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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Allah, Iran and their party in Lebanon

My post comparing Hizbullah to the Basij militia sparked a lively debate at the Future Movement political forum (hat tip Khaled). It stirred up a range of issues from the representational power of Hizbullah to its status as a Lebanese political party that should command respect. In a comment to my Naharnet post, fellow blogger Anton Efendi also posted a long article from al-Seyassah claiming fissures within Hizbullah's ranks. The article depicted an internal Iranian tug of war over who will succeed Nasrallah as secretary general, with the latter allegedly belonging to former President Rafsanjani's current and lacking the hardline qualities Ahmadinejad requires in his leaders. Raja on Lebanese bloggers went as far as raising the possibility of military conflict within Hizbullah similar to what happened in 1998 when former secretary general Subhi al-Tufeili led a failed revolt against Nasrallah along with 200 of his supporters.

Beginning with the debate at the FM forum, my critics are right in that Hizbullah is more than Basij, and for the record I didn't say Hizbullah's organizational structure was modelled after the Iranian militia. My analogy served to show that Lebanon cannot copy the Iranian model by delegating matters of defense to a paramilitary group, like Iran does.

What is Hizbullah?

One of my critics rejected calling Hizbullah a militia. "Hizbullah is a political party with a military wing fighting against occupation," he said. That's a false characterisation. Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh in "In the Path of Hizbullah" defined Hizbullah as a "jihad movement that engages in politics, and not a political party that engages in jihad." It is "an Islamic political party but neither its leadership or its organizational structure is equivalent to conventional secular parties such as those in the western democratic or socialist system."

Hizbullah does not believe in democracy, be it western or Lebanese. It also doesn't believe in and engages in "jihad" against the following concepts: nationalism, socialism, liberalism and women's rights. These are concepts it considers alien to Islam. In many ways, it is a mini-Iran with authority and control concentrated in a seven-member Shura council. The highest authority in Hizbullah's world is the Wali al-Faqih, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. It's not the Lebanese cabinet, and certainly not the president. The party’s representatives in parliament and in the cabinet answer to the Shura council and act according to its instructions. Nasrallah is quoted in Hamzeh’s book as saying that ”being a member in parliament does not mean that Hizbullah’s elected representatives are above the authority of the Shura council.”
In other words, the party and its members are completely and directly under the control of its clerical leadership, which answers and is "guided" by the supreme leader of Iran.

It follows from the above that the Party of God represents only its interests and those of the Iranian clergy. This reduces Hizbullah into an armed religious movement that engages in politics.


The votes that elected Hizbullah's MPs did not stem from real democratic choices. Many of the party's Shia followers did not partake in the vote out of democratic duty. They did it out of religious duty. Hizbullah's ideologically committed constituency voted under "Taklif sharii of the wilayat" (the religious commands of the Guardianship). There is no democracy involved here. Other Shia voters went to the polls to re-elect the only power that offers them social services, education and hospitalization. Again, this is not a democratic choice, this is a failure of a weakened state that failed to take care of its own.

You could argue that if that's how Hizbullah and their followers want it then by all means let them have it their way. It's not like other parties in Lebanon adopt democratic principles and hold primaries to open the door to competition within the party ranks. You could also argue that very few political parties in Lebanon or the rest of the world for that matter do not put their party loyalty first. That's a valid point if Hizbullah were a national party that wasn't funded by a different country and that didn't seek Jihad to establish some sort of Islamic Zion in Lebanon.

It is never fair to allow a religious entity to field candidates because its followers will vote like they're voting for God. And when that party is connected to a foreign entity, it makes allowing such a party to enter elections criminal if not an act of treason. Had Khamenei been a apolitical cleric, things would probably be different. But we're talking about Iran here, where religion and politics are one and the same.

That is why I believe Hizbullah, in its current shape and form, has no place in Lebanese politics. It is not freedom to let them field candidates who are going to win by virtue of being what the cleric and the doctor ordered. So next time you catch yourselves saying Hizabullah represents Shia through free elections remember how Hizbullah does not believe in that freedom you attach to their so called electoral victory. Does Iranian style Shia Islam represent Iranian style Shia? Yes. Does it mean anything when the cleric runs in an election and wins? No. Empowering religious men, let alone arming them, is a recipe for destruction.

Hizbullah and Ahmadinejad

According to Hamzeh, Hizbullah has been adopting a “gradualist-pragmatic” mode since the death of Khomeini and the election of Rafsanjani. The Rafsanjani-Khamenei combination was instrumental in pushing the party into the Lebanese political scene. In fact, it is said that Khamenei’s strategy has been to encourage Hizbullah to gain a foothold in the Lebanese political system. This was part of the party’s “political Jihad” as Hamzeh pointed out in his book, an “opportunity to seek power” by penetrating the parliament. For Hizbullah does not believe in western democracy, nor is the party a political party in the western or socialist sense as I mentioned above. Being in parliament is just part of that jihad stuff.

