Hezbollah and the Political Ecology of Postwar Lebanon


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Hezbollah and the Political Ecology of Postwar Lebanon
By Gary C. Gambill

Hezbollah's recent confrontation with Israel is commonly portrayed in the Western media as a proxy war instigated by Iran, with Syria cast as either coconspirator or clingy sidekick, and a fragile government in Beirut looking on helplessly from the sidelines. To be sure, Tehran has a very intimate relationship with the militant Lebanese Shiite Islamist movement and generously provisions it with arms (through Syria) and financial aid. However, while Iranian influence is a powerful enabling factor, the underlying dynamics of the conflict are decidedly local and Lebanon's governing elite is hardly out of the loop.

In a region where anti-Israeli adventurism is a ticket to instant acclaim, Hezbollah has the distinction of being the only organization openly permitted by its own government to carry out acts of violence against the Jewish state. Following the withdrawal of occupying Syrian forces last year, Lebanon's newly-elected (but largely incumbant) government adopted the same permissive policy as its predecessors. Despite considerable prodding by the international community, it declined to interfere with the continuing flow of Syrian and Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah, made no effort to obstruct cross-border raids and rocket fire into Israel, and even refused to publicly condemn such attacks. All of this in the face of a militia that is less than one-tenth the size of the 60,000-strong Lebanese army (with which it has never come to blows).

This tacit recognition of Hezbollah's right to bear arms and carry out acts of interstate violence from Lebanese soil is symptomatic of a longstanding political pathology - the governing elite's vested interest in the diversion of Shiite Islamist militancy away from perceived injustices at home. During the occupation, the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri relied on Syrian fiat (and corruptibility) to build an upper-class utopia of flat taxes and cheap foreign labor that devastated the Shiite underclass, a state of affairs Hezbollah tacitly accepted (and Iran subsidized) in exchange for an exclusive license to fight Israel. While this Faustian bargain was born in the shadow of Syrian occupation, it generated conditions mandating its own preservation - entrenched interests so at odds with Lebanon's socio-economic demographics as to be indefensible in the face of serious domestic upheaval and a Shiite political hegemon addicted to battlefield glory and willing to forego pursuit of revolutionary change at home in return for state-sanctioned freedom of action to pursue it.

When Syrian troops withdrew last year, the most powerful factions of the governing elite recognized that they needed Hezbollah's endorsement to win control of parliament in the 2005 elections and form a stable government afterwards. They have grumbled ever since about the price tag, but it is the alternatives - sharing power, addressing the acute income disparities underlying the radicalization of Lebanese Shiites and embracing a more inclusive vision of the future that might draw them into the political mainstream - that they are unwilling or unable to accept.

Origins of the Quid Pro Quo

Hezbollah was established under the auspices of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) following its entry into the Syrian-controlled Beqaa Valley of eastern Lebanon to organize resistance to Israel's 1982 invasion. Radical Islamism was already on the upswing among younger Shiite clerics in Lebanon by this time, but the Iranians arrived with plentiful cash, much-needed weapons, and - most importantly - a proven model for mobilizing Lebanon's long dormant Shiite underclass.

While those who formed the nucleus of Hezbollah's leadership nominally embraced Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of wilayet al-faqih (the theological basis for clerical rule enshrined in Iran's 1979 constitution), in practice the goal of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon was discarded (or indefinitely postponed) in the pursuit of armed struggle against foreign "oppressors" - namely, Israel and the West. This focus on jihad against outsiders converged perfectly with the interests of Iran's newly born Islamic Republic, which hoped to legitimize itself in the Arab world (by striking at Israel) and retaliate against the "Great Satan," while giving the Syrians a powerful incentive to permit a vast expansion of Iranian influence in Lebanon.

Although Hezbollah battled the Amal militia for control of Shiite areas and vigorously attacked Israel's Lebanese proxies, unlike other wartime militias, it never engaged in sectarian bloodletting (or fought a major engagement with the army) during the war. Ironically, this "purity of arms" (an important characteristic of its public image today) was partly the result of prodigious Iranian funding, which allowed Hezbollah to finance its operations and meet the social welfare needs of its constituents without competing with other militias for revenue.

