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In Lebanon, Hezbollah is watching, and waiting out, the Arab uprisings

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

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Monday, February 28, 2011

BEIRUT

To visit Hezbollah officials, you turn left off the airport road, just past a billboard that shows Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad coyly waving at motorists. You then enter a neighborhood known as the "southern suburbs," which is the dense street fortress of the Shiite militia.

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Here lies the headquarters of the group that now forms the strongest bloc in Lebanon's parliament. It's an unusual situation, to put it mildly: The Lebanese government is dominated by an organization that the United States and Israel designate as "terrorist." What's more, Hezbollah's ascendancy has given its patrons in Tehran what amounts to a beachhead on the Mediterranean, whose sparkling waters are just west of the militia's stronghold.

Understanding Hezbollah is like watching a play of shadows; its real actions are hidden. The organization likes having power, and its military wing (which it insists is solely a "resistance" force against Israeli troops to the south) is stronger than the Lebanese army. But it doesn't want responsibility for decisionmaking commensurate with its power, as I discovered in conversations with several Hezbollah officials.

I met last week with Ammar al-Mousawi, the top Hezbollah "diplomat," and several of his subordinates in the organization's international department. This was an "unofficial" visit, so I can't directly quote Mousawi or his colleagues. But the discussion illustrated the thinking of the toughest player in the world's toughest political league.

Hezbollah appears to realize that the revolt sweeping the Middle East has subtly changed the game for them. Officials see the Arab world moving into a more democratic and pluralistic politics with the fall of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and perhaps Libya. In this new environment, Hezbollah doesn't want to be seen as a sectarian militia or a wrecker, but as a democratic partner (albeit a potent one that has thousands of missiles pointed at Israel). Because Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are Sunni countries, recent events can be seen in part as a Sunni political resurgence, which Hezbollah must respect.

The first order of business for Lebanon's Hezbollah-dominated government will be the delicate matter of the United Nations inquiry into the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. A U.N. special tribunal has been investigating the case, and news reports have predicted that it will release indictments soon that will name members of Hezbollah among those responsible.

To gain leverage against the tribunal, Hezbollah in January forced out Hariri's son Saad as prime minister. He will be replaced by Najib Mikati, a former prime minister who is one of Lebanon's most successful businessmen and is close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mikati has said he will support the U.N. Security Council, which presumably includes the tribunal. But Hezbollah seems assured that the practical effect of any indictments will be blunted and that the matter will be left unresolved in characteristic Lebanese fashion.

Hezbollah officials seemed surprisingly low-key about the tribunal last week. Officials said there is consensus on the need for justice for Hariri's death but disagreement about the mechanism. This has the effect of kicking the problem down the road to Mikati, and avoiding any direct Hezbollah fingerprints on strangling the tribunal.

The tribunal issue illustrates the frustrations of Lebanese politics. There's never an address for assigning responsibility. The buck doesn't stop anywhere. Perhaps Mikati, with his business background, can deal with this accountability problem.

So eager is Hezbollah to avoid responsibility for unpopular decisions that officials object to descriptions of the new government as Hezbollah-controlled. And they pointedly decline to endorse the tactics of their coalition partner, retired Lebanese general Michel Aoun, who is challenging President Michel Suleiman for leadership of the country's Christian community.

Does Hezbollah see any doors to the West opening in the post-Tahrir Square environment? Is a Middle East "restart" possible that might allow gradual engagement with, say, the United States? I didn't hear much enthusiasm for that idea, but Hezbollah doesn't oppose a continuation of military cooperation between Lebanon and the United States. Indeed, Hezbollah mischievously says that perhaps the Lebanese army should have more U.S. weapons - surely knowing that America would never provide them so long as Hezbollah is the strongest political force in town.

Hezbollah is a ruthless political player, but it's a mistake to underestimate the finesse of its tactics. Officials insist that no matter what the West may think, the Shiite militia is logical (meaning self-interested) in pursuing its policies. And the ever-logical Hezbollah seems to realize that even the self-styled "resistance" must make adjustments in this period of Arab upheaval.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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