So does it make a difference that Iran has a new ultra-conservative president? Will this split Hizbullah into two camps or worse, harden its policies further? Logic leads us to believe that If Ahmadinejad gets his way with his Lebanese-based party, he will encourage the Hizbullah leadership to rely on the numerical strength of its constituents, who outnumber those of Amal, to consolidate power within the Shia community. Ahmadinejad’s style is to expedite the political jihad by purging moderates and spread a “Basij culture.” He wants to take on the world and is allegedly close to developing a nuclear bomb. With the Syrian masters gone, Hizbullah is no longer forced to compromise or strike electoral alliances with Amal. In that regard, Al-Seyassah's claim, which is that certain pro-Ahmadinejad Hizbullah MPs are already working on creating wide divisions in Amal's ranks in a bid to take over the party, seems plausible.

But would this have happened anyway given Hizbullah's course of jihad and the departure of Syria, which would have protected Berri and tried to weaken Hizbullah*? My guess is yes, eventually. In that sense, the worse Ahmadinejad can do is expedite the jihad. This should be a wake up call to those who still think a party like Hizbullah is a national party and not a time bomb about to explode in our faces. Whether or not the street sweeper of Tehran will overcome Khamenei's authority is not important anymore. Measures should be taken to limit the influence and political participation of entities that pose as Allah's own army.

I am not calling for its immediate elimination. We don't want civil war. The state must reclaim the people who live under Hizbullah's rule. And it must reclaim them by adopting national policies that accommodate all Lebanese sects so not to alienate or enrage other groups. It's not a "dialogue" we need; it's the vision and will to win Lebanese people back. The electoral laws should bar parties running in elections from receiving foreign aid, let alone carry arms. But most importantly, Hizbullah's Shia followers have to be won back. Hamzeh said it best in the conclusion of his book:
…the future course of Hizbullah will depend on the ability of the Lebanese state to accommodate both Muslim and Christian interests under the Ta’if formula, and to bring some measure of economic prosperity to all social classes, in particular the poor classes, regardless of sectarian affiliation.

*It is believed that the Syrians encouraged former Hizbullah secretary general Subhi al-Tufeili’s revolt in 1998 in order to weaken Hizbullah in Lebanon by splitting it into two parties, keeping one in the south to fight Israel, and another in the Beqaa under Tufeili and the Syrians [Hamzeh cites Norton, Hizbullah in Lebanon]. This failed, and my guess is that it was another Syrian gamble to make sure it has the upper hand in Lebanon, and not Iran, despite the Iranian-Syrian agreement in the 1990s.

the last point is key. everywhere that islamism has thrived, it gained its foothold through offering social services that the state was unwilling or unable to provide. it may be convenient for the government to ignore the needs of a large segment of the population and let someone else take care of them, but the cost is too high.

furthermore, improving social services is the least hostile way to confront hezballah-- and thus the path least likely to ignite civil conflict or catalyze divisions within the party.
very good!
Thanks Kais. I'll respond to this in more detail later. A quick point on the last quote. To bring prosperity, there needs to be reforms, including administrative reforms that would reduce the size of the public budget and cronyism. This will face strong resistance from both HA and Amal. We already saw a glimpse of that with Fneish and the EDL.

To bring prosperity to the south means that the south needs to stop being HA-land of open-ended war. Who will invest in the south under these circumstances?

Both these two issues hit HA directly. It destroys the two things that keep it viable: the client network and the image of resistance. They will fight it tooth and nail.

So in a sense, we're back to square one. That is the only way for prosperity. It will also come with certain responsibilities for the Shiite community itself.

NB: read Michael Young's latest in the DS.
I personally favor the "economic reform first" approach in this case, but Anton brings up valid points. In a way, this is an old debate: what is more important - security first, or economic reforms first?
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"With the Syrian masters gone, Hizbullah is no longer forced to compromise or strike electoral alliances with Amal. In that regard, Al-Seyassah's claim, which is that certain pro-Ahmadinejad Hizbullah MPs are already working on creating wide divisions in Amal's ranks in a bid to take over the party, seems plausible."

It’s likely that Amal is going to weaken and even disappear, especially if Berry is indeed Mr X.

And this is the real question: should the other Lebanese support the corrupted Amal in order to have an alternative Shia voice, or should they let Hezbollah become the voice of the
Shias? Both alternatives are not acceptable.

I think that we should let Amal disappear. Anyway Amal needs Hezbollah so much these days that it has become an offshoot of the latter. It is unlikely that Hezbollah can maintain a long-term monopoly on the Shia community; Hezbollah may have a monopoly on the Shia community for at most one mandate but I am certain that alternative political figures will emerge in the Shia community.

Allowing the Hezbollah to get a monopoly on the Shia representation is unacceptable. Even if this monopoly only last only one mandate, this would constitute a real danger to Lebanon. Hezbollah would be more prone to blackmail the government. Add to this an arrogant and nuclear Iran and you get a gloomy picture.