Mobilizing the Shiite community to fight was not a difficult undertaking. The predominantly Shiite residents of south Lebanon had born the brunt of the Israeli invasion, which sent floods of refugees into the Beqaa and Beirut (already teaming with a 300,000 strong southern "poverty belt" of newly urbanized Shiites), eager for recruitment. Many politicized Shiites also felt victimized by the entry of an American and European multi-national force (MNF) into Beirut later the same year, not only because it was perceived as pro-Israeli, but also because its mission was to support a government beholden to the right-wing Christian Phalange Party (led by then-President Amine Gemayel) and Sunni Beiruti notables (e.g. Prime Minister Chafiq Wazzan) and quick to assert its newfound strength by unceremoniously ejecting Shiite squatters from posh neighborhoods of West Beirut near the airport ("too close to airplane flight paths," officials said).

Although Hezbollah avoided direct confrontation with the state, it lashed out with fury at the MNF, most notably with the October 1983 twin suicide bombings that killed more than 300 American and French servicemen, forcing its withdrawal in 1984. The following year, in the face of mounting Hezbollah attacks, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began redeploying to a thin "security zone" in the south. In a community starved of communal victories, these accomplishments were a political atom bomb. Hezbollah won the loyalty of its constituents less by awakening their religious identity (though this was a major part of it) than by salving their perceived powerlessness. As Sandra Mackey aptly observed, Hezbollah's jihad "made giants of little men who had spent their lives at the bottom of Lebanon's social order."[1]

When the late Syrian President Hafez Assad completed his conquest of Lebanon in October 1990, he reached an understanding with Hezbollah and the Iranians to keep it this way. In effect, Hezbollah tacitly suspended its pursuit of revolutionary political and economic change at home in return for a virtually exclusive right to organize "resistance" to the IDF in south Lebanon (other Lebanese and Palestinian groups were allowed only subordinate token participation). Massive Iranian arms shipments, airlifted to Damascus and driven overland to the Beqaa, enabled Hezbollah to build one of the best-equipped paramilitary forces in the world and abandon the suicide bombings, hijackings, and kidnappings of civilians that fed into its reputation as a fanatical terrorist group.[2]

Hezbollah's military success owed much to the ascension of Hassan Nasrallah as secretary general in 1992. Nasrallah turned the organization into an exemplar of discipline, obedience, and corporative spirit (perceptible even in Hezbollah's soccer team, Al-Ahd, which is said to have gone an entire season without receiving a red or yellow penalty card). With the help of IRGC commanders, he introduced a much more rigorous level of training and sophisticated new tactics, causing Israeli casualties to mount steadily.

Nasrallah also introduced a sweeping reorientation of Hezbollah's propaganda and pageantry from religious to nationalist discourse, which characterized its battle against Israel as a national liberation struggle, not a holy war. This not only broadened its appeal among non-Shiites in Lebanon and the predominantly Sunni Arab world, but also struck a chord among its core Shiite constituency. Until the rise of Hezbollah, Shiites had played a marginal role in the Arab nationalist movement and were commonly seen as a potential "fifth column" of Iran or Israel. The outpouring of praise for Hezbollah in the Arab media that greeted every successful military operation against the Jewish state satisfied a deep-rooted longing of Lebanese Shiites to vindicate themselves.

In return for its near monopoly on "resistance" to Israel, Hezbollah was obliged to drop its objections to (and, with strict limitations, participate in) a political system that bars Shiites, who comprise over one-third of the population, from the two highest government offices (the presidency and premiership are reserved for Christians and Sunnis, respectively, while Shiites are granted the less powerful position of parliament speaker) and allots them only 21% of the seats in parliament.

