Elections, Hezbollah, Lebanon

Nasrallah Tips His Hand

nasrallahIn a speech commemorating the one-year anniversary of Imad Mughniyeh’s death, Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah lingered briefly on the subject of Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, saying that it was an event that the entire nation mourned. Striking a tone both solemn and conciliatory, Nasrallah paid homage to the idols of his political opponents by way of seeking a response in kind for Hizbullah’s fallen heroes. Similarly, he conveyed the condolences of his party to the family of Lutfi Zeineddine, the PSP partisan killed by hoodlums on the way home from the March 14 rally on Saturday, while reminding the nation that this was one crime in a string of tragic incidents to befall Lebanese families on both sides of the political divide.

Listening to Nasrallah, one often feels caught in the spell of an enthralling performer, an eminently frank, reasonable, and straight-talking figure who is – by Lebanese politicians’ standards – refreshingly free of BS. Whatever one thinks of Hizbullah’s political and theological orientations, it is easy to see why Nasrallah has developed a large following outside his party, due to his masterful skills of communication and uncanny political instincts. He is the Bill Clinton of the Shiite Crescent, the Winston Churchill of the Islamic Resistance. He could teach brain surgery to 12 year-olds, such is the clarity and lucidity with which he conveys complicated ideas and cuts through touchy terrain.

One of the most interesting parts of the speech, from my perspective, came toward the end, when Nasrallah discussed the upcoming elections. He said (and I paraphrase): Lebanon is not Switzerland. We are not a nation of political parties. We are a nation of sects, and even those parties established on the basis of a political identity are de facto sectarian parties because their constituents come primarily from one sect (i.e. like the PSP and the FPM). Perhaps, one day, Lebanon will have evolved to the point where its parties are purely political; in that scenario, it would be possible for a party or coalition to rule in a dominant manner after winning an election in a decisive fashion. However, we are not at that stage yet, and therefore, a ruling coalition must govern through a process of consensus, respecting the concerns of its opposition.

He continued: This is why we are telling you from now, that should our coalition win a majority in the upcoming elections, we will be prepared to form a national unity government with the other side, granting them a blocking veto. We do this in the spirit of consensus, and in the spirit of confronting together the many economic, political, and security-related challenges that face our nation.

Nasrallah then threw down the gauntlet, saying: If the other side rejects our offer and chooses to boycott the new government, our coalition will not hesitate to rule on its own (while respecting the interests of the nation.) In making this point, Nasrallah was sending a very clear message to those on the March 14th side who had been publicly contemplating boycotting the government in the event of a March 8th win. In all cases, Nasrallah mused, Hizbullah is not even that interested in getting involved in the cabinet, and would be happy if its allies in the opposition were to occupy its share of seats, leaving the Hizb to manage the resistance.

Translation? Hizbullah would like to avoid a Hamas-style coming out party at all costs, in the event of a March 8th win. They would like, more than anything else, to go back to the old arrangement: we’ll mind our business if you mind yours.

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11 thoughts on “Nasrallah Tips His Hand

  1. Translation: All the democracies in the Middle East (Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Iraq) are seriously flawed thanks to religious and sectarian complications.

    Probably the only way to reform (after a comprehensive settlement to the various conflicts of the ME) is Bicameralism.

    Posted by Alex | February 16, 2009, 8:49 pm
  2. I think the passage of Nasrallah’s speech that you pointed out was quite expected, and nothing out of the ordinary. It is clear that very little would change under a Hizbullah lead government (though, there would probably be a new census). In fact, as Nasrallah confirmed, Hizbullah would not even lead the government.

    Yet, I disagree with you analogy that this approach by Hizbullah has anything to do with Hamas. I think the time will come when Hizbullah will decide to govern, but it is clear that that time is not now or the near future. Hamas made the decision to govern because there were no alternatives in Palestine, and they had to enter politics. And after they won the election, they begged all Palestinians factions to join in a unity government with them. That no faction was willing to join a unity government with them is evidence of why they had to enter politics in the first place. Even later, after the sanctions were put in place and the world boycotted Hamas, and a unity government was formed, that it was a government intended to undermine Hamas (and broke down after just a couple months) is again evidence of why Hamas entered politics in the first place.

