by Jonathan Spyer
Despite its unrivaled ability to impose its will on the country, Hezbollah’s legitimacy in the eyes of non-Shi’ite Arabs in Lebanon and beyond has significantly diminished in recent years. The issuing of indictments against four Hezbollah members for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri will only serve to accelerate and compound this process.
Once, Hezbollah presented itself and was seen as an Arab force concerned above all with making war against Israel. The movement’s ability to avoid humiliating defeat by the Jewish state thrilled Arab publics.
The Arab Sunni distrust of Iran and the Shi’ites was briefly trumped.
But this moment did not last. A series of events in the past three years has served to increasingly recast Hezbollah in its original colors – as a sectarian, Shi’ite creation and ally of Iran.
The pivotal moment in this transformation of the movement’s image came when it turned its guns on its domestic Sunni opponents in May 2008. This move was made to protect the boundaries of Hezbollah’s independent military and security infrastructure.
The immediate goal was achieved. But Hezbollah had maintained that its weaponry was for use against Israel alone. Its legitimacy suffered a heavy blow.
This discrepancy between Hezbollah’s matchless ability to impose its will in Lebanon and its declining legitimacy has since increased.
In recent months, the movement’s support for the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, even as it brutally crushed an uprising by the Sunni majority, has further served to tarnish Hezbollah’s reputation. There is widespread fury and disgust among Lebanon’s Sunnis at the reports of possible Hezbollah involvement, alongside Iranian personnel, in crushing the protests.
Once again, the movement’s Achilles’ heel has been the irresolvable contradiction between its pan-Arab pretensions and its practical loyalties to the narrow, mainly Shi’ite, Iran-led bloc.
This contradiction has now been laid bare in its most blatant form.
Hezbollah members, whose guns were proclaimed as serving a notional Arab and Islamic “general will” against Israel, now stand accused of the murder of an iconic Sunni Arab politician from the very heart of the Arab mainstream.
So what is likely to happen? First of all, it is worth remembering that Hezbollah and its allies deliberately brought down the government of Saad Hariri in January in anticipation of precisely this turn of events. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah dismissed the UN tribunal investigating the Hariri killing as a mere tool of American interests. But Hariri’s government was committed to it.
So Hezbollah and its allies toppled the government, and after a period of horse-trading, replaced it with a narrower cabinet consisting only of themselves.
But there are already clear indications of disagreement even within this narrower framework.
The drafting committee tasked with preparing the new government’s founding political statement found it hard to reach a consensus on the matter of its attitude toward the Hariri tribunal.
Hezbollah, according to reports, wanted the new government to cut all ties with the tribunal and declare itself in open opposition to what it describes as a “US-Zionist plan.” Newly minted pro-Syrian Prime Minister Najib Mikati evidently baulked at such an unambiguous stance.
The ministerial statement finally approved on Thursday preserves ambiguity. It declares the new government’s commitment to “the implementation of international resolutions, the Palestinian right of return and knowing the truth behind former PM Rafik Hariri’s assassination,” thus avoiding any concrete response on the matter of the indictments.
This solves little. Hezbollah has options, but none of them is particularly good.
At the moment, the accused men – Moustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hasan Ainessi and Asad Sabra – remain at liberty. The Lebanese authorities have 30 days to arrest them. If they do not do so, the tribunal will then make the details of the indictment public and order the suspects to appear before the court.
Hezbollah has the hard power simply to refuse to cooperate with the tribunal, and to prevent by force any attempt to apprehend its members.
Such an action, however, would take the movement yet further down the slippery slope of loss of any legitimacy or consent to its domination of Lebanon, outside of its narrow Shi’ite core. This would leave it dangerously exposed in a changing Arab world.
It could, on the other hand, choose to sacrifice some or all of the accused men. But in this regard, it is worth recalling that the accused are not anonymous, outlying members of Hezbollah. Moustafa Badreddine is a brother-in-law of the slain military leader Imad Mughniyeh. And sacrificing movement members would in any case look like surrender and humiliation to a body that Hezbollah has specifically designated as an enemy.
Whichever path Hezbollah adopts, it is now confronting the contradiction at the heart of its project. The movement has sought to both serve a narrow Shi’ite, pro-Iranian and Syrian interest, and simultaneously to pose as the sword of all the Arabs and Muslims.
It will have the option in the months ahead of holding its domination of Lebanon by force, in the face of the indictments. But if it does so, the broader project for which it was brought into being will be very severely tarnished. Hezbollah’s hard power will yet more clearly be revealed as in the sole service of the Shi’ites and Iran – and directed against the Sunni regional majority.
The expected furious denunciations of the tribunal as an American- Zionist plot will not serve to disguise this reality.
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