By Assaf Kfoury, Israeli Occupation Archive – 21 June 2011
Up until a few months ago, Hezbollah could reasonably claim pride of place in the Arab anti-imperialist camp. Hezbollah was the only Arab force that repeatedly stymied the powerful Israeli military and never caved in. It weathered repeated attempts by the Arab reactionary camp – the US-allied governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt under Mubarak, and several lesser regional states – to disarm it and marginalize it. Over a period of nearly two decades, Hezbollah was perhaps the most stubborn (and visible in the West) obstacle to imperialist domination of the Eastern Mediterranean.
In more recent years, to its credit, Hezbollah demonstrated an openness and savvy with allies which it had shunned in earlier times. It shed its earlier visceral enmity of left secular groups and parties, however fitfully, and welcomed their support, both inside and outside Lebanon. This evolution contrasted sharply with the unbending, obtusely sectarian, and crude authoritarian nature of its Iranian ally and benefactor.
The recent revolutionary upheaval shaking the Arab world gives rise to a new powerful contender, the massive and largely decentralized mobilization of hundreds of thousands openly defying despotic rulers. It introduces an irreversible re-ordering of political forces, from Morocco to Bahrain and from Syria to Yemen, whose ultimate outcome is too early to predict.
Friends and foes have therefore closely monitored Hezbollah’s attitude to the ongoing tectonic shifts of the Middle Eastern political landscape. Early on, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, publicly praised the uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain – but not in Syria. Silence, if not collusion, by the Hezbollah leadership seemed to give some of its supporters free rein to misrepresent the protest movement in Syria or else to ignore it entirely. If Hezbollah-allied media outlets mentioned the Syrian uprising at all, they portrayed it as being instigated by salafist saboteurs and foreign agents.
May 25 is Liberation Day in Lebanon. (On May 25, 2000, the Israeli army was forced to withdraw from southern Lebanon after 22 years of occupation.) This is an occasion for speech-making, and staking positions and counter-positions, in the perpetual circus of Lebanese politics. Given Hezbollah’s history and reliance on Syria, there was perhaps no surprise in Nasrallah’s devoting some 10 minutes of his hour-long speech to defend the Syrian regime. But there was also disappointment in his inability to acknowledge a Syrian revolt for what it is, a revolt that is riding and continuing the revolutionary wave sweeping across Arab lands.
Nasrallah’s speech on May 25 seemed to have invigorated all sorts of allied commentators – no less from the Lebanese Communist Party, at cross purposes with their nominal comrades in the Syrian Communist Action Party and other kindred groups in Syria – all too eager to pursue a disinformation campaign in support of the Syrian government and against the Syrian opposition. As Hezbollah looks ahead, it should worry how its unmatched regional popularity just a few months ago, no less in Syria itself, is quickly souring and how it can recover it.
The article below appeared in Arabic, as an editorial in the Beirut daily al-Akhbar of May 26, 2011, and reflects this sentiment of disappointment. Its author, Khalid Saghieh, is al-Akhbar’s editorial director. The significance of al-Akhbar is that it is decidedly left-wing, a refuge of muckraking journalists, and in times past the most supportive of Hezbollah of the three major Arabic-language dailies in Beirut.
A shorter version of this article appeared under the title “Syria and Hizballah” in the ezine Jadaliyya, 2 June 2011.
Assaf Kfoury is an Arab-American political activist and Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. He grew up in Beirut and Cairo, and returns frequently to the Middle East. He is also an IOA Advisory Board member.
Khalid Saghieh: Syria and Hezbollah
There would be no surprise if anyone said that Hezbollah is not a reformist party. It does not have a reform program in Lebanon, nor does it campaign in support of fundamental reforms promoted by any of its allies. When it felt secure there would be no internal attempt to reduce or eliminate it as a resistance movement, Hezbollah did not insist on getting its fair share in the government or even taking part in it.
Hezbollah does not therefore belong to the “democracy-first” camp. As a party, its priority is resistance to Israel, for which it is willing to sacrifice many aspects of democratic principles, if these are in contradiction with its role as a resistance movement.
All of this is well known and amply demonstrated by Hezbollah’s history. Hezbollah, the party that succeeded in liberating the land in May 2000 and in withstanding the Israeli onslaught in July-August 2006, is the same party that did not hesitate to confront its internal enemies in May 2008 by force of arms. In the latter case, there were internal and external forces colluding to curtail Hezbollah as a resistance movement. Hezbollah put an end to these attempts using means contrary to accepted norms of democracy, by besieging several Beirut neighborhoods and forcibly disarming its opponents. It is true that Hezbollah prefers that the country be ruled by a majority that supports it as a resistance movement. However, it will not relinquish its function as a resistance, even if it cannot secure the support of such a majority.
If this is Hezbollah’s view on issues of reform and democracy in Lebanon, it stands to reason that it holds a similar view on events in Syria. Hezbollah will not abandon a friend or an ally that does not abide by rules of democracy. It would therefore be naive to expect Hezbollah to support the toppling of the regime in Syria. Those who have been so eager to bestow a romantic aura on Hezbollah, as a disciplined liberation movement, should try to restrain their ardor a little, in fairness to Hezbollah’s self-definition as a resistance, first and foremost, if only to avoid facing countless disappointments in months ahead.
That said, it seems that Hezbollah has become hostage of an image that has been imposed on it. In his May 25 speech, Hezbollah’s secretary-general [Nasrallah] spoke about reform in Syria. He went as far as asserting that the Syrian leadership is determined to undertake major reforms. Instead of reforms, however, the fact is that Syria has experienced nothing but harsh violence. While it is not Hezbollah’s business to vouch for Syrian good intentions to carry out long-delayed reforms, it is incumbent on Hezbollah to be concerned about every drop of Syrian blood, if only out of respect for its own [Lebanese and Arab] constituencies. Simply said, what everyone expects from Hezbollah is, at a minimum, to offer its condolences for the martyrs who have fallen and loved Syria like no one has.
1. Hezbollah’s evolution since its founding in the mid-1980’s, and its gradual ability to work with a wider network of allies, is reviewed in A. Kfoury, “Whither Hezbollah,” Israel Occupation Archive, 8 March 2010.
2. The LCP’s sorry opportunism is discussed by Khalil Issa, “The Lebanese Left Fails in Syria ,” Jadaliyya, 7 June 2011. This is the (poor) translation of an article that first appeared in Arabic in the Beirut daily al-Akhbar of June 4, 2011.
3. A good example of the shifting mood is what the Egyptian poet Ahmad Fouad Nagm had to say about Hezbollah and its relationship with the Syrian regime, see “Nagm to Nasrallah,” Jadaliyya, 15 May 2011. Nagm is one of the most progressive among living Arab poets, a folk hero and champion of the Egyptian poor and working class. His critique of Nasrallah’s position on the Syrian revolt is scathing.
4. The original Arabic can be downloaded from al-Akhbar.