EST)

The Cedar Revolution is turning out to be a lot dicier than many of its proponents thought. The idealized image of a popular uprising from across the spectrum of Lebanese society was shattered Tuesday when Hezbollah, the militant Shiite organization, and several other groups loyal to the current government turned out in the hundreds of thousands, dwarfing even the largest anti-government protests.

In the weeks after a mysterious explosion killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, thousands of people took to the streets, defying the Syrian-controlled government and blaming Syria for the killing. Over the weeks, the protests gained momentum, eventually forcing the resignation of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami.

But then Hezbollah, which relies on Syrian support for its military wing (it remains engaged in a low-intensity struggle with the Israelis on Lebanon's southern border), reversed its policy of neutrality and threw its lot squarely with the Syrian presence in Lebanon and against U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. The resolution not only calls for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon but also demands that all militias disarm -- a direct threat to Hezbollah's existence, or at least its current double existence as both political party and armed force. (Hezbollah was the only non-governmental organization allowed to keep weapons after the long Lebanese civil war ended.)

Hezbollah's intervention revealed that the anti-Syrian movement does not represent all of the Lebanese. Upper- and middle-class Christians and Sunni from Beirut, along with the most powerful Druze group, make up the opposition. But the poorer, largely rural Shiites are aligned with Hezbollah, which has taken the position that the anti-Syria campaign is an act of foreign interference by Israel, the United States and France to divide up Lebanon and weaken both Hezbollah and Israel's opponents to its north. Hezbollah is presenting itself as a national-minded party (during the demonstration its trademark yellow flags were banned, replaced by Lebanese flags) working to keep the country together in the face of subversive foreign attempts to foment unrest.

"Lebanon is open to a major threat," says Mustafa Hajaralli, the head of Hezbollah's political analysis committee and a member of its Politburo. "[Resolution] 1559 is a project intended to cause internal divisions within Lebanon and undermine the civil peace," he says, sitting in Hezbollah's main public relations office, a huge portrait of the late Grand Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran staring down upon his guests. "We will strongly defend against this threat, which we know is a foreign-backed movement to divide Lebanon and send it back to civil war. Lebanon has paid a dear price economically, socially and politically to keep the civil peace and we must continue to protect it because of the strategic threat that is facing the countries of the region."

Every day, it seems, President George W. Bush talks of the need for the people of the Middle East to be free to speak their opinions and be free and democratic. But it is unlikely that Hezbollah's freely expressed ideas -- denouncing the United States, calling for "death to Israel," defending the armed struggle, and asking Lebanese to express gratitude for Syria's help -- were what he had in mind.

Until Tuesday's enormous demonstration, the Bush administration had insisted that Hezbollah was a terrorist group and refused to deal with it. The demonstration revealed the futility of that approach: Like it or not -- and the neocons in the Bush administration hate it -- Hezbollah is a major player in Lebanon, and it cannot be ignored. That reality was reflected in the administration's decision, reported in Thursday's New York Times, to work with Hezbollah.

"The main players are making Hezbollah a lower priority," a diplomat told the Times. "There is a realization by France and the United States that if you tackle Hezbollah now, you array the Shiites against you. With elections coming in Lebanon, you don't want the entire Shiite community against you." Shiites make up 40 percent of the Lebanese population.

Complicating matters further, on Thursday the Lebanese Parliament reappointed Karami as caretaker until the parliamentary elections, scheduled for May.

As for Syria, it is moving slowly. The Syrians have begun a superficial pullout of some troops and are redeploying others to distant mountaintops near the border. However, the opposition insists that unless the Syrians withdraw their pervasive intelligence services, which have actively harassed opposition members, no honest Lebanese discussion of the critical issues can take place.

Hezbollah, or the "Party of God," was formed in the 1980s with funding by Iran. In its early days it staged numerous terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western targets in Lebanon, pioneering the use of the suicide car bomb. Since then it has moved away from the use of such tactics, although the United States and Israel accuse it of involvement in several terror attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets in Argentina. Hezbollah considers itself a legitimate resistance group -- it formed in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon -- and denies engaging in acts of terrorism against civilian targets. Hezbollah effectively argues that it fought a clean war against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and that outside the occasional clash in the still occupied Shebba Farms region on the border, it has refrained from violence since the Israeli pullout in 2000.

Hezbollah's military success against the Israelis, and its extensive social and welfare programs, have made it hugely popular among many Lebanese. Even among those who don't support its militant stance, few are willing to publicly criticize it, fearing they would appear to be pro-Israeli or pro-American. And even if many of the hundreds of thousands that took to Beirut's downtown area Tuesday had been cajoled, bribed or threatened by Syria and its Lebanese allies to attend, the massive size of the rally established Hezbollah's clout beyond all doubt.

"Not all of the demonstrators were Hezbollah or Syrians," says Dr. Nizar Hamzeh, a Hezbollah expert and professor at the American University of Beirut. "But the protest did try to reflect the other voices of Lebanon, not just the ones that have been heard in the opposition. There is a high level of frustration displayed by people that maybe are not really supporters of Hezbollah or [the more moderate Shiite group] AMAL, but wanted their voices heard."