More importantly, Hezbollah was not allowed to robustly challenge the economic edifice of Syrian-occupied Lebanon, which steadily widened income inequalities during the 1990s,[3] while channeling an estimated $1.5 billion annually (nearly 10% of Lebanon's GDP) in graft to various Syrian and Lebanese elites.[4] Nasrallah said nothing as the unregulated influx of unskilled Syrian workers into Lebanon pushed the predominantly Shiite urban poor out of the workforce and Syrian produce smugglers drove destitute Shiite farmers into bankruptcy. Hezbollah was permitted to condemn the evils of corruption and criticize Hariri's economic policies, but not to mobilize the kind of protests that might threaten the stability of Syria's delicately managed political ecosystem in Lebanon. When former Hezbollah Secretary-General Subhi Tufaili split from the movement and tried to launch a "revolution of the hungry" in the late 1990s, his followers were hunted down by Lebanese army troops.

This state of affairs was, in effect, subsidized by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iranian funding (usually estimated at around $100 million annually) enabled Hezbollah to build a vast network of social welfare institutions that compensated for the ravaging impact of Harirism on poor Shiites, while much larger inflows of Saudi money into the Lebanese economy allowed Hariri (who made his fortune in the desert kingdom and was very close the royal family) to compensate for the ravaging impact of Hezbollah's war on his efforts to attract international investment.

Hezbollah's exlusion from government enabled it to cultivate a reputation for keeping its hands clean (in contrast to Iran, where governing clerics grew pervasively corrupt), a virtue that Lebanon's political elite dearly lacked. While most informed Lebanese can rattle off jaw-dropping examples of illicit aggrandizement by every major figure in government today, few can recall even a rumor of corruption by Hezbollah leaders. In a country where sons of political elites are sent to prestigious Western universities and groomed for lives of luxury, Nasrallah's 18-year-old son died fighting Israelis in southern Lebanon.


Hezbollah's apparent reincarnation as a national liberation movement led many outside observers to predict that it would promptly lay down its arms and transform into a "normal" political party once Israeli forces pulled out of south Lebanon.[5] For three months after Israel's May 2000 withdrawal, not a shot was fired along the Israeli-Lebanese border, earning Nasrallah a personal audience with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and several European ambassadors.

After the Palestinians launched the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, however, Hezbollah began launching sporadic cross-border raids and mortar attacks against Israel, citing a dubious territorial claim to the still-occupied Shebaa Farms enclave and Israel's failure to release 19 Lebanese prisoners in its jails. While these operations were largely symbolic (claiming around a dozen lives over the next five years), Hezbollah also began quietly expanding its rocket arsenal and playing a much more direct role in financing, training, and equipping Palestinian militants.

The conventional wisdom that Iran was responsible for Hezbollah's resumption of hostilities must be heavily qualified. Hezbollah's relationship with Iran is very intimate, even incestuous,[6] but this is precisely why it's unlikely that Nasrallah - the most beloved public figure in the Shiite Islamic world - lacked the freedom to do as he pleased. With reformers at the height of their power in Tehran, he could have found new allies to enthusiastically support any path he liked. Moreover, by this time Hezbollah's unparalleled popularity among Lebanese Shiites the world over had enabled it to significantly reduce its financial dependence on Iran (in relative, not absolute, terms) by raising its own funds at home and abroad.[7]

The Syrians, on the other hand, clearly had leverage over Nasrallah (every public figure in Syrian-occupied Lebanon faced the threat of instant termination for disloyalty) and a strong interest in obstructing normalization of Hezbollah. For newly ascended Syrian President Bashar Assad, the biggest problem with Hezbollah's normalization wasn't that he couldn't do without the strategic benefits of its participation in the anti-Zionist struggle (though this alone was certainly a sufficient motive), it was that the Lebanese postwar political and economic order he administered (and depended on financially) was simply incompatible with Shiite political and economic empowerment.

Assad's decision to call a halt to President Emile Lahoud's anti-corruption campaign (which had indicted several Haririst officials) and Hariri's return to office in 2000 after a two-years hiatus clearly signified that the core economic rules of the game in Lebanon were untouchable, while his refusal to permit Hezbollah to run against Amal in the Fall 2000 elections indicated that Nasrallah would not be allowed to convert his skyrocketing popularity into greater political power. While Nasrallah's loyalty to Iran and contempt for Israel may have been reason enough to invent a pretext for resuming hostilities, such slim pickings on the domestic front made it easy for him to ignore normalization advocates within Hezbollah and the Shiite community.

