With Street Protests, Hezbollah Gambles in Quest for Dominance

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

BEIRUT, Dec. 5 -- Hezbollah has entered territory uncharted in its 24-year history as armed militia, social welfare group and nascent political party, effectively seeking an unprecedented, decisive say in Lebanese politics to protect what it sees as its interests from foes at home and abroad.

The month-long political crisis that has roiled Lebanon, hurtling it dangerously close to the precipice of civil war, marks a revealing shift for the Shiite Muslim movement that for years, at least rhetorically, tried to stay above politics, entering the cabinet for the first time in 2005.

Now, by mobilizing its rank and file and pouring them into downtown Beirut to topple the government, the movement has framed that pursuit for political power in the same martial language of this summer's war with Israel.

The imagery is often blunt: "Just as I promised you victory in the past, I promise you victory once again," goes a recording by Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah played over and over, igniting cheers each time. Banners on tents, housing thousands of supporters camped out in front of the government headquarters, display the slogan: "As with victory, change is coming, coming, coming."

"Everything is at stake for Hezbollah," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an analyst on Hezbollah and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center in Beirut. "There is no way that Hezbollah would back down."

"They're putting this political struggle on a par with the military struggle to show how significant it is strategically," she added. "It's basically an existential struggle for Hezbollah. It's an extension of its war with Israel."

The protests that began last week continued Tuesday, part carnival, part show of force. The crisis has myriad dimensions: notably a contest over ideology toward Israel and a battle over whose patrons -- the United States and France on the government's side, Syria and Iran on Hezbollah's -- will have a greater say here.

And the protests are rife with irony. In pursuit of its political aims, Hezbollah has employed tactics praised by the Bush administration when mass demonstrations took place after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005 helped end Syria's 29-year military presence in the country.

In the street today is a somewhat unlikely coalition of Shiites loyal to Hezbollah and to the allied Amal movement, and Christian supporters of Michel Aoun, an influential former general. The protests themselves represent an unprecedented attempt at popular pressure by Islamic movements that often act, or are forced to act, clandestinely in the Middle East.

But there remains a relentless logic to today's demonstrations: an attempt by Hezbollah to resolve in its favor the political uncertainty that has reigned since the Syrian withdrawal from a country in which two camps contest nearly every aspect of Lebanese political life. At stake, almost everyone agrees, is the direction of the state.

"This is not about one more cabinet minister or one less for either them or us. It is a battle equally important for them and for us," said Samir Geagea, veteran of a civil war militia who supports Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government.

Nayla Moawad, the minister of social affairs, was more direct. "This is a coup d'etat," she said.

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