Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A force to be reckoned with

It's now been twelve days since crowds massed outside the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fuad Siniora's office in Beirut, the Ottoman Saray, to demand his resignation. Hezbollah, which has stage-managed this confrontation from the start, has cleverly turned it into a tug-of-war between itself and the Lebanese and western governments, whose vocal support for Siniora has easily been portrayed as interference. The more the western governments now back Siniora, the more he looks like their puppet and is bound to fall.

It is hard to believe that Hezbollah would have had the power or confidence to orchestrate this uproar if the war this summer had not happened. Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon this summer was sparked by Hezbollah's ill-advised snatch of two Israeli soldiers patrolling near the border, inside Israel. Hezbollah's aggressive defence of Lebanon, in the face of US and British support for Israel and silence over the civilian casualties in Lebanon, has won it widespread support, not just from its Shia base, but from other Lebanese, including Christians, and beyond. When he visited Damascus this summer my friend Richard Spring was struck by the Hezbollah flags he saw flying in the Christian quarter of the old city. The solidarity Hezbollah has generated is formidable.

It is a mistake to see Hezbollah simply as an agent of the Syrians or Iranians. Sure, Hezbollah could not survive without their backing. But Hezbollah is also satisfying a long-held appetite in Lebanon for Arab, and latterly Lebanese, independence. In 1884 the political activist Jamal al-din al-Afghani (bear with me here) who opposed European colonisation of the Islamic world sent more copies of his influential periodical Al-Urwa al-Wuthqa to Beirut than any other Middle Eastern city save Cairo, where he was based. The Ottomans knew that Beirut was a hotbed of Arab nationalist feeling. In May 1916 they hanged 14 nationalists in Beirut - twice as many as in Damascus, as a warning. But Ottoman rule ended two years later, helped considerably by Arab opposition. While Hezbollah can portray itself - with some justification - as the guardian of Lebanese independence it is a political force to be reckoned with.

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