Hizbollah finds itself on the wrong side of revolutions

Hizbollah has overplayed its hand by politicising Lebanese Shiites overseas, creating an opportunity to offer its constituents a deal that could see the group's disarmament.

Powered by automated translation

When Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power in Tunisia, soon to be followed by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, America's foes in the Middle East cried victory. The upheavals in the region would play to their advantage, they gloated, and among the loudest voices was that of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Now things are looking more complicated, as unrest ravages Libya and spreads to Syria.

One organisation in particular, Hizbollah, is warily watching developments, and not only in the Middle East. Growing sectarian polarisation in the Gulf, protests in Syria, the likely naming of Hizbollah members in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and even the difficulties faced by Shiite expatriates in Ivory Coast have all heightened anxieties in party ranks. Hizbollah has also seen its political influence inside Lebanon shaken lately, as it faces deepening Sunni hostility.

Most of Hizbollah's injuries have been self-inflicted. As the recent protests in Bahrain took on a sectarian colouring, the party's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, proclaimed his solidarity with the kingdom's Shiites and condemned the ruling Al Khalifa family. The upshot was to effectively jeopardise the livelihood of thousands of Lebanese, especially Shiites, working in Bahrain and the Gulf. The Bahraini authorities interrupted air links between Manama and Beirut and warned of further retaliatory measures. Now Sheikh Nasrallah must explain to his co-religionists still in the kingdom, or who have had to leave, why he dragged them into a battle that was not theirs.

Lebanese earning a living in the Gulf, Shiites above all, will be equally alarmed by the growing tension between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Lebanon offers few economic opportunities and relies heavily on foreign remittances. There would be severe repercussions if Gulf labour markets were closed to them for political reasons. Most expatriates have no interest in being associated with Hizbollah's militancy, even less Iran's. Sheikh Nasrallah knows this, but is caught between balancing the preferences of his Lebanese followers with his allegiances to Tehran and its regional agenda.

The dramatic breakdown in the Ivory Coast was no fault of Hizbollah. However, the party may well face the backlash of whatever occurs there. The Lebanese ambassador in Abidjan was one of the few envoys to attend the January inauguration of Laurent Gbagbo, even though his alleged election victory was universally contested. As a result, Lebanese businesses appear to have been targeted by the men of Allasane Ouattara as they sought to remove Mr Gbagbo from office.

The ambassador is close to Lebanon's Shiite parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a political ally of Hizbollah. This means Hizbollah may have to absorb the discontent, albeit indirect, of another emigrant community if the Ivory Coast's Lebanese lose everything. The party may also have to help bear the burden of assisting expatriates who return to Lebanon. Hizbollah is not poor, but it has paid out much money to its Shiite base in recent years: for reconstruction after the summer 2006 war, but also in compensation after the collapse of a Ponzi scheme by an investor whom the party had endorsed.

Hizbollah has been even more uncomfortable with the ongoing repression in Syria, which potentially threatens an Assad regime that has supported and armed the party. Not only has the Syrian revolt shattered the narrative that Arab dissatisfaction is directed solely against the United States, it has placed Hizbollah on the side of the oppressors. For a party that purportedly identifies with the deprived everywhere, this poses problems. Hizbollah's Al Manar television station has played down the Syrian regime's brutality, even as the death toll has risen.

Inside Lebanon, Hizbollah has fared little better. The prospect that party members will be indicted in the Hariri assassination has been a source of domestic discord for months. This provoked the downfall of Saad Hariri's government when ministers affiliated with Hizbollah and its political partners resigned, after Mr Hariri refused to break with the special tribunal dealing with the case. Since then the Hizbollah-led coalition has failed to put together a new cabinet under Najib Miqati, after the party blocked Mr Hariri's return.

Not surprisingly, Lebanese Sunni-Shiite relations have worsened markedly, feeding off regional sectarian polarisation. Hizbollah has long tried to sell itself as the vanguard of a unified Arab resistance to Israel and the United States. For it now to be pigeonholed as a sectarian organisation under Iran's thumb represents an important step backward. In that context, any charge that the party contributed to the murder of a major Sunni leader like Rafik Hariri is anathema.

Hizbollah may be down, but it is hardly out. The party's leeway to combat Israel on behalf of Iran has been impeded. Sheikh Nasrallah cannot afford to impose the trauma of a new war in south Lebanon on his own community. However, an increasingly insecure Hizbollah is also potentially a dangerous one. Now is the time for the party's Lebanese rivals to consider innovative ideas for integrating Shiites into the political system. One such idea is to offer a swap - Hizbollah's weapons in exchange for more political power for the Shiites - in the framework of a broader reform effort.

Hizbollah will resist this. But the pillars of the party's power - its unquestioning, confident Shiite support, its ability to intimidate Lebanon's other communities, its regional alliances and its capacity to fight Israel - are all being put to a serious test. Hizbollah's adversaries, above all Mr Hariri, must offer the Shiites a way forward, a safety net if power shifts decisively away from the party. This can allay Shiite fears that what is lost to Hizbollah will necessarily be lost to them, and reduce the odds of a new conflict in Lebanon.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle