Nasrallah and the compromise and rehabilitation of Hizbullah’s reputation
Issue 7, Winter 2009
Nasrallah greets the faithful
A speech by Hizbullah Secretary General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah is always an event. In Lebanon’s sectarian media environment, newspapers and television stations reflect the views of the religious factions and political parties to which their owners belong. Sectarian considerations affect which news is reported and, generally, speeches of most leaders are broadcast only when the message is convenient to a particular station’s agenda. Yet every station in Lebanon carries Nasrallah’s speeches live, and every newspaper reports his words, emphasizing this or that point depending upon their stance toward him or his party. Not all Lebanese are in his thrall, but Hizbullah’s prodigious military capabilities and growing power within the country’s political system means that Nasrallah’s words bear more portent than anyone else’s for the future of the country—both immediate and long term.
The stance that any particular media outlet expresses or person adopts often maps the political factions in the country. Attitudes run from ecstatic support for Nasrallah and Hizbullah to the barest tolerance for and the most meager acknowledgement of any contribution that he or his party might offer the state. These attitudes, especially at the ends of the spectrum, also reflect sectarian affiliations in rough outline, with Hizbullah members and supporters, mostly Shiite, displaying the greatest enthusiasm and Maronite nationalists, who are only willing to make alliances with Muslim parties out of pure convenience, voicing open skepticism about the party and its aspirations.
Between the two extremes are some who, recognizing the demographic realities of the sectarian balance in Lebanon, have decided that the better part of valor lies in alliance with Hizbullah as representatives of the largest single bloc amongst all confessions. Others are alarmed at the rise of an overtly religious political party; that Hizbullah represents a faction that has generally comprised the underclass in Lebanon makes the idea all the more unpalatable. In this middle range of opinions the sectarian lines are somewhat blurred. Sunni factions are generally uncomfortable with the Islamic credentials of Hizbullah, and so are some of the Druze; meanwhile a fair percentage of Christians see the inevitable and recognize the need to make their peace with the dominant Shiite party. Those uncomfortable with the idea of Shiite ascension are generally referred to as the March 14th movement, named after the huge anti-Syrian demonstrations that broke out in Beirut in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. March 14th enjoys, if that is the word for it, a bare parliamentary majority, even though their supporters are probably less than 50% of the population. These are the government loyalists. They look set to take losses in the parliamentary elections planned for early June of 2009. As it happens, the opposition are called March 8th, after the equally huge pro-Syrian demonstrations held in the wake of the Hariri assassination.
Political alliances are constantly shifting within Lebanon, but as they stand now, the largest Maronite bloc, the Free Patriotic Movement headed by former Lebanese army commander Michel Aoun is aligned with the March 8 opposition. The loyalists of the March 14 movement are comprised of several large blocs: the mostly Sunni Future Movement, headed by Saad al-Hariri, son of the late prime minister; the Maronite party the Phalange, led by former president Amin Gemayel; the Lebanese Forces, also Maronite, with Samir Geagea in the lead; and the mostly Druze Progressive Socialist Party, led by Walid Jumblatt.
But even amongst Hizbullah’s loyalist opponents, there are political lines that cannot be crossed. The reddest of these is resistance to Israel. Lebanon’s political orthodoxy obliges citizens to support resistance to Israel as a sacred cause. The other, perhaps the only other, is support for the Lebanese armed forces—the only truly non-sectarian institution in the country—as a symbol of national unity. By inclination, Hizbullah hews to both these lines—a very comfortable position to hold. By contrast, the loyalists find it difficult to support both resistance and the armed forces: they do not relish a Shiite ascendancy yet cannot gainsay the basis of the main Shiite party’s sources of legitimacy in its private army, outside patrons, and record of military success against Israel. No leader amongst the loyalists has the political ability to reconcile opposition to Hizbullah and its allies with support for the army and for resistance to Israel. Because of this, the anti-Hizbullah pronouncements of any of the factional leaders of the loyalists smack of hypocrisy, especially those whose parties in the past have been openly or surreptitiously allied with Israel – those being at various times both the Phalange, under Amin Gemayel’s brother Bashir, and the Lebanese forces, now commanded by Geagea. In Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, however, the opposition has a leader and spokesman adroitly able to articulate the goals of the resistance in the most inclusive and nationalistic tones.
High-stakes political poker
It is in this complex milieu of attitude, identity and allegiance that Hizbullah, compelled by circumstance, took a political gamble and won. How it managed to recoup much of the political capital it had expended in solidifying its goals is what we shall be examining here. The expenditure and the rehabilitation have been accomplished to the accompaniment of media events. As is often the case, these involve the charismatic presence of Hassan Nasrallah. This paper looks at three such media events in 2008, a crucial year in which Hizbullah was able to strengthen its position in the Lebanese government through a combination of adroit political maneuvering and, at times, physical force. The first is the press conference in which Nasrallah effectively declared a defensive war on the loyalist faction in the government, which culminated in several days of running street battles in Beirut. At the time, this constituted a significant expenditure of political capital because it again raised the specter of civil strife and shifted public attention to Hizbullah’s sectarian Shiite identity at the expense of its desired image as a protecting force for all of Lebanon. The second event is Nasrallah’s public appearance at the daylong ceremonies celebrating the latest prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbullah, an emotional event that helped the group recoup some of its lost political capital. In a grand media spectacular, Hizbullah reestablished its stature as a defender of all the Lebanese by securing the release of prisoners of all confessional affiliations. Finally, Nasrallah’s speech on Martyr’s day, 11 November 2008, shows the party back to the business of operating in the local political arena. In typical fashion, Nasrallah embeds his discourse in the rhetoric of resistance and martyrdom while also addressing issues of immediate local concern, especially as they related to participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections; here we see the consolidation of gains.
First some background. In May of 2008 it seemed for a few days as if civil war would once again seize the streets of Beirut. Lebanon had been muddling along for more than five months without a head of state because none of the sides could agree upon a successor to the outgoing president, Emile Lahoud, upon the expiration of his term at midnight 23 November 2007. Without a president, Lebanon was effectively without a government; minimal governing functions were being overseen by the rump cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whose legitimacy had been contested ever since the opposition withdrew its members from government in November 2006.
Without a government, the state, already somewhat unresponsive to its citizens’ needs, was unable to cope with the brewing international economic crisis then manifest in a dramatic rise in the price of basic commodities. Desperate, state employees held a daylong strike to demand a raise in salary. This was not the most politically opportune time for the government, such as there was, to choose to move against Hizbullah. But move it did, with Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt claiming that the party was illegally conducting camera surveillance of the airport and that it was operating a communications system of its own outside of state control. Hizbullah did not deny the charges, neither of which was viewed as particularly alarming except by those making the charges. That Hizbullah operated a communications system was old news in 2008, and the airport surveillance was being conducted from private land overlooking the airport. The airport head of security, a high-ranking, well-respected officer in the armed forces, did not find it to be a threat. In essence, the loyalists were attempting to tip a standoff between them and the opposition in their favor by voting to move against the communications network and by removing the head of airport security. Hizbullah could not afford not to respond.
It was announced that Nasrallah would hold a press conference to clarify the situation, and at the hour of the press conference, his voice could be heard coming from every open door or window in Beirut. He explained that the communications network was an essential tool of the resistance, more basic even than weaponry itself, for without it, an effective defense against an invader could not be mounted or maintained. The loyalists by pressing for the disarmament of Hizbullah were denying the legitimacy of the resistance while tacitly acquiescing in the de-legitimization of the armed forces. They were, in fact, attempting to implement American and Israeli policy of weakening Hizbullah that those two governments had been unable to achieve. Hizbullah was having none of this, and Nasrallah promised that anyone reaching his hand out to touch the weapons of the resistance would draw back a nub. Hassan Nasrallah is nothing if not a man of his word. If he said Hizbullah would resist being disarmed, it would.
Since the start of the 2006 July War, Nasrallah usually makes his public appearances by video feed from an undisclosed secure location. If not he, then his security detail fears an Israeli attempt on his life, and they are taking no chances. The last time he appeared in public was in January 2008, on the Shiite high holy day of Ashoura, when the martyrdom of Hussein is celebrated. Nasrallah unexpectedly appeared in the midst of the throngs of people in the streets of the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, the Dahiya, surrounded by bodyguards, greeting the observant. From the screen, the force of his charismatic personality is perhaps a bit blunted, but his well-known speaking style is still very much evident even when mediated by the camera lens, and his familiar charisma crosses the digital divide. His press conference was delivered to a live audience of reporters and questions were entertained, even though the party leader was not actually in attendance.
He began with his usual invocation and greetings in a florid and highly stylized formal Arabic. But in quite an unusual turn, his preliminary invocation was uncharacteristically brief, and after stating the reason for holding the press conference, he immediately lapsed into vernacular Lebanese Arabic, and remained therein throughout the press conference, only breaking into formal declamation when asserting important or non-negotiable points. In his many speeches and in appearances with the press over the years, he almost always holds forth in elegant formal Arabic, even when speaking extemporaneously. His style is rhetorically effective but not overly ornate, through its elegance and formality asserting the pan-Arabist underpinnings of his narrative while at the same time with its straightforward delivery giving the impression of seriousness of thought and purpose. The combination is stylistically polished and emotively powerful.