People get tired of their leaders and this applies to the Hezbollah as well. You will always have challengers trying to take power from the establishment, that’s human nature. And Hezbollah is the establishment in the Shia community. The son always kill the father to liberate himself, it’s a Freudian thing.

Not all Shias are religious fundamentalists and the other Lebanese groups should try to reach the moderate fringe of this community. Anton was right to remind us that the Hezbollah shouldn’t take the Shia vote for granted. I think that the other Lebanese groups can influence the Shia political scene and that they have the political tools to do that. All they lack is the will to do it. I’ve posted on how to isolate the Hezbollah (in French)

One thing is certain: the battle for the Shia community will be the most important fight in the next years. The outcome will decide if Lebanon is going to become the Dubai of the Levant or a pile of rubbles.
Don't be so quick to dismiss Berri. And I'm not sure the isolation policy works all that well in this case. This is not to say that HA should be allowed to dictate the terms, but there has to be a smart approach. Continue to build consensus, and let HA face that consensus and make a decision. But let it not be a explicit policy of isolating HA. I'm not sure if you see the difference in what I'm trying to say!
Amal is under a lot of pressure from Syria not to go against HA. Berri, ostensibly, could dump HA under certain conditions. This is not to say he will. But it all depends on how HA's popularity continues to drop. But Berri, ostensibly, could strike electoral deals with others in Saida for instance. Now he's the one jumping in as the middleman between HA and the rest, so again, I wouldn't discount him so easily.
Furthermore, it is Amal who has come to fully adopt the Taef. HA's position on the accord is very ambiguous.
To win the Shia community, the state needs to make them feel that it's their state as well by offering them all the social services (employment,hospitalisation, social security, economic infrastructure). The problem is that the state can't do that because HA simply will not allow it. Even when they allow it do so, it will be done through Majles Al Jounoob (Council of the South)and then all the credit goes to them! We all remember when the late PM Hariri clashed with HA over a bridge which was to be built in Dahie.In the end HA had their say on that matter and plans of that project were discarded.

So that takes us back to square number one. That is, will HA allow the state to perform its own duties in the South? It always has to do with HA "willing" or "not willing". It's never the state who is willing. Now then , how can this be changed? How can the state break this status quo in the South. Is it by negotiations with HA to convince them to let loose their power and hegemony in the South ? Why should HA do that anuyway? Is it for the sake of Lebanon? What if these negotiations fail? Are there any altenatives ? With HA's rehtoric I doubt there is.
Abdul Karim, how many times will we have to repeat that the state is bankrupt and has no money to finance these kind of things.

You say that the state should provide employment? But state employees cost a lot and generate little economic wealth, besides there is already too much state in Lebanon, and a big part of them don't really work. And I am not even including the army and the useless but expensive security agencies. And the Shia community already has a very large chunk of the state jobs.

You say that the state should provide hospitalisation? Don't you know that the social security office is already bankrupt? Don't you know that the debt of the SS office is huge and not even counted in our official debt (in violation of the international accountability standards). That some hospitals aren't even accepting social security anymore because?

Socialism is a failure. And we all know how planned economy like Syria's or Egypt succeeded in bringing prosperity to the people.

Lebanon didn't build its pre-war prosperity on a state-run economy. Lebanon built its prosperity on an entrepreneurial culture and by providing a good environment for local and Arabs investors who came here to escape ‘socialism’. Any welfare system that is not sustainable on the long term is not a viable option. You don't make a favour to poor people by giving them some help now and bankrupting the economy in a couple of years. It's the poor people who'll suffer the most when we become the Africa of the Middle East. You can be the demagogue who pretends to help the poor but who’s working against them like the HA. You can be the frank guy who tries to do something about the economy like Siniora.

The only thing that the state can provide to the Shias and to all the Lebanese is a safe environment for the foreign investors. That means HA should disarm and stop blackmailing the government. This means that HA should stop it’s ludicrous jihad against Israel. Our luck is incredible: the oil prices are booming, our government has good contacts with the Gulf states and it happens that the Arabs from the gulf like our country. It’s funny how HA does everything to undermine the economy and then complain about poverty. Let them invest in welfare before investing in Katioushas and destruction.

And by the way I am fed up with complaints about the supposed inferior economic status of the Shias. Like the other communities oppressed them. Like they didn’t have the same rights than the others Lebanese since 1920. Like Maronites and others succeeded because of state subsidies. Up to 2003, Lebanon was the only country in the region where the Shias could enjoy their individual liberties.

Why didn’t the Shia clergy educate its community? What Shia landlord said that it was enough to educate his son? There’s an adage in French: aide toi et le ciel t’aidera. Help yourself first and God will help you then. The other Lebanese should help Shia development because it’s their interest to do not because they owe anything to the Shia community (and considering the EDL bills issue, I would be tempted to say that opposite is true).

PS to Kais: I know that you hate generalization, but I don’t feel like writing a disclaimer each time I refer to a sect.
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