Lebanon's Shiites Grapple With New Feeling of Power
Despite Gains, Sense of Vulnerability Persists

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 10, 2006

BEIRUT, Dec. 9 -- As morning clouds hovered overhead Saturday, Fadil Ayyash wiped eyes that were bleary from just two hours of sleep over two days in the city-within-a-city that Hezbollah's protests in downtown Beirut have become.

The mood in his tent, set alongside a site for luxury apartments, was playful. The first order of business was stoking a water pipe. Under two yellow Hezbollah flags, with a hint of mischief, he and his friends unveiled their makeshift fireplace, charred cinderblocks stacked on a sidewalk still warm from a campfire the night before. But they spoke bluntly -- of frustration and protest, of politics and power -- the vocabulary of a moment the young Shiite Muslim men feel they are defining.

"How is this democracy?" Ayyash asked, pointing to the colonnaded government headquarters known as the Serail, standing like a citadel atop a hill. "The majority is here," he said, waving his hand across rows of protesters' tents.

His friends nodded, sprawled in brown plastic chairs.

"These days," he said, "we have to seize our opportunity."

Once the country's most downtrodden, entrenched in feudal misery, Lebanon's Shiites stand today on the verge of their greatest political power in the history of a diverse country defined by its fractious religious communities: Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Druze and Christians. But their ascent is a story of contradictions: Now at the peak of that power, confident of victory, the community is still shaped by its own sense of vulnerability and weakness.

Its leaders rely on age-old notions of backroom, under-the-table Lebanese politics replete with patronage, a cult of leadership and the influence money buys. But they may be reshaped by leaving a legacy of turning to the street with populist demands. And in pursuit of power, through the protests that began Dec. 1, the Shiites, the country's single-largest community, may end up breaking a system that appears to be buckling under the stress of Lebanon's most acute crisis since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

The drama unfolding here draws on a long history of persecution, both real and perceived, but is propelled by the most recent events in Lebanon, as Shiites try to shape the country following the Syrian withdrawal last year and, as important, the war with Israel this summer.

"The battle has already begun," said Mona Fayad, a Shiite professor of psychology whose criticism of Hezbollah in an article published this summer in the Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar made her a cause celebre here. "They've opened the gates of hell. This is how I've felt the past few days."

"It's like a snowball, and it's now so hard to stop," she said. Her voice was slow and weary. "Even if they stop it now before anything else happens, we're still going to have a lot of trouble. And if they don't?"

She left the question unanswered.

Forging an Identity

In the southern village of Khiam, along hills green from winter rains, Zeinab al-Sheikh Ali sat in a house within sight of the Israeli border. Two pictures of Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, were posted at the entrance. "Victory from God," one read in Arabic, Hezbollah's slogan for this summer's 33-day war with Israel. "Divine Victory," another said in French. But, shaking her head, Ali, the 70-year-old matriarch, remembered a more distant time.

"The days of our grandfathers," she called it.

There is a joke heard in Khiam and elsewhere in Lebanon, itself a bitter critique of the days when the community was rural, marginalized and illiterate, dominated by a traditional elite of reactionary clergy and landowners with feudal Ottoman-era titles. Shiite peasants went to the home of a prominent Shiite clan leader and asked him to build a school. He looked at them, confused and a little surprised. His reply: Wasn't it enough that his own son was going to school and getting an education?

The community's fortunes began to change in the 1960s after the arrival of Musa al-Sadr, a cleric born in Qom, Iran, as a religious leader. In time, he bridged gaps between Shiites in the south and the Bekaa Valley, undermined the influence of clans and inculcated the Shiite community's sense of itself. His charisma was so great that young Lebanese clerics began imitating his Iranian-accented Arabic. But in 1978, he disappeared while on an official visit to Libya, never to be heard from again. The Iranian revolution followed a year later, and after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Iran helped found Hezbollah.

Lebanon's civil war forced the Shiite community, like others, to defend itself as a group amid growing anarchy. By the end of the war, it was newly emboldened, its power was bolstered in the government and the community entered the civil service in force. The government sent billions of dollars to the south, tangled in staggering corruption, and money poured back into Lebanon from Shiite expatriates in Africa.

Within the community, Hezbollah grew stronger, as it fought the Israeli occupation that ended in 2000. In the guerrilla war, the group honed its military arm, with elaborate recruitment and the building of an arsenal supplied by Iran and conveyed through Syria. It weathered Israeli offensives in 1993 and 1996.