His choice to conduct the press conference in the vernacular, then, carried with it its own emotive impact precisely because he was not addressing his audience in his usual style. It lent genuine urgency to the situation and gave added expressiveness to the contempt he voiced for what he saw as an illegitimate government selling the nation to its enemies for the sake of personal gain. This becomes especially pronounced when he gives the background of talks with the government, quoting from government officials and party negotiators (In the section of the translation of the press conference entitled “Communications Network: Well known, Well Discussed”) or when calling Druze leader and Progressive Socialist Party boss Walid Jumblatt a liar, thief, and murderer:
Let’s look into it and see who is compromising sovereignty, and who is breaking the law, and who is threatening public funds. Who? It is very unfortunate that the man heading the government of ours in Lebanon today is a thief. He admits it…Mr Jumblatt admitted on television that he is a thief. He is a liar—for twenty-five years he has been admitting it—and a killer by his own admission. Today, the one ruling the country and demanding that the religious and secular leaders of all confessions follow his project is a liar, a thief, and a murderer.
When making the key announcement of the press conference, he shifts the register to a more formal style of Arabic declamation, a commonly used rhetorical device. Listing the party’s interpretation of the cabinet decision in four points, he raises his register to that of formal pronouncements, commenting upon them in the vernacular, and ending by stating formally and bluntly, “I [have] said with the greatest of clarity the hand that reaches for the arms of the resistance, no matter whose it is and no matter where it comes from, we shall cut it off. Today is the day for honoring that decision.” When stating the party’s stance toward the security of the airport, and loyalist attempts at placing one of their own as head of security, he states in formal Arabic: “In all honesty, we are not able to tolerate on our border and right next to us a base for the CIA and the FBI and the Mossad.” Again, toward the very end of his statement, he returns to pure formal Arabic to state his ultimatum:
And I declare that after that night [of the rump cabinet decision], things are different from the way they were before. That is the end of the matter. We will not be killed in the streets after today. We will not accept being shot at under any circumstances. We will not accept any designs on our weapons. We will not accept any gainsaying of our existence and our legitimacy. Come all of the armies of the world. That is the decision of today
 For a brief but comprehensive analysis of Maronite attitudes toward alliances with Muslim parties, see Meir Zamir. 1999. “From Hegemony to Marginalism: The Maronites of Lebanon,” in Ofra Bengio and Gabriel Ben-Dor, eds. Minorities and the State in the Arab World, Boulder, London: Lynne Reiner Publishers, pp. 111-128.
 Exact numbers are not known, as the government has not conducted a census since 1932; nevertheless, estimates are that in a total population of about four million, Shiites number between thirty-five to forty percent of all Lebanese; Christian groups together make up something under one third, with Maronites, the largest Christian grouping, representing slightly less than a million. The Druze constitute about one tenth of the population. It is assumed that the population as a whole is about seventy percent Muslim. The Shiite population is the fastest growing, and the Christian population is declining both proportionally and in real terms owing to emigration. Nevertheless, the old power-sharing arrangement, wherein the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the office of prime minister for a Sunni Muslim, and that of speaker of parliament to a Shiite remains in place, despite the Taif agreement to end the sectarian system of government. Christians are also accorded a five-to-four balance in the parliament (and other government offices), and the electoral laws are characteristically rewritten with each new parliament to favor this imbalance.
Estimates of actual population figures are reported here:
 Zamir, op cit, pp. 121—123. See also George Emile Irani, “Failed Alliances” review of My Enemy's Enemy: Lebanon in the Early Zionist Imagination, 1990-1948 by Laura Zittrain Eisenberg. Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 112-114; and Kirsten E. Schulze, “Perceptions and Misperceptions: Influences on Israeli Intelligence Estimates During the 1982 Lebanon War” The Journal of Conflict Studies, Vol. XVI No. 1, Spring 1996, available at http://www.lib.unb.ca/Texts/JCS/bin/get.cgi?directory=S96/articles/&filename=schulze.html
 All the videos discussed in this article were obtained from the al-Manar website available here:
 The Economist, 1 December 2007, “In search of a government; Lebanon”
 “Government to launch probe into Hezbollah communications network” Now Lebanon, 6 May 2008: http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=41124
 The Economist, 10 May 2008, “Lebanon: Moment of truth”
 Communications Network: Legal Action
 I have discussed the motivations for switching into and out of formal Arabic declamation in David Wilmsen. 1996. “Code-Switching, Code-Mixing, and Borrowing in the Spoken Arabic of a Theatrical Community in Cairo,” in Mushira Eid and Dilworth Parkinson (eds.). Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics IX. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Johns Benjamin, 69—92
 Communications Network: Hizbullah Reaction
 Point 3: Solution to the Crisis: Hizbullah Counter Demands.
 The Economist, 22 May 2008, “Lebanon: Peace for a while”
 The Guardian, 17 July 2008, “Prisoner swap: Last act of a needless war”
 On the Parliamentary Elections
 The Invocation
 Martin Kramer. 1991. "Sacrifice and 'Self-Martyrdom' in Shi'ite Lebanon," Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 3, no. 3 (Autumn 1991), pp. 30-47. Available at http://www.geocities.com/martinkramerorg/Sacrifice.htm
 The Invocation