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Losing hearts and minds

Lebanese government losing to Hezbollah in reconstruction race

by Nicholas Blanford

Is the government losing to Hizbullah in the battle of hearts and minds over reconstruction from last year’s devastating month-long war? Although much has been achieved in the past 12 months, the government, crippled by political crises may have also fallen victim to its own innovative plan to help rebuild the country. In the aftermath of the war, the government opted for a direct investment scheme allowing donors to adopt and supervise the spending of their funds on projects of their choice, thus bypassing the cumbersome — and often corrupt — bureaucracy of the state. It was a novel scheme and has allowed wealthy Gulf states to charge ahead with rebuilding war-shattered villages and towns in the south, earning gratitude from the residents who have named some main streets after Gulf rulers and hung banners thanking them for their support.

Prime Minister Fouad Seniora encouraged the Gulf state sponsorship of southern Shiite villages in a perhaps vain attempt to break the region’s reliance on the social and economic support of Hizbullah’s charitable institutions. But the loyalties of the residents by and large remain committed to Hizbullah for two principle reasons. First, the Shiites of southern Lebanon are remarkably resilient and have an enormous capacity to withstand hardship and adversity. Second, the increased political and sectarian polarization in Lebanon over the past year has strengthened the “bunker mentality” of the Lebanese — the instinct to retreat into the protection of the community when under threat. Given that Hizbullah is the paramount representative of Lebanon’s Shiite community and probably the most powerful political entity in Lebanon, there is little inclination among Shiites to drop their support for the organization.

Furthermore, the direct sponsorship scheme was not confined to Sunni Gulf supporters of the government. Iran is a highly visible donor state — the emblem of its reconstruction organization is a familiar sight in South Lebanon. According to the Los Angels Times, Iran has spent $155 million on reconstructing schools, mosques and churches, health clinics, electricity projects and bridges. The Iranian organization’s most visible enterprise is the enormous construction of new and improved roads throughout southern Lebanon. The daily said the Iranians have completed work on 504 roads and is working on another 76. The scale of the road building has raised eyebrows, particularly the four-lane highway that is replacing a rarely used and potholed minor road cutting through the mountains between the Litani river and Jezzine. It is widely known that Hizbullah has turned the area into part of its post-war military front line, and nervous Druze and Christian politicians believe that the Iran-funded road building is less an altruistic boon for the sparsely populated area, but a scheme to improve communications links between Shiite Nabatieh and the Shiite villages of the Western Bekaa.

Unlike other Gulf countries, Iran has declined to put a ceiling on its total funds for Lebanon’s reconstruction. It is assumed that hundreds of millions of dollars have also been channeled to Hizbullah’s social and charitable organizations. In a speech marking the first anniversary of the ceasefire that ended the war, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said that Hizbullah had spent $380 million to provide alternative accommodation for more than 28,000 families and financial assistance to businesses, agriculture and fisheries. Hizbullah apparently is planning to hand out another $4,000 per family who lost their homes on top of the $12,000 and $10,000 cash payments given in the wake of the war.

The upshot of the direct investment scheme is that most Lebanese in the south only see foreign countries helping them instead of the state. Southern Lebanon traditionally is a neglected area of the country, ignored by successive Beirut-centric governments. Therefore, many southerners believe that the government’s low profile in the war-battered district indicates the usual lack of interest by the state.

Indeed, the battle for hearts and minds between the government and Hizbullah has also moved to Beirut’s southern suburbs. According to government figures released in June 2007, some 87% of the housing units damaged or destroyed during the war have been processed with recipients receiving $52 million of a total $116 million due. However, in Beirut’s southern suburbs only 28% of homeowners eligible for compensation have been processed. That has spurred Hizbullah to charge that the government is deliberately foot-dragging on payments to an area of strong support for the party. Hizbullah has formed an institution called Al Waad to take charge of the reconstruction of the southern suburbs. It has just begun breaking ground in the neighborhood after the sites were cleared of rubble. The argument has been made that the government resented paying compensation in Beirut’s southern suburbs knowing that homeowners would hand over the money to Al Waad to fund the district’s reconstruction and about 70% have done so. That would be tantamount to the cash-strapped government providing funds to a Hizbullah project for which the Shiite party will gain the ultimate plaudits once the new suburbs are completed.

NICHOLAS BLANFORD is a Beirut-based correspondent and author of  “Killing Mr Lebanon – The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East” 

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