March 13, 2005

JUST ANOTHER WARD HEELER:

Hezbollah Leader's New Fray: Lebanese Politics (NEIL MacFARQUHAR, 3/13/05, NY Times)
When Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah organization, addressed the hundreds of thousands of party faithful who gathered in the largest rally in Lebanon's modern history on Tuesday, his usual theme of liberating Jerusalem went unmentioned.

Instead, Sheik Nasrallah, a 44-year-old bearded cleric, focused, uncharacteristically, on the future of Lebanon.

The speech was also remarkable for its venue - downtown Beirut - and the absence of the trademark Hezbollah backdrop, its green and yellow banner with a fist brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle. Manar Television, the organization's satellite channel, ended its somewhat triumphant reporting with a tight shot of Sheik Nasrallah, standing on the balcony of a sparkling white sandstone building and in front of a Lebanese flag. [...]

"This is the first time that Nasrallah played the role of statesman; we have never seen him as a Lebanese leader," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the Lebanese American University and author of a book on Hezbollah's politics and religion. "Hezbollah might emerge as the new power broker in Lebanon outside Syria."

Sheik Nasrallah's bid is a major gamble. To some extent, he has stayed above the endlessly bickering fray of Lebanese politics. He gained national stature by directing Hezbollah's considerable firepower and thousands of armed men against the Israeli Army, winning admiration across the Arab world for ending the 22-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.

Once he plunges fully into the political fray, however, he becomes less of a pan-Arab, pan-Islamic figurehead and may be considered just one more Lebanese ward boss, albeit representing the largest Shiite bloc. It is also questionable how his support for Syria - his speech on Tuesday was laced with glowing references to Syria's Assad dynasty and ended with the line "Long live Syria!" - will play in a country where many are sick of what they see as its exploitive neighbor.

But becoming "more Lebanese" could well prove necessary. With the anticipated departure of Hezbollah's Syrian protectors, it will be harder for the group to pursue its emphasis on maintaining Lebanon as a battlefield for the Palestinian cause. It is only by flexing the muscles of the Shiite community that Sheik Nasrallah can ensure that Hezbollah retains a voice in a political system where religious identification remains all-important.
Gallons of ink were wasted this week on silly analyses of the Hezbollah rally, which had almost nothing to do with Syria.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 13, 2005 9:01 PM
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