While Hariri complained privately to the Syrians (and to his Saudi and French allies) that Hezbollah's resumption of hostilities was obstructing his efforts to revive the economy, he had little interest in seeing it normalize - the prime minister wanted a docile Hezbollah that continued to honor its end of the quid pro quo (restraining Shiite impulses to challenge the state) while contenting itself with bellicose Jerusalem Day parades, and he believed that the Syrians could deliver that.

In fact, the Syrians probably couldn't have granted this wish (one reason for their lack of enthusiasm for the peace process with Israel). With Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leading a nationwide campaign of public demonstrations against the occupation, Assad needed Hezbollah to contain simmering Shiite resentment more than ever. In June 2002, Hezbollah briefly opened the floodgates by calling on the residents of a Shiite neighborhood in Beirut to disrupt a televised ceremony inaugurating the construction of a highway overpass (one of Hariri's senior economic advisors was badly beaten by a mob). In May 2004, Lebanese army troops shot dead five demonstrators protesting against fuel price increases, sparking riots throughout the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, leaving the Labor Ministry in flames. While Hariri's economic policies fueled Shiite angst, the attack on a government ministry controlled by a staunch Syrian ally (then-Labor Minister Asaad Hardan is a senior leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which advocates Syrian annexation of Lebanon) underscored that Shiite resentment was directed at the state writ large, and by extension the Syrians.

This is one reason why Nasrallah rarely endorsed the Syrian occupation in public speeches (in sharp contrast to Hariri and Lahoud) until 2003. He began speaking out in support of Syria (and even organizing pro-Syrian demonstrations) only after the West (and, more quietly, the Saudis) began pressuring Assad to disengage from Lebanon. Most Shiites suspected that this pressure was intended not so much to elicit a Syrian withdrawal, but to coerce Damascus into giving the Harirists and traditional Christian political elites more power and forcing Hezbollah to disarm.

The overwhelming majority of Lebanese Shiites oppose demands for Hezbollah's disarmament - not because they thirst for jihad against Israel (their perceptions of Israelis are very negative, but less prone to existential hatred than those of the Palestinians), but because they see the "resistance" as a form of compensation for being neglected by the state and a much-needed instrument of communal leverage and protection in uncertain times.[9] Most will not be willing to fully discard this bargaining chip until Shiites are given pride of place alongside Sunnis and Christians in setting the political and economic parameters of state policy.

The fact that UN Security Council Resolution 1559 called not only for the withdrawal of Syrian forces (which no one expected anytime soon), but also for Lahoud's departure from office (which would have allowed the Haririst parliamentary bloc to designate his successor) and the disarmament of Hezbollah was seen as yet another case of the West intervening against Shiite interests in favor of Sunni and Christian elites. As pressure for a Syrian withdrawal intensified after the February 2005 assassination of Hariri, Nasrallah drove this point home by calling a mass pro-Syrian demonstration that drew over half a million people, mostly Shiites, into the streets (a blunder, in fact, that provoked Lebanese Sunnis into joining anti-Syrian demonstrations in strength for the first time).

Hezbollah in the New Lebanon

The departure of Syrian forces in April 2005 did not alter the fundamental political dynamic underlying Hezbollah's special status - no one in the governing elite wanted to see Shiite Islamist militancy redirected to the domestic front, especially now that there was no Syrian referee. Furthermore, the Syrian withdrawal enormously strengthened Hezbollah's political clout ahead of the May-June 2005 elections. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal movement and other rival Shiite political forces that were reliant on Syrian patronage quickly subordinated themselves to Hezbollah (which graciously included them on its electoral slates), crowning the movement as Shiite political hegemon. In addition, Hezbollah was now able to form cross-sectarian political alliances freely, and it so happened that the two most powerful factions of the governing elite, led by the late Hariri's son, Saad, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, needed Hezbollah's electoral support to stem the advance of Aoun's secular nationalist FPM and win control of parliament.

