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Investment scandal hurts Hezbollah's image, even among backers

Allegations of involvement in the drug trade have further damaged Hezbollah's reputation. In a recent speech, Nasrallah raised the issue and spoke of an attempt to "destroy the culture of resistance."

Some wonder whether his statements will be enough.

"Hezbollah is not the first revolutionary movement to be corrupted by money, and it won't be the last," wrote columnist Sateh Noureddine in the pro-Hezbollah newspaper As-Safir.

Much of the change in behavior can be traced to the aftermath of Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel, when government compensation money flooded impoverished Shiite neighborhoods devastated by Israeli attacks.

Some of the money went toward reconstruction, but much of what was left ended up with Ezzedine. Some Hezbollah backers sold their land and their homes so they would have extra money to invest with the businessman, who promised eye-popping returns. He even appealed to his customers' piety by insisting that his investment strategies were compatible with Islamic banking principles, which generally prohibit interest-bearing accounts.

Ezzedine's services sparked a boom -- new cars, restaurants, cafes and fashions.

"All logic and reason suddenly disappeared in one day, as well as the simplicity in life and its requirements," wrote Ibrahim al-Amin, editor in chief of Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah newspaper.

But now, the morality of Hezbollah's cadres is being questioned for the first time by supporters suffering amid the country's rough economic situation, said Mona Fayyad, a sociology professor at the Lebanese University.

"People have started asking questions. Where is the money coming from? Till now, they avoided speaking about this loudly, because they are terrorized," she said.

In the long run, she said, damage to Hezbollah is unavoidable because its success, to a large extent, depends on an image of superiority that its cadres reflected -- and that is now gone.

"Sayyed Nasrallah used to address his supporters by calling them the most honorable people, placing them above all other humans," she said. "What happened showed they are just as corruptible as everybody else."

Ibrahim is a special correspondent.

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