Friday, January 28, 2011

Hezbollah Enters Uncharted Territory

By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 29/01/2011

The new Lebanese prime minister-designate, Najib Mikati, has been widely portrayed in international media as “Hezbollah’s man.” His mandate to form the next government has generated considerable speculation about the consequences of a government formed in the shadow of Hezbollah, which means Iran and Syria to most people.
Indeed, critics of Hezbollah and the Mikati appointment – especially Sunni supporters of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri – speak disdainfully of Mikati as the “wilayat al-faqih” prime minister, referring to the formal title (“rule of the jurisprudent”) of the Iranian supreme leader system. Hariri and many of the Lebanese Sunnis he represents see the events of the past weeks as a successful coup by Hezbollah to take over the government.
All of this is incredibly significant in Middle Eastern terms, but the exact significance and consequences remain hazy to most observers. We have to wait and see the composition and political program of the Mikati government before judging the full meaning of what is going on. Several important aspects of this process can be identified already, however, and, like most Lebanese political developments, they relate simultaneously to local, regional and global issues--because Hezbollah is an organization that operates at all three levels.
I would first point out that if Mikati’s appointment indeed means that we now have a Hezbollah-named government in Lebanon, the most sensible thing to do it to wait and see what it does before judging it prematurely simply on the basis of whether one likes or dislikes Hezbollah. This is especially true for the United States, which has consistently made the wrong decision in recent years in opposing and fighting leading Islamist movements that enjoy strong support and considerable legitimacy in their own countries.
The combination of Hezbollah’s reputation for efficiency and diligence, on the one hand, and Mikati’s personal integrity and business success, as well as the respect he enjoys, on the other, suggests that this government may actually start to address some of the pressing issues and threats facing all Lebanese – including inadequate electricity supplies, declining water quality, rising prices, environmental degradation, corruption and severe developmental disparities across the country. Hezbollah and its main Christian ally Michel Aoun have repeatedly raised these domestic governance issues in their criticism of the Hariri and previous governments, alongside other divisive matters such as relations with the U.S. or the role of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which will indict and try those whom it believes killed Rafik Hariri and 21 others.

This indicates to me that perhaps the most important thing about the change of government that Hezbollah and its allies have forced is that they now will face the pressures of accountability that until now they had largely avoided at national level. Hezbollah has always disdained domestic Lebanese politics, in favor of its self-appointed primary role as the “resistance” that protects Lebanon from the two main dangers it sees: Israeli aggression and American-led Western cultural assault. This process today is the culmination of 20 years of the party’s gradual movement into Lebanese domestic politics – from local government, to national Parliament, to the cabinet, and now, indirectly, to the premiership – making it the single most powerful political group in the country to go along with its being the most important military force.
The problem with all this is that Hezbollah is not an ordinary political party or sectarian-based movement like most other Lebanese political groups. Its primary role is that of anti-Israeli military resistance or deterrence force and an anti-American political-cultural resistance force. The party seeks to protect those roles through political means; and its most significant relationships include links with Iran and Syria.
This means that for many of Hezbollah’s Lebanese and other critics, the party is a danger to Lebanon rather than an asset. Its movement into the heart of Lebanese politics is an opportunity for Hezbollah to reformulate its image and diversify its core mission – via the Mikati link – to include domestic good governance and equitable service delivery. This would allow more Lebanese to relate to Hezbollah as something more than an instigator of catastrophic war with Israel or a problematic Trojan Horse for Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon.

This is largely uncharted territory for Islamist and militant movements in the Middle East. Hamas is a poor cousin to Hezbollah in this respect, and the successful governing Justice and Development Party in Turkey lacks Hezbollah’s military dimension or pluro-ethnic national context. The Special Tribunal is the immediate issue that challenges Lebanon and the government-formation process, but this is a transient issue that will be just one of the criteria by which Hezbollah’s historic move into the heart of Lebanese political governance will be judged. The others are socio-economic management, reducing corruption, promoting equitable development, and stabilizing sectarian relations at home, and regional issues such as ties to Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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