Opinion and Editorial

History, Hezbollah and Lebanon's resurgent Shias

Matein Khalid
Filed on December 13, 2006

A QUARTER century after it emerged as a shadowy Shia militia armed and financed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah is the political kingmaker of Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister and his Cabinet are literally besieged behind barricades and barbed wire as Hezbollah demands a new government, ironically using the same street demonstrations that defined the Cedar Revolution against the Syrian occupation. Downtown Beirut, the promenades and piazzas that symbolised the postwar reconstruction of Lebanon with million dollar condominiums and extravagant Solidiere projects, is now a sea of tents pitched by Hezbollah supporters determined to topple the elected government of Fuad Siniora.

The Lebanese Shia were an impoverished, disenfranchised community of peasants and farmers in the south and the Bekaa Valley ruled by a handful of landowners whose feudal pedigree went back to Ottoman times. Yet history thrust the Lebanese Shia in the cauldron of the Arab Israeli conflict when the PLO set up Fatahland, its “state within a state” in South Lebanon after its commandos were expelled from Jordan in Black September. Israel subjected South Lebanon to savage aerial bombardment, followed by two invasions in 1972 and 1978 in its quest to vanquish the PLO.

The Lebanese Shia, caught in the brutal crossfire, faced economic devastation even as the Lebanese state in Beirut disintegrated into sectarian cantons. The slums of Beirut swelled with Shia refugees and Israel carved out a cordon sanitaire in South Lebanon ruled by its agent Major Haddad in their ancestral land.

The charismatic Iranian expatriate cleric, Sayyed Musa Sadr, organised the Shia into a new movement called Amal (hope), giving the community a political voice, weakening the power of feudal landowners and staking its place in Lebanon’s communal politics. Yet Musa Sadr vanished on a trip to Libya just as history intervened once again with a vengeance in the politics of the Lebanese Shia. In the autumn of 1978, as Musa Sadr boarded his last fateful fight to Rome, the Shia clergy orchestrated the street riots that were to drive the Shah of Iran from his Peacock Throne and change the balance of geopolitical power in the Middle East forever.

Revolutionary Iran used the unique pathology of Lebanese sectarian politics for its own national interest. Mired in an existential war in the Gulf with Baathist Iraq, allied to the minority Alawite dictatorship in Damascus, Iran armed Hezbollah as its own anti–American, anti–Israeli weapon of resistance and terror. Hezbollah suicide bombers gutted the US Embassy in Beirut and killed 241 of President Reagan’s Marine peacekeepers in their barracks, a clear win for Syria.

Hezbollah, allied with Syrian military intelligence to navigate the treacherous minefields of Lebanese politics after the Taif Accords ostensibly ended the civil war in 1990. Yet Hezbollah also created a network of schools, hospitals and orphanages for the Shia the Lebanese state had so often ignored and scorned.

Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah is the most compelling and charismatic leader of Shia Lebanon since Musa Sadr. He plunged Lebanon into the 34-day summer war with Israel by ordering a cross–border raid to kidnap two IDF soldiers that was certain to provoke Zionist retaliation. He has used Shia Islam’s powerful, messianic symbols of martyrdom and suffering to castigate the Lebanese government as corrupt and complicit in Israeli atrocities. An ubiquitous Hezbollah slogan in the Beirut protests is “no to the pourers of tea” (Lebanese policemen served tea to IDF troops in Marjayoun during the summer war) and “no to the government of Feltman” (the name of the current US Ambassador to Lebanon). Anti–Israeli and anti-American rhetoric defines Hezbollah’s political DNA. Its alliance with Syria and Iran and the Beirut government’s ties to France, the US and Saudi Arabia mean that yet another regional proxy war is being played out on the streets of Beirut. The confrontation in Beirut, branded a “coup d’ etat” by Siniora and the widow of an assassinated Maronite Christian President, has taken Lebanon to the precipice of civil war. The fragile sectarian equation, the traditional warlord politics of money and patronage dominated by clans like the Gemayels/Jumblatts and Siniora’s technocratic, pro–West elected government, all seem doomed.

Hezbollah’s blood feud with Israel, its umbilical cord to Iran’s theocratic elite in Qom, its formidable arsenal of missiles and its militant anti – Zionist, anti – American ideology will define the destiny of Lebanon. The Arabian Switzerland that Hariri tried to create with Saudi petrodollars out of the ashes of the civil war seems a cruel, surreal illusion now. Three decades after Musa Sadr first founded Amal, the Lebanese Shia make history as history once made them.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai based investment banker

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