Once head of the opposition, Hezbollah may be the predominant force in the Lebanese government by the time you read this column. Such a government will certainly set Lebanon at odds with the international community, especially over the fate of the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Paradoxically, while Hezbollah is the strongest political and military force in the country, it has never actively sought to take control of the state — at least not in the conventional sense of being elected into power and forming a government.
That is because Hezbollah’s focus lies elsewhere — specifically in ensuring the retention of its formidable armed wing to confront Israel. Since its founding in the early 1980s, Hezbollah has gradually moved deeper into Lebanon’s political milieu. But each step was taken only when evolving political circumstances threatened the party’s resistance priority. When Hezbollah burst upon the scene, Lebanon was mired in civil war, Israel was occupying the southern half of the country and there was little or no state control. This was the era of suicide bombings against Western targets, kidnappings of foreigners and hijacked airliners. The idealistic Islamic revolutionaries vowed to overturn the Lebanese political system with its sectarian checks and balances, nepotistic feudal leaders and corrupt patronage networks.
But the end of the civil war in 1990 and the dawn of ‘Pax Syriana’ in Lebanon necessitated a change of attitude and conduct, if not ideology and agenda. Hezbollah embraced parliamentary politics, despite its earlier public disavowal of the political system, winning seats in the 1992 election and performing credibly as an opposition to the governments of Rafiq Hariri. It had no desire to join the government, content with its parliamentary toehold where it could generally remain aloof from the sordid bargaining and compromises inherent in Lebanese politics.
Damascus rewarded Hezbollah’s pragmatism through the preservation of its resistance priority. These were Hezbollah’s “golden years,” in which it waged an increasingly successful campaign against the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and enjoyed broad approval across Lebanese society. Syria’s political umbrella, the Israeli occupation of the Shebaa Farms and continued detention of Lebanese prisoners ensured that Hezbollah did not have to immerse itself deeper into the Lebanese political morass to protect its weapons after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.
But in 2005, following Hariri’s assassination and Syrian disengagement from Lebanon, Hezbollah found itself hemmed in once more. It allied with one-time rival Amal, reached out to the Christian supporters of Michel Aoun and entered government for the first time, taking a previously unwanted step to better defend its resistance priority. Hezbollah’s weapons became the single most divisive issue in Lebanon, roughly splitting the country in two. Hezbollah even chose to expose its popular standing to significant risks to defend its weapons: the 18-month sit-in in downtown Beirut that began in the fall of 2006 ended with armed clashes against Sunnis and Druze in May 2008.
The emergence of the Hariri tribunal and accusations that Hezbollah had a hand in Hariri’s assassination is the latest iteration in the broad domestic, regional and international campaign to neutralize the organization. The prospect of the tribunal indicting Hezbollah members for killing a Sunni Lebanese leader threatens to severely discredit the Shia group’s image as a champion of anti-Israel resistance in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims, forcing Hezbollah into damage control.
The best it can hope for is to sever all links between the tribunal and Lebanon and besmirch the judicial process as a political ploy of the West and Israel. But the refusal of the previous Prime Minister Saad Hariri to disavow the tribunal investigating his father’s killing compelled Hezbollah to bring down the government, opening up the prospect of a new cabinet filled solely by the present opposition.
“The Resistance is not interested in obtaining seats in the government but rather its main concern is to protect [Lebanon’s] dignity and defend Lebanon against [American] conspiracies,” Hezbollah official Sheikh Nabil Qawq said prior to the parliamentary vote to nominate a new prime minister.
Attaining power in government is usually the ultimate goal of a political party, but in Hezbollah’s case it may prove something of a poisoned chalice from which the organization was reluctantly compelled to drink.
NICHOLAS BLANFORD is the Beirut-based correspondent for
The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London