While the FPM's political platform was largely (if somewhat vaguely) concurrent with the socio-economic preferences of most Shiites and Hezbollah had a long history of low profile coordination with the Aounists at the grassroots level (e.g. elections for professional associations), Nasrallah ultimately endorsed the Hariri-Jumblatt coalition (after flirting with both sides) for practical reasons. Hariri and Jumblatt were offering entry into the government and assurances that major decisions would be made only with the unanimous support of the cabinet (effectively ruling out any state interference with Hezbollah's military activities) and their coalition was favored to beat the FPM-led Reform and Change bloc (owing to an electoral law that effectively disenfranchised most Christian voters).[10] Although Aoun may have offered Hezbollah similar assurances, Nasrallah's endorsement probably wouldn't have given the nationalists a large enough plurality to carry out any promises made.[11]

For the most part, the new government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (a stand-in for Saad Hariri) faithfully honored the letter of the coalition's understanding with Hezbollah. It not only declined to deploy the army along the border in south Lebanon, but even ordered it not to disrupt Iranian re-supply of Hezbollah.[12] Moreover, Siniora and other Lebanese officials studiously avoided casting aspersions on Hezbollah's right to bear arms and fight Israel, while frequently denouncing the Jewish state in language similar to that of militants.[13] While members of the ruling March 14 coalition who don't hold government offices (including Hariri and Jumblatt) frequently reiterated that Hezbollah must disarm under Resolution 1559, they too shied away from criticizing its operations against Israel. After a team of Hezbollah commandos launched a daring (but botched) cross-border kidnapping raid last November, Nasrallah proclaimed that it is Hezbollah's "natural right" to capture Israel soldiers and declared, "If anybody in Lebanon believes that capturing an Israeli soldier is a crime and a terrorist act, then he should tell us now."[14] There were no takers.

Without the presence of Syria as a referee, the traditional quid pro quo between Hezbollah and the ruling elite has proven to be less stable, with both sides scheming to get better terms. In December 2005, Nasrallah directed all five Shiite ministers to boycott cabinet meetings in an effort to pressure Siniora into officially stating that Hezbollah is not a "militia" subject to disarmament under Resolution 1559. The two-month boycott almost succeeded. According to Michael Young, the opinion editor of Beirut's English language Daily Star, "Hariri supported a draft agreement reached in Saudi Arabia that would have resolved the ministerial crisis by having the government consent to open-ended resistance by Hizbullah in South Lebanon."[15] Standing in the way of such a deal was Jumblatt, who feared that the Druze would be isolated by a Hariri-Hezbollah accord and, lacking his own powerful foreign patron, was more receptive to pressure from Washington. In the end, Nasrallah settled for a televised declaration by Siniora that his government "will never call the resistance by any other name" (stopping short of denying that Hezbollah was a militia).

The ruling coalition's tacit endorsement of Hezbollah's continuing war against Israel was fueled by the keen awareness that no prominent Shiite public figures (aside from a few close financial associates of the Hariri family and discredited scions of the old feudal elite) would be willing to serve in the cabinet if Nasrallah called for a boycott. This is not because secular Shiites fear retribution by Hezbollah (which has no history of violence against political opponents), but because they would be ostracized by the Shiite community at large.

Most Shiites see Saad Hariri as a proxy of the Saudi royal family, handpicked to carry on his father's mission of transforming Lebanon into a corrupt, elitist republic with an "open for business" pro-Western foreign policy. The Shiite community's quiet acceptance of Syrian occupation was fueled substantially by fears that this vision of Sunni/Saudi domination (garishly expressed in the thousands of Saudi vacation homes that sprouted up in Lebanon during the 1990s) was the likely alternative. Siniora, the late Hariri's finance minister, is seen as a functionary sworn to preserve the ill-gotten gains of the occupation (Nasrallah is fond of claiming that Hezbollah alone used the Syrians in pursuit of a public good). Lebanon's most senior Shiite cleric, Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, spoke for many (both Shiites and non-Shiites) in a March 24 sermon when he lambasted the "thieves who made a fortune out of running the country" and called for a government of people "with clean plans and a clean history."[16]

