January 13, 2011

On Hizballah's Insecurity

One of the comments in the post below noted how odd it is that Hizballah even cares about this stupid tribunal given the position of strength the organization enjoys in Lebanon. I agree this makes no sense looking at Lebanon from the outside, but I do not think Hizballah itself sees itself in the same way others see it.

First off, Hizballah's constituency is still the poorest in Lebanon, and until the rise of Musa Sadr in the 1960s and 1970s, it really had no strong political representation. The government in Beirut more or less ignored the needs of the Shia community. Just to give but one example, in pre-war Lebanon, southern Lebanon held 20 percent of the population of Lebanon yet received only 0.7 percent (!) of annual expenditures. Today, thanks to both remittances and more economic opportunities within Lebanon -- not to mention the provision of social services by Hizballah primarily outside the state and by Amal from primarily within the state -- the Shia of Lebanon enjoy a higher economic standing than ever before. But that doesn't mean a Shia Lebanese older than 35 can't think back to when his or her lot in life was a lot worse.

Second, Hizballah's constituency believes -- and not without reason -- that its new-found socio-political standing and seat at the table in Beirut has been won and maintained largely on account of Hizballah's arms. Like U.S. gains in Afghanistan, Hizballah's constituency consider this new respect and representation to be both fragile and reversible. An older Shia can remember the days when the Christians and Sunni trading classes of Beirut and Tripoli dictated their lot in life.

Third, to an outsider, Hizballah looks like the big bully in Lebanon -- which it most certainly is. But from within the organization, all many can see are enemies: Saudi Arabia, Israel, March 14th, the United States, etc. Just because you're paranoid does not mean people are not out to get you, and we know that Hizballah's domestic enemies have conspired with forces outside Lebanon to weaken Hizballah's standing. (Hizballah can also see the way in which the international community, led by the United States, has worked to isolate its primary sponsor, Iran.)

None of this is meant to excuse Hizballah, whose actions since 2000 have run counter to the interests of Lebanon and have caused much suffering for the peoples of both Lebanon and Israel. (I, for one, really wish Hizballah had disarmed and "Lebanonized" -- as some scholars and analysts predicted in the late 1990s that it eventually would.) But it remains a paradox that the organization the rest of the world sees as so strong sees itself as so very weak.

Note to newer readers: this blog mostly covers Afghanistan and Pakistan these days, but it was not always so. I spent from 2004 until 2006 in Lebanon and moved back for most of 2008. I just submitted my doctoral dissertation on Hizballah, too, but have not been back to Lebanon since last fall, so, caveat lector, some of my political analysis may be dated.