A few months ago, in a conversation with a Hezbollah official I said I could imagine Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the party’s leader, reminiscing about the good old days in the 1990s. Back then Hezbollah was engaged in resistance on a daily basis against the Israeli occupation, achieving ever greater feats on the battlefield, earning a consensus among Lebanese for its martial activities, and protected by Syria’s dominance of Lebanon. Other than a small but potent parliamentary presence, Hezbollah did not have to bother with the tangled and treacherous complexities of Lebanese politics but could concentrate on what it does best: resisting Israel.
But look at Hezbollah today, I continued. To defend its “resistance priority” it has had to build complicated alliances with potentially untrustworthy and difficult allies, and has become the dominant influence in an unpopular and near stagnant government; it faces growing Sunni resentment; it is in the crosshairs of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Netherlands; its key ally Syria is mired in civil war with the durability of the pan-regional “axis of resistance” hanging by a thread.
“You’re right,” replied the Hezbollah official. “This is not where we want to be. Our cause flies with the angels above, but we find ourselves stuck in the political arena.”
Hezbollah has never been more powerful politically and militarily, but with the power of governance comes accountability. And in the Shia villages of the south and in the southern suburbs of Beirut it is easy to hear voices of discontent and frustration from those people who traditionally support and vote for Hezbollah. The reason for their anger is the chronic shortage of electricity. Parts of Dahiyah and the south barely receive three hours of electricity per day.
Not only do they have to deal with the sweltering heat of summer without air conditioning, more importantly they cannot store food and dairy products in fridges. One night in July, residents of Dahiyah were sleeping in chairs on the streets to try to cool themselves and were mouthing curses at Hezbollah, declaring it had been a mistake to vote for them in the 2009 elections and vowing not to do so next year. Many hoped that Nasrallah would tackle the electricity crisis in his July 18 speech and were dismayed when the Hezbollah chief made no mention of it.
Of course, the electricity crisis did not begin with the present government. But the perception is that the “Hezbollah government” has failed to deliver and it is the party’s support base that is suffering the most.
Such is the paradox facing Hezbollah three decades after it emerged in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion. It is a mistake to assume that Hezbollah has always sought power in Lebanon for the sake of power. The party is essentially a jihadist Islamist organization dedicated to the struggle against Israel. In its earliest manifestation it railed against Lebanon’s sectarian political system and refused to participate in it. During the 1990s, it was content to limit its participation in the political system to parliament, neither asking nor being offered seats in the Rafik Hariri and Salim Hoss governments of that decade.
The first time Hezbollah took the step of joining government was in 2005 and it did so to better protect its resistance priority, after the loss of Syrian protection following the disengagement of Damascus in the wake of the assassination of Rafik Hariri.
The goal of defending its arms also compelled it to organize a parliamentary no-confidence motion against Saad Hariri’s government, chiefly because of its refusal to renounce the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Bringing down the Hariri government was relatively easy, but it was also a case of “you break it, you own it”. When the March 14 (now) opposition coalition refused to join a government of national unity under Prime Minister Najib Mikati, it meant that the cabinet was going to be dominated by Hezbollah and its allies, ergo the “Hezbollah government”.
Now Hezbollah finds itself diverting much of its energy to mollify and appease its numerous allies, especially the truculent Michel Aoun and the crafty Nabih Berri, neither of whom it particularly trusts but both of whom it needs in order to preserve the integrity of the government. But when the government fails to perform, regardless of the reason, Hezbollah is the one that will be blamed.
How Nasrallah must fondly reminisce of the golden years in the 1990s when life — and resistance — was so much simpler.
NICHOLAS BLANFORD is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and the Times of London