June 25, 2009

Hizbullah's Self-Defeatism

I don't think I am the only one to note the uncharacteristically ill-considered statements that have been pronounced by the militant Lebanese party over the past few months. Observers of Lebanese politics, irrespective of their political affiliation, used to admire the group's shrewd politics, and charismatic speeches. This year, however, Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and his vice secretary general, Na'im Qassim, have been anything but diplomatic.

It all started with two infamous incidents that may have cost Hizbullah and its allies dearly in the last parliamentary elections in Lebanon. First, in what appeared to be a largely propaganda campaign aiming to influence the Lebanese elections, the Egyptian General Prosecutor arrested members of a Hizbullah cell in Egypt. The charges against the detainees, which included planning terrorist attacks on Egyptian soil as well as smuggling arms to Gaza, were propagated with unprecedented frenzy by the government-sponsored media. This presented a moment of truth for the Lebanese militia. Their proposition that they are a purely Lebanese group striving to defend Lebanon against Israel was put into question. But instead of letting the story die, Nassrallah bizarrely admitted his group's involvement in attempts to smuggle weapons into Gaza through the Sinai Peninsula. Although he did deny plans to bomb Egyptian touristic sites, Nassrallah unapologetically accepted responsibility for his cell's operation on foreign territory to smuggle arms.

Second, Nassrallah proclaimed May 7th as a "glorious day" for Lebanon. May 7th marks the anniversary of Hizbullah militants seizing control of Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut. But while the events that led to May 7th were complex, and there is plenty of blame to go around, one thing is absolutely certain: Sunnis did not appreciate it. For Nasrallah to celebrate that date prior to the elections was not only a misreading on his part of the Sunni constituency, but it also reflected unthoughtful overestimation of his party's electoral appeal amongst the non-Shiite Lebanese.

As you well know, Hizbullah's parliamentary alliance lost the elections soon after (for a myriad of other reasons too, to be sure). One would think that the organization's leadership would have reconsidered its political message's ever-diminishing appeal. But Sheikh Na'im Qassim came forward with another bombshell yesterday. In a very-underrported interview, he blamed the turmoil in Tehran on Western and American meddling, siding decidedly with the Khamenei regime. He then went on to imply that the protesters were driven by foreign forces and that the Iranian model of elections is praiseworthy. In doing so, he almost echoed Ahmadinejad's minister of interior's statements.

Can someone help me decode Hizbullah's recent political messaging? Why are they making these decisions? I would be very interested to find out.


Ed said...

I'm certainly no expert on Hizbullah, but could this be signs of differing opinions about the future of the organization - between become more integrated in the Lebanese political landscape, or trying to remain a militant organization.

Personally, I can't see how there is a long term future for Hizbullah as a militant organization. Israel is no longer occupying a large chunk of Lebanon, and while the events in 2006 could be spun as a victory of sorts for Hizbullah (though surely a fairly pyrrhic one), it almost certainly was not a victory for Lebanon. So where do they go a militant organization, what are they the armed resistance to?

Yasser M. El-Shimy said...

Good analysis, Ed. I would probably add that Hizbullah seems confused whether its role is national or regional. On the one hand, their raison d'etre, or reason of existence, is justified by the ongoing Israeli occupation of Lebanese territories (the Sheb'a Farms). On the other, they are also very interested in supporting other resistance movements across the Arab world. Until they can make a choice in those regards, expect a lot of schizophrenic statements.

Anonymous said...

Playing off of your comment, Yasser, the difference between international and regional militant groups is vast. As an international group, they champion an extremist ideology bent on undermining the current world order with the support of Iran and Syria. As a regional group, they stand as a populist instigator, "defending the homeland" with grassroots Lebanese support.

Some groups (Hamas) can pull off both strategies because of their constituency base. However, the Lebanese people seemed to have indicated in the recent elections that their support is not ideological, but nationalistic, and they will not support this sort of worldview.

Matt said...

Oops, posted that last one as Anonymous.

Yasser M. El-Shimy said...

No problem, Matt.

I would respectfully disagree with your statement about the difference between international and regional militias. An international group is one that is not bound by any modern sense of nationalism. To them, fighting is a religious duty that is obligatory not only against "foreign occupation," but also against any one standing in the way between them and establishing a religious system. These groups tend to deploy indiscriminate violence as a means towards achieving their objective. As you well know, Al-Qaeda is the prime example of such a group, and it has murdered more Muslims than non-Muslims. Alternatively, they are called a "Takfiri" group, i.e.: a group that declares any body who doesn't share its ideological paradigm as an infidel, and, thus, worthy of killing.

On the other hand, you have nationalistic, constituency-based militant groups like Hamas and Hizbullah. These groups tend to deploy (and withhold) violence based on political calculations for the most part. They fear the loss of support amongst the people, since that is their primary tactical advantage in any armed confrontation. They also publicly embrace a nationalist project. For instance, Hamas wants to liberate the lands of Palestine, no more and no less.

While we may definitely question the means utilized to attain those objectives, we stand to benefit tremendously from drawing distinctions amongst the different kinds of militants. The previous administration dealt with all militant groups as monolithic. That was a massive mistake. We need a nuanced approach that distinguishes between the reconcilables (those who would abandon militancy if their grievances are addressed) and the irreconcilables (Al-Qaeda types).

I apologize for the long reply. But Matt does bring up a very important point that is worthy of discussion.

Will said...

What do you think about Jeffrey Goldberg's piece in the Atlantic this month? "How Iran Could Save the Middle East" - essentially by driving Sunnis and Israelis closer to deal with Iran ... and Hizbullah.

Yasser M. El-Shimy said...

I haven't read it yet. I will read it tomorrow, and let you know what I think.

Matt said...

Yasser, thanks for the response. While I understood the differences between ideological internationalist groups and "realist" regional groups (Goldstone's analysis is my main source on this), your reply put things in better perspective.

Yasser M. El-Shimy said...

Glad to be of help, Matt. :)

Will, I reneged on my promise to read and comment on the Atlantic's article by Sunday. I am sorry.

I will do my best to defy my busy schedule this week and come back with a response for you.