Nasrallah and the compromise and rehabilitation of Hizbullah’s reputation
Following quickly upon this pronouncement was Nasrallah’s third and final point, stating the way out of the crisis, also delivered in formal Arabic: “To all of those inciting trouble, two words: rescind the illegitimate decisions of the illegitimate Walid Jumblatt government, one; two, fulfill the former request of the speaker of parliament Nabih Berri for a national dialogue. [Returning to the vernacular] There it is. That is the way out.”
The rhetoric was effective; the intention clear; the effect immediate. Just as soon as the conference was concluded, street fighting broke out in earnest. There had been some shooting incidents in the vicinity of the strikes, but such things are expected as part of the game of politics in Lebanon, and all day long, there were intermittent reports of gunfire from the street protests. But as soon as the secretary general announced that Hizbullah arms were off limits, the sound of shooting changed its tone, becoming regular and reciprocal. Even so, as unsettling as it sounded to those near at hand, the fighting was light as such things are measured, and it was over within a few hours with Hizbullah and allies sweeping the field. The disorganized elements opposing Hizbullah were fighting an organization that in 2006 had faced off against the most powerful army in the region and survived. The Lebanese army, ever cautious to avoid taking factional sides, stayed out of the fighting. So who was shooting? The Hizbullah station al-Manar was soon airing footage of captured loyalist militia members admitting to having been brought in to fight, complete with shots of their weapons and supplies, including much alcoholic drink, stored in loyalist party headquarters.
The outcome could never have been in doubt, so much so that in retrospect it became clear what a supremely maladroit bungle the loyalists had committed in thinking that they might prevail. Once the shooting stopped and speaking resumed, the cabinet, in statement after statement, sometimes leaked beforehand, climbed down, humiliated, from its decisions of only a few days before.
Having captured the field, the opposition then turned it over to the Lebanese army and withdrew. In so doing it accomplished several things: it demonstrated that it was not intent upon taking power by force, thereby immediately refuting by its actions the loyalist charge brought against it that it had effected a coup. It put paid to the notion that it was the only functioning militia in post-civil-war Lebanon. It demonstrated that it was the most powerful force within the country and that its demands must eventually be met. This last point was symbolically made when all major parties in the dispute flew to Doha to work out an agreement, to allow the government to proceed. The agreement answered all of the demands that the opposition, with Hizbullah in the lead, had been pressing for the previous eighteen months, since opposition ministers had quit the cabinet and the parliament. Principle among these was that the opposition would hold one third of cabinet seats, granting it veto power over government decisions. This guaranteed that no government decision could be taken respecting the Hizbullah arsenal without opposition approval.
In May 2008, the parliament finally met to elect Michel Suleiman as a compromise figure to the presidency, and agreed to revisit the election laws—a step that, if implemented, would redound to the opposition’s favor in subsequent parliamentary elections. Hizbullah and its allies in the opposition won their eighteen-month standoff with the loyalists and their allies, achieving most of their demands. Nevertheless, the party had paid a price in taking to the streets of Beirut: it provided its critics the opportunity to claim that Hizbullah had finally shown its true face by turning its weapons on the very citizens it claimed to be defending. Hizbullah achieved all of its stated goals, but at the price of losing some popularity within Lebanon. The party has since then been attempting to recover its carefully cultivated image as a patriotic defender of all the Lebanese. In that, it has been largely successful.
A Hizbullah-orchestrated prisoner swap with Israel on 16 July 2008, barely two months after the street clashes, went a long way toward rehabilitating the party’s image as working in the interests of all Lebanese citizens. In exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers taken in July 2006, Israel released several Lebanese prisoners, foremost among which was Samir Qantar, now in his forties, who had been held in Israeli prison since he was sixteen, accused of killing an Israeli man and his infant daughter – a charge he confessed to and later retracted. Hizbullah had been agitating for years to gain his release, and, to its great fortune, that release happened at a time when its nationalist credentials had been tarnished. By continuing to work toward the release of Qantar, a member of the Druze community, Hizbullah was able to demonstrate that it was acting on behalf of all Lebanese, regardless of their confession. This was more than political grandstanding. Hizbullah maintains that resistance to Israel is a project undertaken on behalf of all Lebanese, and it recognizes the actions of any Lebanese citizen who engages in resistance to Israel. Samir Qantar was an ideal symbol for this; he was captured in a 1979 raid inside 0f Israel’s borders as he and two comrades from the Palestine Liberation Front were attempting to kidnap Israelis for use as bargaining chips in an eventual prisoner exchange. Thirty years later, here was Hizbullah, a Shiite organization that had not even come into existence when he was jailed, now working across sectarian lines to spring him from captivity.
