Mon February 7, 2011

Protest May Indicate Rise Of Hezbollah In Lebanon

Unlike the popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, the recent collapse of Lebanon's government had nothing to do with populist fury.

The opposition, including the Shiite Hezbollah movement, walked out to protest an international court expected to indict Hezbollah members in connection with a 2005 political assassination.

The Lebanese are asking themselves if this is just another re-shuffling of the political chairs, or if it marks the rise of a growing Shiite population in a country that has long favored Christians and Sunni Muslims.

Hezbollah has long had power on the ground. In December 2008, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nasrallah galvanized a huge audience with his call for Egyptians to rise up in protest over Cairo's refusal to lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Politically, Lebanon has never acknowledged the widely accepted belief that Shiites are the largest single group in the country.

Lebanon's system requires the president to be a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim — ostensibly because of their shares of the population.

Shiites get the less powerful speakership of Parliament. And there hasn't been a census in decades for fear that it would sow political chaos.

'No Need For Overt Political Control'

For analyst Talal Atrissi at Lebanese University, the ascension of Hezbollah to a share of the political majority for the first time in its history is symbolically important.

"I believe what we're seeing now is the rise of the Shia. And not just politically but also economically, socially, and culturally," Atrissi says.

Atrissi says the shift mirrors the regional rise of the so-called "resistance alliance" between Iran, Syria and non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas. At the same time, he says, U.S. influence, and that of its Sunni allies in Lebanon, is on the wane.

"The Sunnis chose to be with the pro-American alliance, the so-called 'moderate Arabs.' And now we see that alliance disintegrating," Atrissi says. "People no longer believe America will reach out and protect its allies here. They're no longer afraid."

On the other hand, a number of analysts say Sunnis and Christians do feel diminished in Lebanon these days. But it would be a stretch to claim that Lebanon now has a "Hezbollah-led government," as some Western commentators have done.

"If you are eluding here to some people's thoughts that Hezbollah might be working toward an actual political takeover here, I think that would be very far-fetched," says analyst Judith Palmer Harik, author of a book and many scholarly articles on Hezbollah.

Analysts say that as the most powerful military force in the country, Hezbollah has no need for overt political control. In fact, they say Hezbollah would be of less use to Syria and Iran as a governing body than it is as a militia operating with impunity.

Shifting Hezbollah's Image

Harik says that impunity, however, lasts only as long as people believe Hezbollah's weapons are pointed outside the country — toward Israel for example. That image would be badly tarnished if Hezbollah members are indicted in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"I think in their mind, of course, was the image of a national resistance," Harik says. "And a national resistance doesn't go about killing prime ministers in the country in which they are supposed to be a national resistance."

Political scientist Hilal Khashan at the American University of Beirut forecasts that Hezbollah will participate at a minimal level in the next government, if at all. But he says Arab neighbors and the West will, nonetheless, recognize that Lebanon's Shiites, led by Hezbollah, are a force to be reckoned with.

"The balance of power has shifted and the control over the political system has shifted," Khashan says. "Hezbollah is having its field day in Lebanon." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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