Today, in power and influence, Hezbollah has eclipsed its rival, the Amal movement of Parliament speaker Nabih Berri. Its social infrastructure of schools, hospitals and orphanages sprawls across the south; it prides itself on incorruptibility. And with its ascent are a culture and language steeped in the resistance to Israel it celebrates, along with an arsenal that, while many Shiites are reluctant to state it publicly, delivers the community confidence.

"Without the weapons, we'd get slapped across the shoulder," said Imad Abu Mehdi, a shop owner in Khiam.

To its followers, Hezbollah's appeal is reflected most powerfully in the personality of Nasrallah, sometimes simply called the sayyid, perhaps the most compelling figure the community has had since Sadr's disappearance nearly 30 years ago.

"Tell them that we are stronger than tiredness, stronger than hunger, stronger than cold, stronger than weariness, stronger than bombardment and, of course, stronger than attacking us with words," Nasrallah said in a fiery speech broadcast to the protest Thursday.

"He was talking golden, the words were precious," said Ali, the matriarch in Khiam.

Ali sat with her sister-in-law, Zeinab Ismail, whose son, Ahmed, was killed in this summer's war with Israel. Ismail fled the conflict for the relative safety of the Bekaa Valley in the north. When she returned, the doors of her home were blown out, its windows shattered. The homes of two sons were destroyed. Ahmed had spent nearly two years in the Israeli-run jail in Khiam in the late 1990s. Red worry beads he fashioned while there are now draped over his portrait, his stern visage glaring down from its perch above the door.

"No one has sacrificed more than the Shiites," Ismail said.

Ismail and Ali talked about past and present, the two often intersecting seamlessly in a narrative replete with suffering and martyrdom that stretches to the 7th century. Their conversation was punctuated, as it often is in southern Lebanon, with the rhetoric of class and disenfranchisement and the symbolism of martial sacrifice: the language of Nasrallah. For every ill, they blamed a government they said was rife with corruption and bent on preserving its power, neglecting the people in the south.

Without Hezbollah, Ali said, sipping a glass of lemon-flavored tea, "we'd only have God."

Questioning Hezbollah

The words of Fayad's article, published before this summer's war ended, were blunt, even polemical. In language that was straightforward and at times simplistic, the psychologist questioned the very tenets of Hezbollah's ideology: notions of sacrifice, resistance and honor.

"What does it mean to be a Shiite?" she asked.

"To be a Shiite means that you do not question the meaning of victory," she wrote. "To be a Shiite means that you do not question the meaning of resistance and pride." She went on: "To be a Shiite is to accept that your country be destroyed before your very eyes -- unsurprised eyes, that is -- and that it comes tumbling down on your head, and that your family be displaced and dispersed and become refugees and that you accept standing up to the enemy without a word of complaint."

"You see," she wrote, "we are a nation of heroes that knows nothing but sacrifice."

By her estimate, the article prompted 30 more in response. She received hundreds of calls and 300 e-mails. She said many were supportive; others were indignant that someone would write in such a way while the country was under Israeli attack; "pathetic," one person scolded her.

Dressed in a sports jacket and wearing wire-rimmed glasses, Fayad, 55, sat at her home on an overcast day. She was bleak: She already sees the shadows of a civil war, as Hezbollah mobilizes its Shiite constituency and the government stages almost daily shows of solidarity among Sunni Muslims and others. She feels her life is in danger. And she wants to leave Lebanon.

"It is unacceptable I pass my life from war to war, for the sake of others," she said. "What kind of craziness is this?"

No one knows with certainty what percentage of the Shiite community Hezbollah represents. Critics such as Fayad and others suggest it is about a third. But she and other intellectuals who bristle at its dominance over Shiite politics illustrate, in a way, the group's power: Hezbollah and, to a far lesser extent, Amal represent the only organized Shiite voices in a system defined by communal politics. As a result, their ambitions become the community's ambitions, their tactics become its tactics.

"They can't speak in the name of the Shia," said Mohammad Mattar, a lawyer with a fondness for Cuban cigars. "It's very simple. They cannot." Mattar talks in the precise, logical language of a legal brief. At times, he opens the window to air his sleek downtown office of smoke.

"Lebanon will cease to exist if one party monopolizes power or becomes all too strong," he said, his voice matter-of-fact. "A lot of people like me are very worried that the delicate Lebanese policy might disintegrate if this goes on."

