Solidarity in Resistance: Middle East Revolutions Strengthen Hezbollah

Hezbollah troops in Lebanon.

As the surge of revolutionary fervor that has taken the greater Middle East by storm continues to spread, many observers are grappling with the political uncertainties that the tumult has produced from Morocco to the Persian Gulf and beyond.  The popular uprisings that prompted the ouster of the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and threaten the panoply of authoritarian despots that cling to power in other countries have already had a profound effect on regional politics.  Despite the highly dynamic and fluid nature of events in the region, it is not too early to assess the impact of these events on the position of prominent actors such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The movement’s place amid the unfolding unrest bears special relevance, considering the open hostility that has characterized its relations with the recently toppled Mubarak regime and other governments threatened by the wave of unrest.  The popularity Hezbollah enjoys among a large segment of the very same people that have taken to the streets to demand political freedoms, rule of law, representative government and economic opportunities adds another dynamic worth closer examination.

Solidarity in Resistance

Having weathered the massive Israeli assault during the July 2006 War and deftly outmaneuvering attempts by its political opponents to undermine its position and blame it for the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Hezbollah’s stock as a political party, social movement, and paramilitary force in Lebanese and regional affairs continues to rise.   

In characteristic fashion, Hezbollah has not been coy about articulating its positions on the uprisings that have shaken the foundations of power in the Middle East in various media outlets, particularly its own Beirut-based al-Manar satellite television network. [1] Initially, however, Hezbollah adopted a cautious approach to the opposition activism that engulfed Tunisia and Egypt.  Hezbollah was concerned that a show of support for the protests early on would tarnish their legitimacy and lend credence to allegations repeated by the embattled regimes that the protestors were acting at the behest of hostile foreign elements aiming to destabilize the region.  Hezbollah essentially opted to refrain from issuing an endorsement of the protests until the popular grassroots character of the rebellions entered into the discourse of global media coverage and analysis.  Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah encapsulated this point in a statement broadcast during a February 7 event in Beirut organized to support the opposition in Egypt: “In case we announced solidarity earlier, they would have said that the revolution was motivated by Hezbollah or Hamas cells or even by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Then, this real, original and patriotic movement would be accused of serving a foreign agenda” (al-Manar [Beirut], February 8).

Hezbollah has since expressed solidarity with what it sees as the assertion of the true will of the Arab and Muslim masses who strive for social, political, and economic justice in the face of illegitimate and corrupt autocracies that it claims are beholden to the United States and Israel.  In this regard, Hezbollah has framed the political activism taking place in the region through a larger resistance narrative analogous to the one it applies to its own circumstances, a theme echoed by Nasrallah in remarks directed at the Egyptian opposition: “Our belief says that what you’re doing is very great and one of the very important turning points in the history of this nation and region.  Your move and victory will change the whole face of our region to the interest of its peoples in general and especially Palestine (al-Manar, February 8).  

The fall of the Mubarak regime, a longtime enemy of the group, has had special resonance for Hezbollah.  In spite of its Shi’a character, Hezbollah is very popular in predominantly Sunni Egypt for its resistance against Israel and support for the Palestinian cause, as demonstrated  by the protests in Egypt and the Sunni-led Arab world in support of Hezbollah during the July 2006 War and the heroic status Nasrallah has enjoyed since (see Terrorism Focus, August 8, 2006).  Amid the chaos that accompanied Mubarak’s ouster, Hezbollah managed under murky circumstances to free Muhammad Yusuf Mansour (a.k.a. Sami Shehab), a member of the group serving time in an Egyptian prison (al-Jazeera, February 7).  Egyptian authorities convicted Mansour along with a host of others on espionage, weapons, and terrorism-related charges in 2010.  Egyptian authorities claimed, among other things, that Mansour was planning attacks on Egyptian soil (see Terrorism Monitor, June 12, 2009).  While Nasrallah acknowledged Mansour’s membership in Hezbollah, he denied that his activities threatened Egypt; instead, Mansour was leading an effort to support the Palestinians in Gaza (see Terrorism Monitor, May 28, 2010).  In a masterstroke of political theater that has become a signature of Hezbollah, Mansour appeared in person during the group’s annual February 16 commemoration of its deceased leaders in the Dahiyeh, the southern suburbs of Beirut where Hezbollah enjoys tremendous support.  Speaking to jubilant crowds though a video feed broadcast on a large screen television, Nasrallah thanked Egyptians for freeing Mansour and highlighted the fact that the Mubarak’s decision to step down on February 11 coincided with the anniversary of the 1979 victory of the Iranian Revolution (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting [IRIB], February 17).