The March 14 coalition has displayed little willingness to introduce the kind of "clean plans" that might alleviate this mistrust. In the Shiite community, true reform is understood to mean a reversal of policies that enriched the few at the expense of the many during the 1990s. By this standard, the current government is fundamentally anti-reformist. Siniora's economic reform program calls for greater gasoline and value-added taxes that would heavily burden the poor, while leaving one of the world's most regressive income tax scales in place and conspicuously neglecting obvious remedies to rampant corruption (e.g. independent regulatory bodies across the board).

Shiite distrust of the Harirists has been further inflated by the worldwide upsurge in sectarian violence against Shiites (particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), mostly by adherents of Saudi Arabia's militant Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism. Although there have not been any major outbreaks of sectarian violence against Lebanese Shiites, Sunni jihadists have expressed deep contempt for Hezbollah,[17] and Hariri has cultivated close ties with radical Sunni Islamists in Lebanon.[18]

Such concerns are hardly confined to the Shiite community. Most Christians feel that they were deliberately disenfranchised by the ruling elite in the 2005 elections (much as they were during the occupation) and fear Haririst/Saudi domination of Lebanon (though they typically object less to the inegalitarian economic fundamentals of Harirism than with the rampant corruption and state paralysis associated with it).

Hezbollah's growing alignment with the predominantly Christian FPM is partly rooted in these shared concerns. Together, the Hezbollah/Amal bloc and the FPM-led Reform and Change bloc (which swept all 21 seats elected in the few Christian majority districts that survived Syrian gerrymandering) control enough seats to obstruct the March 14 coalition's drive to impeach Lahoud and replace him with a Christian ally of the Hariri family (e.g. Ghattas Khoury). Faced with the choice of either consenting to the succession of Aoun or allowing the discredited Lahoud to remain in office until the expiry of his term in 2007, the coalition has opted to wait.

In February 2006, Aoun and Nasrallah signed a memorandum of understanding outlining a broad range of social and economic reforms, as well as modest political reforms that would erode Haririst political power, such as guaranteeing equal media access for candidates and allowing expatriate voting (the biggest Lebanese expatriate communities being Christians in the Americas and Shiites in West Africa). Most Christians are supportive of the FPM's efforts to build bridges to Hezbollah (77% approved of the February 2006 memorandum according to a survey by the Beirut Center for Research and Information).[19]

FPM officials insist that the question of Hezbollah's arms is simply impossible to resolve until fundamental reforms have given all Lebanese a stake in the system. Those who privately lobby Western governments to up the pressure on Hezbollah know that disarmament cannot precede reform, Aounists charge, but either have a direct interest in strained Sunni-Shiite relations (i.e. Jumblatt) or want to induce Hezbollah to be more accommodating on domestic economic and political issues (i.e. Hariri). Aounists preach that this proclivity to invite outside diplomatic, political, and military intervention in pursuit of even the most mundane objectives is the root of the country's weakness. In this case, they say, the costs will be much higher than foreign occupation - in view of regional sectarian tensions, failing to bridge the sectarian divide in Lebanon could mean civil war.

After the War

The July-August 2006 Israeli military campaign impacted Lebanon's political landscape in four critical respects. First, the unprecedented scale of the destruction swept away the perception that the "resistance" can violently confront the Jewish state at little or no cost to the Lebanese public. Second, the onslaught bolstered public support for Hezbollah among Lebanese Shiites (and, to some extent, non-Shiites). Third, the war demonstrated that the Bush administration's support for the March 14 coalition is squarely subordinate to its support for Israel (a fact of life obscured by the warm receptions accorded to Hariri and Jumblatt in Washington earlier this year) Finally, the war and its aftermath exposed the endemic corruption and paralysis of the Lebanese state. [for a detailed discussion of the war and its impact, see Implications of the Israel-Hezbollah War in this issue of Mideast Monitor for discussion of the above]

