Muslim Radicals In Power

By David Ignatius
Friday, February 3, 2006

BEIRUT -- Are Muslim radicals changed by the experience of sharing in the responsibilities of government? The world has a lot riding on the answer to that question, and I can offer a small vignette drawn from a conversation with Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.

I visited the black-turbaned Nasrallah yesterday in his heavily guarded headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut. This is Hezbollahland: The narrow streets are chaotic, with bootleg telephone, electricity and cable TV wires dangling from every building, and surveillance cameras watching everything that moves. When you enter the inner compound, Hezbollah gunmen check for explosives or tracking devices in your pen, your watch, even your wedding ring.

Nasrallah was talking in the abstract about the democratic successes of Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamic movements. Yes, he said, having political power would change Hamas. It would "burden them with larger political responsibilities." The group would remain attached to its principles, he said, "but its behavior may be influenced" by the responsibility of government.

Then the phone rang, and the Hezbollah leader took a series of calls about the political stalemate that has paralyzed the Lebanese government. What transpired over the next few minutes was a demonstration that Nasrallah himself can, in the crunch, make the political deals that are part of governing. It also showed that however eager Islamic groups are for political power, they won't easily give up their guns.

Here's the background: A month ago, Nasrallah decided that the two Hezbollah members of the Lebanese cabinet and three other Shiite ministers should walk out in protest of decisions made by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. The technical issue was Siniora's call for an international tribunal to weigh evidence gathered about the assassinations of Lebanese political leaders. But the real problem was Nasrallah's fear that Siniora was challenging Hezbollah's status as an armed "resistance" fighting Israel.

Without its Shiite members, the Lebanese cabinet was unable to decide on major issues, and the country was nearing political and economic paralysis. Siniora told me Wednesday night that it was a full-blown "political crisis," and he was searching frantically for a way out. French and American diplomats here feared that Nasrallah might scuttle the government altogether.

Instead, reason prevailed, or at least a Levantine version of it. Siniora made a statement in parliament yesterday that finessed the resistance/militia issue to Nasrallah's satisfaction. The prime minister also promised that consensus would rule on major issues if the Shiite ministers returned.

Nasrallah, after fielding a second phone call, turned to me and said the issue was "99 percent resolved." Hezbollah would get to keep its weapons, for now, and Lebanon would avert political disaster, for now.

Before we got into the hardball reality of Middle East politics, I had been asking Nasrallah about the idealistic version advanced by President Bush in his State of the Union speech. I read him a passage in which Bush said that "liberty is the future of every nation in the Middle East, because liberty is the right and hope of all humanity."

"Nice words. Lovely words," he answered, "but the important thing is to allow people to act in liberty and freedom." He wondered, for example, whether the real power in Iraq would be exercised by the newly elected Iraqi government or by the more than 100,000 U.S. troops based there. Yet he did suggest that the Bush administration's democratization campaign could soften Muslim anger at America, if the United States can show it is serious.

"One reason for this hostility is that U.S. administrations for decades have always supported dictatorships in the Islamic world," Nasrallah explained. "The people of the Muslim world have held the U.S. responsible for what these governments did. I can assure you that to allow democracy will begin removing the barrier and the well of hatred against the U.S. But the real thing is to deal positively with the outcome of the elections."

There's one more matter in which Nasrallah agrees with the Bush administration -- in his view that al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi is fanning Sunni-Shiite tensions. "I believe the most dangerous thing we confront is the so-called Zarqawi phenomenon," he said. "This is a creed of killing without any responsibility -- to kill women, children, to attack mosques, churches, schools, restaurants." The issue in Iraq, he said, is "how to stop the killing."

The Bush administration's campaign for democracy has produced an unlikely cast of winners -- Hamas in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Shiite clerics in Iraq. To that list must be added Hasan Nasrallah, who may prove to be the cleverest and toughest of them all.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company