The Shiites "were poor, and they were left to fend for themselves for 40 years of Lebanon's independence," Mattar said, staring from underneath his thick, black-rimmed glasses. "But this is not an excuse to do what you are doing."

The critique of Mattar and Fayad and others runs from the question of representation (unaccountable, in Mattar's view) to Hezbollah's ties to Iran and Syria (an instrument of their foreign policy, he said) to the very culture of resistance to Israel.

At a deeper level, their critique illustrates the contradictions of Lebanese politics: In the grammar of sectarianism, where Sunni, Shiite and Druze communities have coalesced around leaders, each claiming an effective right of veto, national identity has become second. As the Shiite community reaches for its greatest power ever, there is little debate within the community -- beyond articles, statements by dissident clerics and vestigial influence of clans -- over how to use that power.

"We are stranded. We can neither go here nor there," Mattar said. "People like me are left on our own."

'They Became Something'

In some ways, Hossam Yassine represents the changing fortunes of Lebanon's Shiites. Yassine is college-educated, back from a job in the Persian Gulf. And every day this week, he has gone to the festival-like protests, in part for the party, in part because Hezbollah wants him to and in part because he believes.

"Hezbollah came and made something for the Shia, that we are here," the 22-year-old said.

He pulled his black leather jacked around his shoulders. His cheerful face was lined with the trace of a goatee.

"They were nothing, and they became something."

He walked past rickety stands selling date-filled cookies, bread with melted cheese and popcorn. A banner-size cartoon of two men hung to the side: "Are you a Christian or Muslim?" one asked. "I'm hungry," the other replied. Flags, shirts and caps were for sale -- yellow for Hezbollah, orange for its Christian ally, former general Michel Aoun. A little ways down, another placard asked, "What's more beautiful than living with dignity?"

"In two weeks," Yassine said, smiling, "they're going to have to pay the people to get them to leave."

He walked through the sleek downtown, its upscale offices and pricey condominiums at the heart of the vision of a new Beirut downtown promoted by former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim billionaire killed last year in a car-bomb assassination.

"There are a lot of places in Beirut where people are building homes no better than tents. They flood in the winter. Why don't they take care of these people?" Yassine asked. "Why only here, in this small spot of land?"

He shook his head, more resigned than angry. "This wasn't built for us."

Yassine walked past campsites. "No to the pourers of tea," slogans read on the sides of tents, a reference to Lebanese police who served tea to Israeli soldiers this summer as they occupied the southern town of Marjayoun.

He read them, then furrowed his brow. For the first time, his voice took on an edge.

"If I'm a man, 60 years old, I've fought 25 years, 30 years, until now for one aim, to expel the Israelis and to keep the Americans away. I've lost a lot of things -- my father, my brother, my good life, and I sit at my home watching the Israelis get in peace what they couldn't get in war? Watching, just watching. Put yourself in the same situation. You would feel angry."

In a way, the protests today are a microcosm of the currents swirling through the Shiite community, promoted by Hezbollah with its intuitive feel for the sentiments of its rank and file. They are the equivalent of a new kind of politics in Lebanon, drawing on the street, roiled by populist demands: a protest over government corruption, a denunciation of the United States and Israel, a celebration of the war this summer, tinted with a sense of betrayal at the hands of other Lebanese, and a call for change, however ill-defined it might be.

To Yassine, it is a world view that rarely, if ever, intersects with that offered by the government's supporters; it pits righteousness against wrong, and victory, however long it might take, is inevitable. He said he couldn't envision an alternative.

"From the beginning we weren't treated well. Not just now. From the previous government and the government before that," Yassine said. "The people aren't going here because what Sayyid Hasan said. Sure, they'll do what he says. They love him. But they're going here because they're unhappy. I'll go not one night, two nights or three nights. I'll go for a year or two years."

As the protests wound down, he got into his car, driving back to the Dahiya and its densely populated warrens, where electricity is cut for hours every day. Armored personnel carriers were parked every so often, and knots of soldiers hung around intersections along streets that divided Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods. "It's like a border," he said. Along one road, six armored personnel carriers drove by, followed by three jeeps. A little ways down, he was stopped briefly at a checkpoint.

"Where are you coming from?" the soldier asked. "Downtown," he said, and drove on.

His mood turned a little bleak, a little less optimistic than at the protests.

"They can't let any fight get big," Yassine said. "If a small fight gets big, Lebanon is gone."

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