In simultaneously raising the costs of violence against Israel, weakening the March 14 coalition, and bolstering Nasrallah's political clout, the war has given Hezbollah an uprecedented package of incentives to throw its weight around in pursuit of communal political and socio-economic goals for the first time. Whereas in the past Nasrallah has said that Hezbollah will not disarm so long as Israel is a threat, he is now suggesting that it will not disarm until there is far reaching reform in Lebanon, a position he knows that the vast majority of Shiites support. "When we build a strong, capable, and just state that protects Lebanon and the Lebanese, it will be easy to find an honorable solution to the question of the resistance and its weapons," he declared at a "victory rally" on September 22.[21]

In the same speech, Nasrallah explicitly joined Aoun in calling for a more representative national unity government (i.e. including the FPM), followed by the drafting of a fair electoral law and early parliamentary elections. This has put the Hariri-Jumblatt coalition in the uneneviable position of having to reject textbook democratic transition steps to preserve its political dominance - a stance that Hezbollah and the FPM are convinced will be unsustainable in the face of mass protests (should it come to that).

Critics of Hezbollah insist that Nasrallah is simply saying what he knows the public wants to hear in order to bring down the government and advance his primary goals of establishing an Islamist state and destroying Israel - an argument that plays well in Washington. Aoun, on the other hand, has staked his credibility on the belief that Nasrallah will ultimately privilige the material welfare of Lebanese Shiites (if not the Lebanese people as a whole) over his radical anti-Zionist beliefs and loyalty to Iran. With no insurmountable obstacles to sweeping reform now on the horizon in Lebanon, time may soon tell if he is right.


