The Blog

The Rise and Fall of Hezbollah

Something went wrong with Hezbollah, but the Party of God is yet to acknowledge the problem and deal with it.

Once considered to be one of the strongest non-state military factions in the entire Middle East, we are now witnessing the decline of Hezbollah. Though it may seem to be at the peak of its career of might, in reality the popularity of Hezbollah - the bedrock of its legitimacy - is at an all-time low.

I remember during 1980s when Hezbollah's men were stereotyped at the time as bearded Iranian militia with black ribbons on their foreheads, who claimed to be representatives of God on earth. They wanted to establish the Islamic State of Lebanon as part of The Ummah (The Islamic Nation). But this image started to change a decade later when they won eight out of 128 seats in the 1992 Lebanese parliamentary elections, thus gaining legitimate representation and indicating their acceptance to the Lebanese confessional system.

This signaled a new phase of engagement with the wider Lebanese community and a greater understanding of the local sectarian balance of powers, which led Hezbollah to stop publicly calling for an Islamic state. It started using national symbols like Lebanese flags and other local signs, and less Iranian ones. It replaced the reference to the 'Islamic Revolution' on their flag with the 'Islamic Resistance.' The popularity of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's Secretary General, reached its peak when his son Hadi was martyred in 1997 while fighting on the front line with Israel

Despite the fact that there is not a single Lebanese law that legislates for its existence, successive Lebanese -- and Damascus-leaning -- governments gave Hezbollah the legitimacy it needed. The Taef Agreement in 1989 ended the Lebanese civil war by calling all armed militias to disband and hand in their arms to the new legitimate state. But Hezbollah became the de facto resistance in southern Lebanon, as all other resistance factions were weakened or practically banned from operating. But Hezbollah had a just cause and enough popular support to justify its existence.

In 2000, things started to change. Israel withdrew from the Lebanese-occupied territories leaving presence in the disputed 25 km2 Shebbaa farms. The cost-to-benefit ratio debate about armed struggle was raised, after it was once a taboo. On 14th February 2005, the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated causing an unprecedented earthquake in Lebanese politics. The Syrian army was driven out of Lebanon as a result of the mass demonstration on March 14, 2005 and the UN Security Council 1559 resolution which required all foreign troops to leave Lebanon. Hezbollah became more aggressive-- taking on a management role in Lebanon's internal political game - basically replacing Rustom Ghazzaleh, the former head of Syrian intelligence apparatus in Lebanon.

Although Hezbollah managed to score major tactical gains, but it betrayed the principles it always fought for, or said it fought for.

These principles were shattered by the strategic mistakes which would ultimately contribute to the erosion of its popular support. To start with, its fight with Israel; Hezbollah never confirmed its 'scope of works'. It never clarified too the goal it set to accomplish and at what cost to the Lebanese people. And it never allowed itself to be accountable to questioning like any other state institution, and never explained its chain of command which extends beyond the Lebanese borders. Or indeed it never felt apologetic to the fact that Lebanon is being dragged (in a "positive ambiguous way") into issues, which had nothing to do with it, such as the Iranian nuclear issue.

The strategic mistakes continued. Hezbollah claimed it would never use violence to settle internal scores, but it did in 2008 when it occupied West Beirut in response to the government's decision to remove its internal communication network. It always claimed Lebanese internal security was the sole responsibility of the government, but we saw Hezbollah's proaction when it replaced the government when there was a need to do so, from its point of view. It protested against Fouad Seniora's government requesting a 'true' unity government by securing the 'blocking minority', but it didn't hesitate, when the political opportunity arose, to oust Saad Hariri from the premiership of the following government to form its own government. Moreover, the fact that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon indicted four Lebanese Hezbollah-linked people in relation to 2005 Rafik Hariri bombing was another reason that tainted its image with some of the Lebanese and Arab people.

Hezbollah always claimed to be a movement defending the mustadaafeen or the vulnerable, but now denies the fact that innocent people are being killed in Syria by their government. This could prove to be Hezbollah's biggest blunder. Sayyid Nasrallah covered the legitimate demands of the Syrian people and the known historic brutality of the Syrian police state with the blanket of 'foreign intervention and conspiracy' denial.

Nasrallah contradicted himself even more because he had previously hailed the Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak, and offered 'everything he can' to its success in one of his speeches. He didn't object arming the Libyan the revolution which was supported by NATO. Despite of Emir of Qatar known Israeli connections at the time, Hezbollah warmly welcomed Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani in southern Lebanon, thanking him for his support in reconstruction after the July 2006 war. Now, it has turned him into a traitor, leading the 'conspiracy' against them via the Syrian crisis. Now in their media, the so-called Arab Spring is tainted with conspiracy theories, despite being initially called an 'Islamic uprising' by the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei.

Despite the fact Hezbollah has an estimated 40,000 missiles, controls parts of the Lebanese government (if not virtually all of it) and Lebanese parliament, owns radio and TV stations, in addition to many social and educational institutions, but its massive popularity is being eroded. I never imagined seeing Hezbollah's flags being burnt or rallies held against it in Lebanon or the Arab world.

Something went wrong with Hezbollah, but the Party of God is yet to acknowledge the problem and deal with it. The same masses of people in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and the wider Arab world who once supported Hezbollah's cause, cannot turn out - overnight - to be traitors who now support the conspiracy against it - as implied in the party's rhetoric.