    The difference is that, despite the many problems as Lebanon has, it is not under occupation. Thus, Hizbullah has the ability to address politics in ways other than only via the number of cabinet ministers it has. They do not face the same risks that Hamas faced when it won the election. Prior to the election, Hamas faced a situation such that its choice was either to join politics or have every political question decided without their voice being heard. And further, to have every political question decided by the USA and Israel (with a fig leaf named Fatah covering it). Hizbullah has the luxury and power to make decisions outside of that dichotomy. Clearly, when Hizbullah was forced into such a dichotomy, it reacted similarly to Hamas (How they reacted when Jumblatt tried to closed their telecom network is a good example). But since the buffoons of M14 ultimately have to deal with Hizbullah directly, Hizbullah does not have to continue to use that type of political involvement in the long term. Hamas must, because it is not afforded the freedom Hizbullah has.

    In the end, this will be what changes Lebanon in a real sense. That the most powerful political force in the country can use its power without grabbing power exclusively. As a result, in the coming years, we will see a realignment of how politics in conducted in Lebanon. Hizbullah’s power will force the other factions to deal with them, and at the same time, it will highlight the emptiness of the political games the other political factions are playing. So, over time, they will be forced to be more serious about politics and about being good politicians, because Hizbullah is so effective that Nasrallah will embarrass the other factions unless they do improve themselves. Even the Hizbullah ideologues like Naim Qassem must now understand how much more efficient Nasrallah’s model of politics is than his own. Giving me great confidence in Hizbullah, even if something were to happen to Nasrallah.

    Anyway, I will just agree with you that Nasrallah is a true genius, and someone I admire deeply. He seems to have simultaneously transformed Hizbullah into the most pragmatic and yet most idealistic political organization in the world. This mix is amazing to watch. and he has done it in under some extremely hard conditions. Maybe Hizbullah could not have become the organization it is without these conditions, but i just hope that the rest of the world is watching, and will work to follow Hizbullah’s model.

    (and, of course, I do not agree with all of Hizbullah’s ideology. but, as with Qifa Nabki, I am an admirer of their work).

    Posted by Joe M. | February 17, 2009, 12:04 am
  3. Alex,
    I disagree with you. The actual political structures are not particularly important. And even, as Hizbullah shows, the religious and sectarian affiliations are not the problems. You can have a uni, bi, tri… cameralism system, it doesn’t solve the political issues.

    There are two primary problems the Arabs have to deal with politically, which makes their politics hard:
    1) The don’t have the ability to act politically independently.
    2) For many reasons, their system of political organizing usually is from top down, rather than bottom up.

    I think that is the real benefit of these Islamist movements for the Arabs. Now, for the liberal Arabs like you and I, we have seen the Islamists gain strength from the bottom up. And you constantly hear fear about them. Well, it present us with an opportunity to follow their lead. We must abandon this politics of expecting everything to happen over night, and to have some president fix our problems. If we want to defeat the Islamists, we must organize on the ground as they have. And it will take a long time, but if our ideas are better we will win. Regardless of whether there is a presidential or parliamentary system of government. or whatever…

    Posted by Joe M. | February 17, 2009, 12:19 am
  4. QN,

    I agree with your analysis. Hizballah have learned the lessons of Hamas. The question is, will it help them?

    FPM and Hizballah MUST have March 14 in the government to get any international approval of the government. Without good relations with the EU and the US, there is no chance for a thriving Lebanon. March 14 know this very well and will take advantage of it. Nasrallah threat of ruling alone is an idle one. He knows that without Saudi, EU and American support, Lebanon is for all practical purposes bankrupt.

    March 14 may decide to let FPM-hizballah rule alone just to show the Lebanese that it is not a good idea to vote against March 14. Call this a long term political investment. It won’t hurt Hizballah politically, but it will finish FPM.

    The problem March 14 have is that the economic interests of the Hariri family may be hurt by a government he has zero control over. I hope March 14 loses and does not join the government. This would be in Israel’s interest. Long term, it will also be in Lebanon’s interest.

    Posted by AIG | February 17, 2009, 1:02 am
  5. Joe,

    There are many differences between Hamas and Hizbullah. For me, in fact, the two organizations are like apples and oranges. My point was not to compare them (and you explain well why this is a futile exercise in your comment), but rather to address the way in which Hizbullah will spin an electoral victory. On this point, I believe it is legitimate to compare Hamas and Hizbullah.

    When Hamas came to power, it was considered a major coup (not in the literal sense). They wanted to form a national unity government, for sure, but they also wanted there to be no mistaking the fact that THEY had the people’s support, and that they were going to seize their fair share of the decision-making apparatus.

    Nasrallah made it clear last night that, by contrast, Hizbullah will not be looking to make a big splash in this election. Simply because of the way the electoral system works in Lebanon, Hizbullah will probably not win any more parliament seats than they already have. (We already see them deferring to Amal and the FPM in several districts). Therefore, even if March 8th wins, Hizbullah is not going to “sweep into power” in a startling election result; Nasrallah is trying to mitigate the potential spin from now.

