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Hizbullah divides and conquers

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27 January 2011 14:45

With the election of Najib Mikati to the Lebanese premiership, the end of the short-lived 'Cedar Revolution' is complete. Not that it was much of a revolution anyway — while it did succeed in getting the Syrians to withdraw their troops from Lebanon, Damascus is as big an influence now as it was then, but without the millstone of being an occupying force. 

Those who thought the events of 2005 would bring political independence to Lebanon seriously underestimated the degree of self-interest and communalism that runs through Lebanese politicians' veins, and the willingness of external actors to use Lebanon as a proxy political battlefield.

The appointment of Mikati as prime minister is confirmation that Hizbullah is the kingmaker of Lebanese politics.

Hizbullah was once a party which refused cabinet posts because it believed it made it a less effective opposition and proudly declared itself a national resistance movement. But the past five years has not only seen Hizbullah enter cabinet, it also initiated a ruinous war with Israel, militarily overran west Beirut and caused a Government collapse over fears that party members would be indicted over the assassination of the leading Sunni political figure in the country. Not a bad record for a group that espouses the need for national unity and consensus politics.

It is easy to see Hizbullah as simply a political party with powerful friends and a militia thought by many to be more capable than the army. But this overlooks Hizbullah's well-developed political antennae and its equally fine understanding of the Lebanese political environment. The key to Hizbullah's power in Lebanon is the unity of purpose that both the party and large elements of the Shi'a community displays. That, and a shared memory of centuries of social and political disenfranchisement suffered at the hands of the traditional Christian, Sunni and Shi'a powerbrokers. 

The other communities lack this unity and Hizbullah has been able to play on their self-interest to divide Hizbullah's largely pro-Western political opposition. Thus the arch-Lebanese nationalist and avowedly anti-Syrian Christian leader Michel Aoun sided with the pro-Syrian Hizbullah; the great survivor and Druse leader Walid Jumblatt departed from a leadership position in the pro-Western March 14 bloc to throw his lot in with the Hizbullah-led March 8 bloc; and the Sunni Najib Mikati is successfully put forward as a 'consensus' candidate, ensuring the demise of the Sunni community's political champion, Sa'ad Hariri.  

Before people bemoan the rising power of Hizbullah in Lebanon, they would do well to cast an equally critical eye on the powerbrokers among the non-Shi'a communities who support Hizbullah. Most Lebanese Shi'a support Hizbullah politically (if not ideologically) because it empowers their community for the first time in its history. By contrast, the motivation for non-Shi'a political groups that support the Hizbullah bloc is largely narrow, short-term political self-interest, the habitual failing of Lebanese politics.

Photo by Flickr user openDemocracy.

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