[1] Sandra Mackey, Lebanon: Death of a Nation (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 218.
[2] Hezbollah operatives have been linked to numerous overseas terrorist attacks, including the bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in the early 1990s and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers US military base in Saudi Arabia. However, they appear to have been Lebanese operatives working directly for the Iranians who may or may not be answerable to Hezbollah (which denied involvement in all of these attacks).
[3] Although there are few reliable statistics on this, according to the World Bank "income inequality is generally believed to have increased" during the 1990s. Lebanon: Country Brief, World Bank, September 2005.
[4] The report was researched by a private company, Information International, commissioned by the United Nations Center for International Crime Prevention. See "Lebanon loses 1.5 billion dollars annually to corruption: UN," Agence France Presse, 23 January 2001; The Daily Star (Beirut), 27 January 2001.
[5] See, for example, Augustus Richard Norton, "Hizbullah: from Radicalism to Pragmatism," Middle East Policy, January 1998.
[6] Over the past two decades, some IRGC officers stationed in the Beqaa have gone native, marrying Lebanese wives and raising families. Some figures in Hezbollah's external operations branch, such as the notorious Imad Mughniyieh, have evolved into adjuncts of Iranian intelligence after spending years in Tehran.
[7] Although Iran's yearly contribution of some $100 million remained an important financial bedrock, by the end of the 1990s it was far outstripped by the movement's own fundraising (both at home and in the Lebanese Shiite diaspora), revenue from investments in Lebanon, and proceeds from overseas criminal enterprises ranging from the blood diamond trade in West Africa to cigarette smuggling and audiovisual bootlegging in the Americas.
[9] Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Hizbullah's arms and Shiite empowerment," The Daily Star (Beirut), 22 August 2005.
[10] The electoral law, drafted by Syrian military intelligence in 2000, bundled most majority Christian administrative districts (qadas) with larger Muslim districts to ensure that most of the 64 Christian parliamentary seats are elected in majority Muslim districts. In north Lebanon, for example, four predominantly Christian qadas were linked with three Sunni Muslim qadas. In Baabda and Aley, Christian minorities are imbedded in majority Druze districts. Christian towns in south Lebanon are subsumed within Shiite majority districts.
[11] The only district contested by both the March 14 coalition and the FPM in which Shiite votes were decisive was Baabda-Aley (where Jumblatt's electoral slate narrowly defeated the FPM). However, Hezbollah's endorsement of the FPM would likely have swung the votes of many secular Sunnis with leftist and Arab nationalist views.
[12] In February 2006, a Lebanese army patrol stopped a convoy of twelve trucks carrying Katyusha rockets and other weapons at the Syrian border and impounded them, but Siniora personally intervened a few days later and ordered that they be allowed to continue on to their destination (an account the prime minister himself later confirmed to the media). In April, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned in a report to the Security Council that the Lebanese Army has "not been authorized to prevent further movement of the ammunitions" from Syria to Hezbollah bases in Lebanon. See Third semi-annual report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559, 19 April 2006; "Hezbollah endures in Lebanon; Islamic guerrillas not easily disarmed, Western nations find," The Chicago Tribune, 19 April 2006.
[13] Commenting on the killing of seven Palestinians on a Gaza beach in June, allegedly by Israeli shellfire, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi (a Jumblatt appointee) denounced the "premeditated terrorist mass bloodshed" of Israel and called on the Palestinians to overcome their differences and unite. The Daily Star (Beirut), 13 June 2006.
[14] Al-Manar Television (Beirut), 25 November 2005. Translation by BBC Worldwide Monitoring.
[15] Michael Young, "What's gotten into you Michel Aoun?" The Daily Star (Beirut), 26 January 2006.
[16] "Fadlallah warns against non-Lebanese 'solutions'," The Daily Star, 25 March 2006.
[17] In 2004, influential London-based Syrian Salafi scholar Abu Basir al-Tartusi (Abd-al-Munim Mustafa Abu-Halimah) published a treatise claiming that Hezbollah is using the conflict with Israel to spread Shiite Islam throughout the world, as "there is no better window through which this goal . . . will reach the hearts and emotions of others in a faster way, than through the Palestinian window and the Palestinian cause." [See The Lebanese Hezbollah and the Exportation of the Shi'ite Rafidite Ideology, translation by the Site Institute, 23 May 2006] In a rambling anti-Shiite tirade released over the Internet on June 1, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi singled out Hezbollah as "an enemy" of Sunnis and accused it of protecting the Israeli border from attacks by Sunni groups. [A Series of Three Audio Lectures by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: "Did You Get the Message of the Shi'ites", translation by the SITE Institute, 7 June 2006.
[18] During the 2005 parliamentary election campaign, Hariri paid the bail for four Sunni jihadists who had been arrested in September 2004 for plotting to bomb the Ukrainian and Italian embassies in Lebanon and sent Siniora to personally attend a celebration where they were welcomed after their release. [Al-Safir (Beirut), 18 June 2005] One of the first acts of Lebanon's new parliament was the passage of an amnesty law freeing over two dozen suspected Sunni Islamist terrorists (seven had been detained for plotting to bomb the Ukrainian and Italian embassies in September 2004; twenty-six of the detainees were captured in 1999 during a brief, but bloody, Sunni Islamist uprising that left 40 people dead).
[19] Al-Diyar (Beirut), 11 February 2006.
[20] Al-Manar Television (Beirut), 29 July 2006.
[21] Al-Manar TV (Beirut), 22 September 2006. Lower-ranking Hezbollah officials talk even more explicitly of sweeping change. "Maybe after this it will be the right time to settle all our problems in Lebanon, all of the 'isms' we are famous for: nepotism, corruptionism," Ibrahim Musawi, the foreign news editor of Hezbollah's Al-Manar Television, told one Western journalist. [Jon Lee Anderson, "The Battle for Lebanon," The New Yorker, 7-14 August 2006.]

Gary C. Gambill is a country analyst for Freedom House and the editor of the Mideast Monitor. Formerly editor of Middle East Intelligence Bulletin from 1999 to 2004, Gambill publishes widely on Lebanese and Syrian politics, terrorism, and democratization in the Middle East. He can be reached by email at [email protected], or by phone at 646-242-1101.