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Region | Hezbollah: Explaining the Past and Promising the Future

by GARETH SMYTH

08 Jun 2012 18:07Comments

Does Hassan Nasrallah really want a "strong state" in Lebanon?

Nasrallah.jpg
Gareth Smyth, a frequent Tehran Bureau contributor, started reporting from Lebanon in 1996. He was formerly based in Tehran as bureau chief for the Financial Times. He filed this report from Beirut. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.
[ IDÉ ] Hassan Nasrallah chose June 1 and the commemoration of the 23rd anniversary of the death of Ruhollah Khomeini, organized by the Iranian embassy, to drop a surprise.

Out of the blue, Hezbollah's general secretary called for a "constituent assembly" to create a "strong state" in Lebanon.

Making a revolution was one thing, said Nasrallah, but to build a strong state, as Ayatollah Khomeini had done in Iran, was a far greater challenge. A new, presumably elected, constituent assembly would give Lebanon fresh national purpose, suggested Nasrallah, and overcome its sectarian divisions.

For many Lebanese, the idea of a strong state is attractive, given the chaos and frustration resulting from the country's lack of social and political cohesion. "What we need is a benevolent dictator," one friend in Ras Beirut told me. "Otherwise it's more chaos, more electricity cuts, worse political tension, and even higher prices."

Regional tensions between Shiites and Sunnis, now linked into the conflict in neighboring Syria, have added fear to insecurity. With clashes between Sunnis and Allawis in Tripoli, with the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims in Syria, older Lebanese feel parallels to the run-up to the outbreak of civil war in 1975.

Wissam Charaf's documentary film, It's All in Lebanon, currently showing in the Sofils center in east Beirut, is about the absurdities of today's Lebanon. Charaf ably illustrates the contrasting visions and music videos of Lebanon's two opposing sides: the "March 8" group, more or less led by Hezbollah; and the "March 14" group, whose predominant faction is the Mustaqbal (Future) party created by the late Rafik Hariri and led now by his son, Saad.

For Charaf, Hezbollah stands for "resistance," for fighting Israel, for martyrdom, obedience, and sacrifice; whereas Mustaqbal stands for reconstruction (after the 1975-90 civil war), business, moderatio,n and making Lebanon a playground for rich Arabs of the Persian Gulf to find gambling, dancing girls, and cocktails they lack at home.

This is a choice between Hanoi and Hong Kong, says Lokman Slim, civil rights activist, in It's All in Lebanon, echoing a comment I think made first by Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader.

The choice between Hanoi and Hong Kong is not of course offered to ordinary Lebanese. The country emerged from the civil war with its sectarian system enshrined by the 1989 Taef agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia with Iranian assistance. Militia leaders put on civilian suits, while politics and society still hinged on their power, patronage, and disregard for law.

Chadi Bou Habib, a Lebanese economist at the World Bank, has long drawn attention to the ways in which Lebanon's sectarian system has choked the economy, stymieing the development of productive industry while shoring up restrictive practices and corruption.

A report from the bank earlier this year, of which Bou Habib was the lead author, proposed overhaul based on higher and more effective public investment in infrastructure and education, fiscal reform, improved competition and protection of intellectual property rights. The report, Using Lebanon's Large Capital Inflows to Foster Sustainable Long-Term Growth, argued that vested interests block change because they believe it would undermine their use of state income to finance political patronage.

The report found "the most powerful groups...in the banking and real estate sectors," while the sect-based electoral system enabled politicians to buy support and so played "a major role in perpetuating [the] political, economic, and social dominance" of the elites.

Banking and real estate, pumped up by oil money from the Persian Gulf and remittances from Lebanese worldwide, offer easy cash flow for politicians but sadly for young Lebanese graduates, they offer a relatively low number of jobs. High property prices and interest rates in turn weaken other sectors -- industry, agriculture, and technology -- that could both employ skilled labor and foster growth. Inevitably, there is high emigration of disappointed graduates, while (and this is a point the report does not make) less well-educated young men could be forgiven for seeing membership of a militia as an attractive option.

