A cut version of this piece was published in The Huffington Post on 3rd April 2012. This is an extended version, which I chose to publish here. I hope they convey the same message!
Once considered to be one of the strongest non-state military factions in the entire Middle East, we are now witnessing the decline of Hezbollah. Though it may seem to be at the peak of its career of might, in reality the popularity of Hezbollah in the Arab world — the bedrock of its legitimacy outside its Shiite core — is at an all-time low.
Like other Lebanese militias, Hezbollah has been through many phases of war and peace, adapting to the shifting internal and regional geopolitics by changing its rhetoric to galvanise popular support. But it never reached a point where it had to face a matter of political life or death, as is happening now.
Hezbollah officially started as a resistance movement in 1982—established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and inspired by the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini—to spread the Islamic revolution. During the 1980s, it became involved in the Lebanese civil war, as well as in the resistance against the Israeli occupation. It was one of many resistance factions, but managed to conduct high profile attacks like bombing Israeli army command centres in Tyre—which are, to my knowledge, the first known suicide bombings in modern history. I remember when Hezbollah’s men were stereotyped at the time as bearded Iranian militia with black ribbons on their foreheads, who claimed to be representatives of God on earth. They wanted to establish the Islamic State of Lebanon as part of the Ummah (The Islamic Nation). They were feared by people outside their close circle and community. But this image started to change a decade later when they won 8 out of 128 seats in the 1992 Lebanese parliamentary elections, thus gaining legitimate representation and indicating their acceptance to the Lebanese confessional system, at least for the time being.
This signaled a new phase of engagement with the wider Lebanese community and a greater understanding of the local sectarian balance of powers, which led Hezbollah to stop publicly calling for an Islamic state. It started using national symbols like Lebanese flags and other local signs, and less Iranian ones. It replaced the reference to the ‘Islamic Revolution’ on their flag with the ‘Islamic Resistance.’ All this was accompanied by a change in the rhetoric to the ‘Lebanese cause’ of defending the country and liberating its occupied land, rather than fighting for Muslims and the wider Islamic revolution, which crossed the borders. Since then, Hezbollah’s military power and political influence continued to grow. Due to the savvy marketing skills, massive social programs and considerable annual Iranian funds, Hezbollah’s popular support reached unprecedented levels.
Despite the fact that there is not a single Lebanese law that legislates for its existence, successive Lebanese — and Damascus-leaning — governments gave Hezbollah the legitimacy it needed. The Taef Agreement in 1989 ended the Lebanese civil war by calling all armed militias to disband and hand in their arms to the new legitimate state — no exception was made to any party in the new constitution. Except General Michel Aoun, who opposed Taef and claimed legitimacy as head of the new transitional military government. He was removed from Baabda by force in a Syrian-led assault and was ousted from his presidential residence on October 13, 1990.
Hezbollah became the de facto resistance in southern Lebanon, as all other resistance factions were weakened or practically banned from operating. Hezbollah had enough popular support to justify its existence. Its just cause of fighting for a fifth of the country’s land — which was occupied by Israel — gained the people’s sympathy and support. The popularity of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary General, reached its peak when his son Hadi was martyred in 1997 while fighting on the front line with Israel. This proved the sincerity of Hezbollah’s cause, and showed that Nasrallah is not an everyday politician, or just a militiaman; he was truly an exceptional, charismatic leader. I was not personally far from this sympathy too. During the Israeli offensive (dubbed by Israel ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’) against Lebanon in 1996, I donated blood like many others, and stood in the street with a wooden box to collect donations for charities helping the injured in the war.
In 2000, Hezbollah’s popularity reached another high after liberating the south of Lebanon from Israeli occupation, but things started to change straight afterwards. Israel withdrew from the Lebanese-occupied territories leaving presence in the disputed 25 km2 Shebbaa farms. The cost-to-benefit ratio debate about armed struggle was raised, after it was once a taboo. On 14th February 2005, the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated causing an unprecedented earthquake in Lebanese politics. We are still living with its tremors until now. The Syrian army was driven out of Lebanon as a result of the mass demonstration on March 14, 2005. Syria was confronted with the UN Security Council 1559 resolution which required all foreign troops to leave Lebanon. The anti-Syrian regime camp (and ultimately anti-Hezbollah) became more established, and Hezbollah became more aggressive— taking on a management role in Lebanon’s internal political game. Hezbollah basically replaced Rustom Ghazzaleh, the former head of Syrian intelligence apparatus in Lebanon, and led one of the two main camps which polarized the country until now.
in 2006, Hezbollah stood against the Israeli war machine and caused it a big political loss, at a considerable cost to the Lebanese infrastructure though. The Lebanese people offered its support to Hezbollah during the war, but this war – with its causes and results – will ultimately be one of the reasons to cause an internal Lebanese split.