    He sent several messages last night, particularly to March 14th. One of the most significant of those messages was the unspoken acknowledgment that Hizbullah needs March 14th in order to manage Lebanon’s affairs with the west. “We are happy to let you continue doing this,” he seemed to say, “if you don’t threaten the resistance.”

    I would love to be a fly on the wall in Qoreitem right now.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 17, 2009, 4:25 am
  6. “He is the Bill Clinton of the Shiite Crescent”

    Nasrallahs message to M14 is not I think one that hints that they will be allowed to continue relations with the West. It would be very dangerous to allow them to contiue to plot against him in an official capacity. And I don’t think he worries that a M8 govt. will be not be accepted in the West. Outside of Hizballah, there is no reason for the West to boycott any other group; In fact I think the West would like the situation with two things in mind:
    1-The on going rapproachment between the West and Syria and Iran. An M8 govt. gives them another avenue to practice that rapproachemnt.

    2- The right wing lurch in Israel. The West will be looking at a Israeli attack on Lebanon more seriously now. Having a Hizballah associated govt. makes things, well less complicated.

    I think Hizballah wants to stay out of govt. for two reasons. Internally, they know they scare the hell out of a lot people, even if that fear is more paranoia than anything else. Externally, their presence in govt. can only harm the country as a whole.

    Why invite M14 if not for any of the above? Maybe we have to take him at his word on this one. Lebanon has long been (mis)managed by the same people, running the country as its some sort of fiefdom. For the first time we have new challegers to the leadership, ones that challenge the status quo. And maybe its that he recognises that Lebanon is stil not stable enough, trusting of its leaders enough (or of each other) or grown up enough to be goverened other than by consensus. Its still too tribal to have Western style manifesto based politics.

    But it is ironic (intended?) he should use Switzerland as an example, as it is less a country and more of a federal grouping of cantons.

    Posted by mo | February 17, 2009, 6:53 am
  7. As always great analysis QN.

    I think the election will be quite competitive with either M8 or M14 not getting more than 55% at the most. Not having a horse in the race, I predict that M14 will win by a very slight margin, due to Aoun’s flip flopping from what he sold in 05 vs what he’s selling today. I could be wrong though.

    Regardless of who wins, a unity government is a good thing for Lebanon today with a veto for the minority given the regional regional situation. It gives a way out for either sides to deflect external influence, and hopefully that will allow the government to maintain a somewhat neutral position regionally. Hopefully, this will allow the unity government to concentrate on internal social and ecenomic issues.

    Let the big regional players get into the ring and tangle. Lebanon needs a bit of rest,look inward and concentrate on easing internal ecenomical issue like development in the south, akkar and the bekaa. In creating jobs, reducing electrical shortages, helping agriculture, fixing environmental problems, etc.

    At least the contest will be carried at the ballot box, and that’s a good thing.

    I’m rooting for Lebanon no matter who wins.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | February 17, 2009, 10:24 pm
  8. QN:

    ” My admiration for your political insights are growing by the day”

    I agree with Ras Beirut, I dont think that M8 will win this election and here are my reasons.

    1. Aoun has become a liability, angering his sect affiliates and bordering on emulating Jumblatt with his flip flopping. This is not the man he once was and this will be found out at this election.

    2. While admiring Hassan Nasrallah, his argument for offering a national unity government with a blocking veto is a double edged sword. I personally believe, that he knows there is widespread anger at the 2006 war, and the fiasco in Beirut with the Hezb takeover. He seems to be hedging his bets here.

    With the Gemayel/Murr reproachment this is a feather in the cap for M14.

    I will go out on a limb and also cheer for a contest at the ballot box. Heck thats not even afforded to our brothers and sisters across the border ( sorry Alex our friendship will survive this statement).

    If M8 win, the majority of the government positions will be filled by its allies, the important internal ministries like defence might be prized by the Hezb.

    Posted by Enlightened | February 18, 2009, 11:51 pm
  9. Thanks guys. What can I say? May the best corrupt-sectarian-foreign-funded-coalition-of-former-warlords-and-sectarian-zealots win.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 19, 2009, 2:23 am
  10. QN:

    I will drink to that!

    Posted by Enlightened | February 20, 2009, 11:37 pm
  11. Do you have the date of this speech? and preferably a link to it? This is amazing and proves what i have been saying for a long time regarding Hizbullah’s intentions electorally.

    Posted by Amina | April 24, 2009, 10:19 pm

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