Vol. 6, No. 11 September 19, 2006
From North Africa to Iran, Hizballah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah’s war has captured the imaginations of millions of Muslims. However, popularity of this sort in the Arab world seldom translates into anything substantive in political or strategic terms.
It is worth remembering that in Lebanon itself, a highly sectarian society, at least two-thirds of the population is unsympathetic, if not hostile, to Hizballah. A majority of Lebanon’s Christians, Sunnis, and Druze did not want Nasrallah’s war and now even some Shiites are making public their displeasure.
Nasrallah’s ability to project power in the region is not a function of his mass popular appeal, but is rather contingent on the level of support he receives from Syria and Iran, and his ability to shape the political arena inside of Lebanon, especially given the fact that Hizballah, unlike every other Lebanese political faction, remains armed.
Not since Hafez al-Assad put down an Islamist insurrection in the 1980s has the Alawite-led Syrian regime been more frightened of the country’s 70 percent Sunni majority. But by positioning himself as the one Arab ruler who stood alongside the Islamic Resistance against Israel, Assad has shored up domestic support inside Syria.
Hizballah’s war with Israel has won it the admiration of the Arab masses, but eventually, ordinary Sunnis will recognize that their sectarian interests are represented not by a Persian Shia theocracy, but by the Sunni Arab establishment.
The sustained bombing of Nasrallah’s headquarters and home put the Hizballah leader underground for what may well be the rest of his life, regardless of how long that is. While much of Nasrallah’s aura emanated from his actual physical presence in the streets of Beirut and south Lebanon, now the leader of Hizballah is reduced to nothing more than a recorded voice or image.
Popularity in Arab Politics
The Arab and Western media, including Israel’s, has charted the rising popularity of Hizballah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah in the wake of the war in Lebanon.1 From North Africa to Iran, Nasrallah’s war has captured the imaginations of millions of Muslims. However, popularity of this sort in the Arab world seldom translates into anything substantive in political or strategic terms, as may be seen in the recent careers of great Arab heroes who preceded Nasrallah.
Saddam Hussein was esteemed by Arabs for standing up to the United States when in fact all he did was merely survive the first U.S.-led Gulf War. A little more than a decade later, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Saddam went into hiding, was found shortly after by American troops, and is now on trial for crimes against the Iraqi people.
Osama Bin Laden restored Arab dignity when he attacked the U.S. on September 11 and killed more than 2,700 civilians in southern Manhattan. Today, Bin Laden and his chief lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri are in hiding, and many of his other top aides have been captured or killed by the U.S. and its allies.
Gamal abd-el Nasser, the most charismatic Arab leader of the twentieth century and to whom Nasrallah is most often compared, fired the imaginations of millions of Arabs with his anti-West rhetoric. In 1967, he led the Arabs to one of military history’s most disastrous defeats in the June war against Israel.
The fact is that popularity is often a poor index of regional reality, a terrain that most Western journalists, analysts, and political officials apparently confuse with their own political processes. Unlike Western democracies, where leaders are elected in popular referendums, and all politicians poll frequently to find out where they are in relation to their constituents, Arab popular appeal registers differently. Usually, it is not a means toward an end – i.e., actual political power – it is rather merely an end in itself.
For example, Saddam Hussein’s popularity did him little good in his attempt to annex Kuwait, when he was quickly checked by a U.S.-led force, invaded again a decade later, and deposed. Conversely, Hafez al-Assad’s relative lack of mass appeal in the Arab states did not stop the U.S.-led international community from giving him a free hand in Lebanon for two decades.
Nasrallah’s situation is even more precarious given that he does not lead a state, but is rather head of a faction, though sizeable, within that state. It is worth remembering that in Lebanon itself, a highly sectarian society, at least two-thirds of the population is unsympathetic, if not hostile, to the Shiite Party of God. A majority of Lebanon’s Christians, Sunnis, and Druze did not want Nasrallah’s war and now even some Shiites are making public their displeasure with Hizballah.2
Thus, Nasrallah’s ability to project power in the region is not a function of his mass popular appeal, but is rather contingent on the level of support he receives from Syria and Iran, and his ability to shape the political arena inside of Lebanon, especially given the fact that Hizballah, unlike every other Lebanese political faction, remains armed.