Although Hezbollah managed to score major tactical gains in the past 6 years or so, but it betrayed the principles it always fought for, or said it fought for.
These principles were shattered by the strategic mistakes which would ultimately contribute to the erosion of its popular support. To start with, its fight with Israel; Hezbollah never confirmed its ‘scope of works’ and area of coverage; it was not clear if we were fighting for part of or all Palestine, or just the Lebanese land. It never clarified the goal it set to accomplish and at what cost to the Lebanese people. And it never allowed itself to be accountable to questioning like any other state institution, and never explained its chain of command which extends beyond the Lebanese borders. Or indeed it never felt apologetic to the fact that Lebanon is being dragged (in a “positive ambiguous way”) into issues, which had nothing to do with it, such as the Iranian nuclear issue.
The strategic mistakes continued. Hezbollah claimed it would never use violence to settle internal scores, but it did in 2008 when it occupied West Beirut in response to the government’s decision to remove its internal communication network, which it considered to be an act of provocation by the government. It always claimed Lebanese internal security was the sole responsibility of the government, but we saw Hezbollah’s proaction when it replaced the government when there was a need to do so, from its point of view. It protested against Fouad Seniora’s government requesting a ‘true’ unity government by securing the ‘blocking minority’ or a third of the government, but it didn’t hesitate, when the political opportunity arose, to oust Saad Hariri from the premiership of the following government to form its own non-unity government. Moreover, the fact that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) indicted four Lebanese Hezbollah-linked people in relation to 2005 Rafik Hariri bombing was another reason that tainted its image with some of the Lebanese and Arab people.
Hezbollah always claimed to be a movement defending the mustadaafeen or the vulnerable, but now denies the fact that innocent people are being killed in Syria by their government. This could prove to be Hezbollah’s biggest blunder. Sayyid Nasrallah covered the legitimate demands of the Syrian people and the known historic brutality of the Syrian police state with the blanket of ‘foreign intervention and conspiracy’ denial.
Nasrallah contradicted himself even more because he had previously hailed the Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak, and offered ‘everything he can’ to its success in one of his speeches. He didn’t object arming the Libyan the revolution which was supported by NATO. Despite of Emir of Qatar known Israeli connections at the time, Hezbollah warmly welcomed Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani in southern Lebanon, thanking him for his support in reconstruction after the July 2006 war. Now, it has turned him into a traitor, leading the ‘conspiracy’ against them via the Syrian crisis. Now in their media, the so-called Arab Spring is tainted with conspiracy theories, despite being called an ‘Islamic uprising’ by the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei.
Hezbollah still enjoys massive popularity within the Shiite sect, and some Christian factions within Lebanon, like General Michelle Aoun who was attracted by the uncontrolled access to power, fuelled by his appetite to govern after a long absence. Hezbollah has an estimated 40,000 missiles, controls parts of the Lebanese government (if not virtually all of it) and Lebanese parliament. They own radio and TV stations, in addition to many social and educational institutions.
Nasrallah’s popularity reached its peak during 1990s, when he was seen as a charismatic leader, for many even a hero and savior. When I stood behind its cause, I never imagined seeing Hezbollah’s flags being burnt in any Arab country. I also never imagined a large group of Lebanese people unified by their rejection to Hezbollah’s arms as the March 14 alliance did last year.
Something went wrong with Hezbollah, but the Party of God is yet to acknowledge the problem and deal with it. The same masses of people in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and the wider Arab world who once supported Hezbollah’s cause, cannot turn out – overnight – to be traitors who now support the conspiracy against it – as implied in the party’s rhetoric. If this massive drop in popularity is not a decline of Hezbollah, then what’s a decline?
Photo credit by AP: Shiite gunmen of Amal and Hezbollah in the streets of Beirut in 2008 during a dramatic show-of-force at which they tried to occupy West Beirut and parts of Mount Lebanon, clashing with some scattered Sunni and Druze gunmen on the way.