Expanding on his observations of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, Nasrallah’s televised March 19 speech addressed the wider unrest experienced in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen: “Our gathering today is to voice our support for our Arab people and their revolutions and sacrifices, especially in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.  The value of this solidarity is moral, political, and ethical….  A great victory was achieved in Egypt and Tunisia.  Libya entered civil war, and in Bahrain and Yemen the regimes put their own peoples on the brink of civil war (al-Manar, March 20).

Nasrallah singled out Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi over the disappearance of Imam Musa Sadr, the Iranian-born founder of the Afwaj al-Muqawama al-Lubnaniya (AMAL – Lebanese Resistance Detachments) movement and a major figure among Shi’a in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.  Sadr is credited with helping galvanize Lebanon’s Shi’a community to assert themselves in Lebanese politics and society.  Sadr went missing under mysterious circumstances along with two others during a visit to Tripoli in 1978 and is widely believed to have been executed by Libya. However, some claim that he is still being held in captivity, a view repeated by Nasrallah amid the current conflict in Libya: “We are looking forward to the day when Sadr can be liberated from this dictatorial tyrant” (al-Manar, March 20).  

Events in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, have also not been lost on Hezbollah, especially the sectarian dynamics underlying the unrest, where a U.S. and Saudi-backed Sunni monarchy led by King Hamad Ibn Issa al-Khalifa rules over a majority Shi’a population that is largely underserved and faces widespread discrimination in daily life.  Commenting on the regime’s decision to crack down violently on the peaceful demonstrators and Saudi Arabia’s decision to send troops to back its ally, Nasrallah declared: “The regime in Bahrain was not threatened and the resistance was peaceful, yet the army was used against it.  This is a first.  We heard that some arrested opposition leaders had their houses demolished.  This is Israeli style… I ask some in the Arab and Islamic world who are remaining silent about the injustice that our brothers in Bahrain are facing:  Why stay silent about these peaceful protests or condemn their movements?  Is it because they are Shi’a?  If someone in a country belonged to a certain sect, should he be relieved of his human rights? … No one asked about the religion or sect of the Palestinian, Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan people (al-Manar, March 20).  The push to topple President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen also drew a response from Nasrallah: “In Yemen there are many complications, but no doubt that we absolutely cannot be silent about the murder and crimes that are occurring.  We salute the resistance of the Yemeni people and their commitment to the peacefulness of their movement (al-Manar, March 20).

Geopolitical Considerations

Rhetoric aside, Hezbollah’s support for the rush of opposition movements stems from calculated pragmatism; the course of events that is redefining the Middle East, upending the regional status quo, is shaping up in Hezbollah’s favor.  As a member of the so-called “Resistance Axis,” a bloc composed of Iran, Syria and Hamas that stands in opposition to the U.S.-led order made up of Israel and friendly Arab autocracies such as Saudi Arabia, it is easy to see why Hezbollah (and its allies) gained by the current unrest, a point not lost on Nasrallah: “Israel today is wailing over the loss of its last strategic ally in the region [i.e. Egypt] after it lost the Shah in Iran in 1979 and after it lost to a great degree Turkey due to its aggression on Lebanon and Gaza, its murderous policies and its crimes against the Freedom Fleet [i.e. the Gaza Freedom Flotilla] (al-Manar, February 8; see also Terrorism Monitor, May 28, 2010).