Bou Habib cites South Korea, "neither Hong Kong nor Hanoi" we might say, as an example of a society where corrupt elites were won for change because they understood it might be in their long term interest, with economic crisis as a catalyst.

The notion of crisis as a spur to reform is raised, optimistically, by Lokman Slim in It's All in Lebanon. But however sparked, the overhaul proposed by Bou Habib does require the "strong state" in the sense of a state, and some degree of the rule of law, prepared to tackle vested interest. Is this the "strong state" envisaged by the leader of Hezbollah?

The criticism of Nasrallah's proposal by politicians in the "March 14" group might be a defense of political patronage, or an instinctive negative reaction to Hezbollah. Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian group responsible for notorious wartime massacres, said that even a "national dialogue," proposed by president Michel Suleiman, a confab of leaders rather than an elected assembly, was "a trap, not by the president, but by the other parties, namely Hezbollah, to cover up what is happening."

By "what is happening," Geagea was referring to Syria, where the brutality of the security forces loyal to an Allawi-led state in putting down a largely Sunni-led (and regionally Sunni-backed) uprising has embarrassed Hezbollah, long an ally of the regime led by Bashar al-Assad.

Geagea was scoffing at Nasrallah. It is axiomatic among Hezbollah's critics that a strong Lebanese state is the last thing Hezbollah has worked for, at least since it backed away in the late 1980s from its program of establishing Velaayat-e Faghih -- the Islamic Republic's rule of the jurisprudent -- in Lebanon.

Indeed, Hezbollah is a product of the weakness of the Lebanese state. It developed a fighting force in the 1980s, under tutelage of the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (themselves students of the PLO), in the Beqaa, where the writ of the Lebanese state had barely existed even before the civil war. In mainly Shia regions like the Beqaa, south Lebanon, and the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah has carried out welfare services for neighborhoods neglected by the government since the Lebanese state was established in the 1940s.

And on the battlefield, Hezbollah's Islamic Resistance fought Israeli forces, including Israel's 2006 onslaught, while the Lebanese army stood by, unable or unwilling to carry out a basic duty of defense.

A weak Lebanese state has been a condition of Hezbollah's growth, and the party has shown no inclination to build a strong state. After Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah enjoyed unprecedented good will across Lebanon's different sects; but the party did nothing to develop this into a widely based program for government that would tackle the country's endemic problems.

Since Hezbollah first entered government in 2005, its ministers have had minimal impact, even when its influence increased dramatically last year.

The result is the kind of "immobilism" written about by sociologist Robert Michels in his classic study of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the years leading up to World War I.

With an ideology based on the gradual ripening and eventual collapse of capitalism, the SPD concentrated on developing its own welfare and cultural organizations while condemning "revisionists" like Eduard Bernstein who wanted to enter government to achieve change. The SPD kept its principles intact. Its version of Marxism explained the past and promised the future, but had nothing to offer the present.

And yet there is much a committed government might do in Lebanon. Electricity cuts in Beirut are still three hours every day, and far longer in the rest of the country, with small generators burning diesel to meet the gap; public transport rests on old cars working as shared taxis; property prices, while now stagnant, have soared beyond the earning power of most Lebanese; public health is poor and public education minimal (according to the World Health Organization, 44 percent of men and 30 percent of women smoke daily, and 52 percent of men and 42 percent of women are physically inactive, and that's before they breathe the exhaust fumes of the generators and the service taxis).

Hezbollah's lack of interest in using the government as a tool of change is unusual among Islamic parties. Turkey's Islamic parties have long shown an interest in worldly matters, as Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, is now doing in Egypt and elsewhere. The Dawa party in Iraq long looked forward to running the state, even if its tutelage in post-Saddam Iraq has been mired in the country's infighting.

Lebanon, not for the first time, is different. That Hassan Nasrallah calls for a strong state while Hezbollah works for a weak one is a telling illustration of the kind of vicious circle in which the country is caught.

Naturally, his call will go unheeded. There will be no strong state. And then Nasrallah will be able to say that the Lebanese state has once failed "the people," by which he means the Shiites.

Hezbollah will not let the people down. It will continue to serve the people in providing services, in ensuring security for Shia areas, and in maintaining the arms of Islamic Resistance.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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