There are media events and there are huge media events, and Hizbullah’s al-Manar television played the exchange as an all-day extravaganza, with live broadcasts from the border with Israel. Breathless announcers awaited the arrival of the prisoners, reporting from along the festooned highways of southern Lebanon as the returnees made their way to the Prince of Martyrs Arena in the Dahiya, the Hizbullah staging ground for all of its grand events, where there were aerial shots of the flag-waving crowd and close-ups of its photogenic members. Shots cut to smaller parties that had been underway all day long along the route, interviews with family members and shots of tearful reunions with mothers, wives, and siblings. The government, now fully operative with Suleiman as president, declared the day a national holiday, and all state functionaries were on hand to greet the returning prisoners. While Hizbullah was welcoming its returning heroes, it was being welcomed into the national narrative again, with its political opponents pressed to grudgingly celebrate another patriotic victory for the resistance.
The culmination of the celebration was a surprise speech from occultation by Hassan Nasrallah. Singing an anthem with lyrics blending religious and patriotic themes, the Hizbullah men’s choir ushered him to the stage amid wild cheering. Nasrallah addressed the crowd in vernacular Arabic:
In the name of Allah the Compassionate the Merciful, I won’t be speaking from here, because I’ve only got five minutes. But I wanted to greet you and to congratulate you on the victory and for all the boys. As we said in the year 2000: the days of defeat are over, and the days of victories have come! This people and this nation and this country has given a clear image to the world today, to friend and enemy, that it cannot be overtaken by defeat! I wanted to come close and to greet you, and now I guarantee that the boys will speak and we’ll hear the anthem, and I’ll speak from the screen. And I promise you that though I usually take my time on the screen, an hour, an hour and a quarter, an hour and half; but tonight I won’t take too much of your time. Many happy returns! Peace be upon you! [Lebanon’s national anthem, “We are all for the homeland” plays as Nasrallah exists]
Although there remain among the Lebanese people those wary of Hizbullah’s intentions for the long run (and they fear that the long run may be near), the return of the prisoners with the State in attendance and the fanfare of the public spectacle rehabilitated Hizbullah, permitting it to return to the muddy arena of Lebanese local politics as a full participant.
By the end of 2008, then, Hizbullah had recovered most of the political capital it expended in solidifying its position within the country and its government. Nasrallah’s addresses reflect this in that he has returned to discussing practical issues in his perorations. This is nothing new. He is known as a pragmatist, and for his plain speaking, such that even his critics and opponents take his pronouncements at face value. In his characteristic speaking style, he breaks his remarks into a list of points, reinforcing the impression of a series of logical premises leading to a necessarily valid conclusion. Gone is the confrontational tone of the pronouncements made during the crisis in May, in what linguists refer to as “performative utterances,” precipitating the crisis through their very pronouncement. Gone, too, is the ironic, mocking tone in speaking of the opposition’s rivals in the political arena. Even when criticizing, Nasrallah wields the staid language of formal declamation and strikes a conciliatory tone:
It is not necessary that we all praise one another, and it is not forbidden for one of us to criticize the political stance of another; but were we to observe the principles of politic good manners, I think every party could express its convictions and views and practice its policies without harming others and without creating an atmosphere of tension.
As always, Nasrallah wields the imagery of patriotism and resistance to Israeli aggression and to the designs of its allies, addressing his imagery and rhetoric first to the Shiite community, but extending it to all of the Lebanese people. The occasion of Martyrs Day is the perfect opportunity for this, because of the association of the Shiites with martyrdom, and in remembrance of the many fallen in the Lebanese struggle for national self-expression.
 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