Hezbollah is frequently cited as a threat by the sitting autocrats in the region, a threat that is often portrayed in sectarian terms: Hezbollah’s Shi’a character and alliance with Iran, in essence, represents a force for instability and radicalism.  In reality, however, the threat posed by Hezbollah to the ruling regimes stems from its penchant for criticizing sitting governments and inspiring domestic opposition among those who tend to identify with Hezbollah over their own leaders, many of who are viewed as agents of the United States and Israel.  From its doctrinaire origins as an outpost of the Iranian Revolution in the Levant, Hezbollah now boasts multiple, overlapping identities that speak to numerous audiences in Lebanon and beyond. As a political party, organic Lebanese organization and transnational Shi’a Islamist movement, Hezbollah is at once a defender of all Lebanese – regardless of sect – and Lebanese sovereignty against Israel, an advocate for pan-Arab and Palestinian nationalist causes, and a force for social justice and resistance. This reality frightens the ruling regimes and is likely to be cause for continued concern.  

In spite of Israel’s overwhelming military power, it is widely acknowledged that Hezbollah’s impressive showing during the July 2006 War helped it achieve an effective deterrence capacity in relation to Israel.  With a reputation for living up to its promises and exceeding expectations on the battlefield, it is also worth considering how the changing regional landscape will impact Hezbollah’s strategies in a future war with Israel.  In this context, Nasrallah’s suggestion that Hezbollah engage Israel on its own soil, specifically, in the northern Galilee region, warrants a closer look.  During his February 16 speech, Nasrallah declared: “The major achievement of the Resistance is that it complicated the possibility of Israel occupying Lebanon.  Even more, today, Israel is concerned that Hezbollah might liberate Galilee… I tell the Resistance fighters to be prepared for the day when war is imposed on Lebanon.  Then, the Resistance leadership might ask you to lead the Resistance to liberate Galilee (al-Manar, February 18).  

Nasrallah’s bold statement follows a series of threats that hint at the group’s intention to dramatically escalate hostilities in any future conflict with Israel, such as its pledge to target Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport and major urban centers in central and southern Israel in retaliation for Israeli strikes on similar targets in Lebanon: “I say to the Israelis: if you attack Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri airport we will attack Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv (Al-Arabiya [Dubai], February 10, 2010).  Hezbollah has also demonstrated its ability over the years to infiltrate the Israeli security establishment through the successful recruitment of ranking Israeli military and intelligence officers (see Terrorism Monitor, June 25, 2009).  Given this track record, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Hezbollah will attempt to fight in some capacity in northern Israel in the next confrontation with its archenemy.  The symbolism behind such a move would be profound.  

While it is unlikely that Egypt will abrogate its commitment to the Camp David Accords in the near future, a major shift in Egyptian foreign policy down the line is not out of the question.  Because popular opinion in Egypt and across the Middle East remains strongly opposed to Israel for its continued occupation of Palestinian land and the complicity of Arab regimes in this policy, such as the role played by the Mubarak regime and Palestinian Authority during Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza, the possibility that Egypt will adopt a foreign policy posture that is more reflective of public opinion should not be ruled out.  While it is too early to count Egypt as a member of the “Resistance Axis,” even a modest shift in Egyptian foreign policy away from its traditional pro-U.S. and pro-Israel position would bolster Hezbollah in relation to Israel and its other opponents in the region.  The weakening of the U.S.-led alliance due to the ongoing protests in friendly autocracies and the simultaneous rise of more representative governments that will cater to public opinion will also continue to play to Hezbollah’s advantage.

Conclusion

As the groundswell of domestic pressure continues to spread across the Middle East, Hezbollah’s position is poised to improve.  At the same time, the latest rumblings of dissent in Syria – a crucial Hezbollah ally – against the ruling Ba’ath regime demonstrates how the contagion of revolution sweeping the Middle East can also come back to haunt the group.  Some reports out of Syria indicate that protesters in Dera’a, a conservative and largely Sunni town located along Syria’s southern border with Jordan, chanted anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran slogans alongside calls for political reform.  Following in the footsteps of other regimes in the region, Syria has implicated outside agitators in the unrest (al-Jazeera, March 26; Reuters, March 24).  Until this point, Hezbollah has – not surprisingly –avoided addressing the developments in its longtime ally.  However events play out in Syria, the broad trajectory of political change witnessed in the region to date has so far strengthened Hezbollah’s hand.

Note:

1. Footage of Al-Manar satellite television programming, as well as transcripts and official statements issued by Hezbollah, is available at the station’s official website http://www.almanar.com.lb/.