Syria’s Small Gains
The popularity that has accrued to Nasrallah over the last month is of little practical use to him, though it has benefited his two foreign sponsors, Syria and Iran.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been under fire on all fronts since he came to power in 2000, most especially since the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, an assassination Damascus is suspected of engineering. The ongoing UN investigation into the murder represents the international front on which the regime is fighting.
On the regional level, the Syrian regime has cast its lot with Tehran, a gamble that will depend largely on how Iran comes out of its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program and related issues. In the meantime, Damascus is alienating traditional Arab partners like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and heating up its rivalry with Jordan.3
Domestically, Assad has failed to take on any of the reform initiatives he promised when he first moved into the presidential palace,4 and yet concerns over reform pale in comparison with the regional sectarian issues that Assad has helped to stoke in Lebanon and Iraq in order to avoid them at home. Not since Hafez al-Assad put down an Islamist insurrection in the 1980s has this Alawite-led regime been more frightened of the country’s 70 percent Sunni majority.5
Thus, the many challenges facing Damascus on the national, regional, and international fronts have put the health and viability of the regime into question. But now, by positioning himself as the one Arab ruler who stood alongside the Islamic Resistance against Israel, Assad has shored up domestic support inside Syria. The president whom many observers have called immature has, for the time being at least, managed to defer one threat to the regime, which, in the context of Arab politics, constitutes a success.
However, given the civil war brewing in neighboring Iraq and the possibility of sectarian conflict spreading throughout the region, including Lebanon, Assad may have only bought himself a brief respite. Once the excitement of Hizballah’s war has died down, the Hizballah-Syria-Iran war against Israel that fired the spirits of ordinary Sunni Arabs this past summer will likely be recognized for what it is: A Shiite-Iranian-Alawite axis that is alien and inimical to Sunni Arab interests.
Iran’s Limited Gains
Ordinary Arabs, the so-called “Arab street,” have shown in the past that they tend to support radical positions rather than peace treaties with Israel or alliances with the United States.6 In contrast to traditional Arab powers like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, Tehran is pursuing a program of confrontation with Israel and the West, and Hizballah is the tip of the spear of Iran’s adventurist foreign policy.
Hizballah’s war with Israel has won it the admiration of the Arab masses, but more importantly it has temporarily divided those masses from their regimes. As one of Iran’s goals is to weaken traditional regional powers, especially its oil-producing rivals in the Persian Gulf, Nasrallah’s popularity at the expense of establishment leaders like Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and the Saudi royal family is a gain for Tehran.7
Yet this achievement, like Syria’s, is likely short-lived. Eventually, ordinary Sunnis will recognize that their sectarian interests are represented not by a Persian Shia theocracy, but by the Sunni Arab establishment. At least in regard to Tehran, those Arab regimes are firmly in the U.S. camp, counting on Washington to defeat Iran.8
Israel’s Victory, and Perhaps Lebanon’s as Well
In the first few hours of the war, Israel achieved a significant victory it has yet to be given credit for: The sustained bombing of Nasrallah’s headquarters and home put the Hizballah leader underground for what may well be the rest of his life, regardless of how long that is. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and military staffers have asserted that Nasrallah is a marked man, targeted for assassination and in hiding like Osama Bin Laden.9
While the bunkering of Nasrallah may have little effect in the regional or international arenas, where he never wielded much actual political power to begin with, it will at the very least make it more difficult for him to travel to meet with his Iranian and Syrian sponsors. His movements are being monitored, and intermediaries will have to be tapped to convey and receive messages.
Much of Nasrallah’s aura emanated from his actual physical presence in the streets of Beirut and south Lebanon. Now with the leader of Hizballah reduced to nothing more than a recorded voice or image, much of his charisma may evaporate. Foreign officials and other luminaries will avoid meeting with him, and he can no longer oversee public events as in the past when he led thousands of supporters in chanting: “Death to Israel, Death to America.”
While it is unclear how Nasrallah’s relationship with his own community has been affected by the destruction suffered during the war, it is noteworthy that his media appearances have had to substitute for the hands-on approach he once enjoyed. A leader who some are questioning for taking the country to war without consent is now physically separated from that community, and his frequent Arab media appearances merely emphasize his detachment.