"There was a definitely genuine Shiite element to the rally," according to Malik Habib, a pro-opposition intellectual who teaches at the Lebanese American University. "There were people who had things in common with Hezbollah, and the Shiite have historically been marginalized in Lebanese society. They have been the rural poor and now are politically coming into their own and making their presence in the political scene felt."

The opposition, Hezbollah's Hajaralli says, brought the wrath of Hezbollah on itself by reaching out to the international community to solve what Hezbollah sees as a Syrian-Lebanese issue. And the group -- which has an estimated 20,000 fighters on the border with Israel, and 13 members of Parliament -- dropped its pretense of neutrality when it saw the opposition acting to remove the leaders of the country.

"Lately, people have felt this is an attempt to divide Lebanon toward political chaos by creating a political void," Hajaralli says. "The resignation of the government represents such a void. We feel there is hostility [from the opposition] towards the security situation, so Lebanon will fall into a void and the international community can use this an as excuse to further intervene here."

Opposition sources, who asked to remain anonymous, have said that they respect Hezbollah's political power and military might -- its well-trained and experienced militia could probably defeat the Lebanese Army itself -- and want an open dialogue with it. For his part, Hajaralli alternated between calling for an open dialogue with the opposition on the role of Syria in Lebanon's affairs, and accusing the opposition of not supporting Hezbollah's continued resistance against the Israeli occupation of a small portion of southern Lebanon.

"Dialogue is the basis for any solution," Hajaralli says. "We should launch an internal dialogue among the Lebanese to reach a conclusion that is a unified opinion of the government toward the presence of Syria in Lebanon. But the opposition, by making contacts with the international community, had escalated the situation more and more, undermining national unity in an effort to draw international pressure for its goals."

"This international pressure is backed now by the threat of military intervention," he adds. "The opposition is living an illusion because it thinks it represents the voice of the Lebanese people. And this erroneous image was shown around the world in the media. We did not make this demonstration to organize a showdown with the opposition. We held it because it showed the voice of Lebanese concern."

But it remains unclear what Hezbollah really wants. Is it jockeying for position as a political party in a post-Syria Lebanon, or does it want to remain a resistance group? The potential loss of its protector -- Syria provides a safe haven, while Iran supplies much of the group's cash -- would leave Hezbollah in a vulnerable position.

Hajaralli addressed accusations that Hezbollah is Syria's cat's paw by going on the offensive. "Let's stop beating around the bush. When the opposition says that there can be no talks as long as there is Syrian influence, they are insulting us," Hajaralli says. "As if we are the servants of Syria, which is not true. The Lebanese need to stop pointing fingers at themselves and stop calling each other traitors. [That is why] we have not called the opposition traitors, but instead we call it a hazard.

"Even as Syrian troops are leaving Lebanon, the opposition says that the influence must stop," he adds. "This is a vain argument and nothing but lame excuses to avoid dialogue. It is extremely dangerous."

Malik Habib, a strong supporter of the opposition, says that with a Syrian pullout, Hezbollah will be forced to the bargaining table to deal with its countrymen. "They thrived on the Tehran-Damascus axis, which provided them with strategic depth," he says of the group. "And they are concerned that this anti-Syria movement will weaken them. So imagine much of this as muscle flexing as they announced to the world on Tuesday, 'Nothing can work without us.'"

"It's a signal that they will have clout in the emerging Lebanon," he continues. "But I think they can be brought into the fold [of post-Syrian Lebanese politics] and defanged without firing a shot. They are certainly smart enough to not risk the gains they have made as a legitimate voice of the Lebanese Shiite, so there are face-saving ways out for everyone. Start by coordinating their forces with the Lebanese Army; declare them the great victors of the south [against Israel], etc. Hezbollah is more careful on the ground and more ambivalent about these developments than any of their patrons."

After listening to the rhetoric coming from both sides, Hamzeh, the AUB expert on Hezbollah, is less sanguine. "It is alarming," he says. "At least in the demonstrations, despite both sides basing their actions on the common factor of Lebanon. It seems there is a deadlock and the chance of dialogue does not seem to be working."

Despite the opposition's apparent position that Resolution 1559 can be implemented and fair elections held without putting Hezbollah's role as a resistance group under total scrutiny, Hezbollah and its leader, Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah, do not trust the opposition's intentions. "In a speech during [the Shiite holiday] Ashoura last Saturday, Nasrallah sounded like he wanted to wait and see," Hamzeh says. "But after seeing the amount of effort the opposition put into courting the international community, of which many members are sworn enemies of Hezbollah, he decided to push back."

Despite his concern about the rhetoric, Hamzeh is not worried about imminent violence. "I do not see disarming them by force, because force would be countered by force," he says. "There is a starting point even if the mistrust is great. They could [both] accept that if you want to implement 1559, then it should be up to the opposition or new government to sit down and discuss with the group whether the armed component of the resistance is still needed. It's the paradox of Lebanese politics. There is so much mutual mistrust by the different factions of each other that they can barely talk. Yet, the international community cannot guarantee [or intervene] because of those issues. Lebanon has to do this itself."

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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