The dimensions of Israel’s triumph in driving Nasrallah underground will partly depend on the willingness of other Lebanese leaders, particularly from the Sunni, Christian, and Druze communities, to take advantage of the opportunity Israel has afforded them.
It is true that Hizballah is a part of the Lebanese system; the question is how Hizballah will partake in that system. Lebanese leaders can benefit from the restrictions imposed on Nasrallah’s movements, and even seek to create rival factions within the group and break its stranglehold on Lebanese politics. Thus, Lebanon’s future is up to Lebanese leaders: Either they can leave Nasrallah effectively buried alive while they steer their country towards peace and prosperity, or they can lend a hand to save the man who single-handedly took all of the country to war.
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1. Among numerous examples, see Dan Murphy, “In war’s dust, a new Arab ‘lion’ emerges: Hizballah’s Nasrallah is hailed as a regional hero,” Christian Science Monitor, August 29, 2006; Rachel Shabi, “Palestinians see Nasrallah as new hero,” AlJazeera.net, August 13, 2006; Khaled Abu Toameh, “Hizballah ‘victory’ boosts extremists,” Jerusalem Post, August 13, 2006.
2. One Shiite journalist stirred up controversy when she wrote an aggressive article against Hizballah and the “resistance,” Mona Fayad, “To Be A Shitte Now,” An-Nahar, August 7, 2006; translated for MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, No. 1258. Also, the Mufti of Jebel Amil, Ali al-Amin, has been highly critical of Hizballah; see MEMRI Special Dispatch Series, No. 1266, “Intra-Shi’ite Criticism: Hizballah Didn’t Ask the Shi’ites About the War; The Shi’ites Authorized No One to Declare War in Their Name.”
3. The Saudis have been most aggressive with Damascus. See, for instance, reports of Assad’s brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, turned away by King Abdullah, “Asef Shawkat aada min Saudeya bi-khufay Honeyn,” “Asef Shawkat returns from Saudi empty-handed,” Sureya al-Hurra website, September 6, 2006, http://free-syria.com/loadarticle.php?articleid=9659; for Egyptian press reports critical of Syria, see, “Al-suhuf al-hukumeya al-misreya: Sureya lam tataliq rasasa wahida li-tahrir al-Golan mundhu thalatheen aaman,” “Egyptian government newspapers: Syria hasn’t fired a single bullet to liberate the Golan in thirty years,” Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 18, 2006. For Jordan, see, Ghassan Charbel, “Le Istitiae al-qul inna al-alaqat al-Iurdaneya-al-Sureya momteza…” “I can’t say that the Jordanian-Syrian relationship is excellent,” Interview with King Abdullah II, Al-Hayat, September 16, 2006, and “Jordan’s Abdullah warns U.S. mistakes since 2001 fueling terrorism,” Ha’aretz, September 16, 2006.
4. Abigail Fielding-Smith, “Long road to reform in Damascus: The Syrian regime has used the US invasion of Iraq to burnish its image as a defender of the Arab world,” Guardian, March 21, 2005.
5. Scott Wilson, “Religious Surge Alarms Secular Syrians: Islam’s Clout Among Frustrated Youth Challenging Governments Across Mideast,” Washington Post, January 23, 2006.
6. Militancy and the desire for confrontation is true even of self-described Arab democracy movements: c.f., Hamza Hendawi, “Egyptian activists turn against Israel,” Associated Press, September 14, 2006.
7. Nadia Abou El-Magd, “Arab Anger at Their Governments Grow,” Associated Press, August 7, 2006.
8. Lee Smith, “Who’s Really Afraid of Iran? The Gulf states are, not that they will say so publicly,” Weekly Standard, May 29, 2006.
9. “Israel May Target Hizballah Chief, Says Olmert,” Agence France Presse, August 6, 2006.
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Lee Smith is an American journalist and a visiting fellow with the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He worked out of Beirut for the last year and a half while completing a book on Arab culture and a monograph on Arab media. He is currently involved with the Jerusalem Center’s project on a new conflict paradigm for the post-Lebanon war Middle East.