In his speech on Liberation Day, celebrating when the Lebanese finally saw the back of the Israeli occupation 11 years ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah mentioned Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. He remarked that when Netanyahu, in his speech before the US Congress this week, raised the issue of the rockets in Lebanon and Gaza, there “was fear in his eyes.”
Perhaps there was, but I also see quite a lot of fear in Nasrallah’s eyes these days as the situation in the Middle East goes through radical transformation. And there are primarily three reasons for this.
First, as hard as Nasrallah tries, he just cannot seem to convince Arabs anymore that “resistance” must be given priority over most other aspects of their lives. In Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, people have talked about emancipation, democracy and liberty, with the targets of their opprobrium almost exclusively domestic. Protestors may dislike America and Israel, but for now their aim is to rewrite failed social contracts, impose states that reflect their needs, and be rid of leaders and their families who have suffocated and robbed them for decades.
If Nasrallah has any doubts, he should recall what happened after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s January interview in The Wall Street Journal. Assad gloated that his “resistance” credentials would shield him from an upheaval similar to the others in the Arab world. They didn’t, and now Syrian demonstrators are burning the Iranian flag, along with the Russian and Chinese flags, in the streets of their cities.
There was something terribly off-key in Nasrallah’s comments, showing how alienated he seems to be from the spirit of this Arab moment. The language of rockets, guns and combat is jarring against a backdrop of societies demanding freedom. In armed resistance there is an implicit call for regimentation, for compulsory unity and the banishment of dissent in the greater cause of defeating the enemy. Yet everything about the Arab uprisings has been directed at undermining regimentation and authorizing dissent. Those in the region know all too well that their despots have spent decades using the conflict with Israel as justification for building up vast military and security apparatuses to facilitate open-ended internal repression.
Nasrallah’s second cause of fear is that he’s on the wrong side of the revolt in Syria. Hezbollah, which has always claimed to be the champion of the downtrodden, is defending a leadership crushing its own people. Nasrallah is covering for the soldiers, security officers and gang members who have fired live ammunition at unarmed civilians, killing an estimated 1,100 people in the last two months. He is covering for those in the Syrian security services who have detained and abused what is estimated to be thousands of people in recent weeks.*
It was pitiable to hear Nasrallah mentioning the “resistance” bona fides of the Syrian regime as the principal validation for his support of the Assads. In that way the Hezbollah leader suggested that his own agenda was somehow more meritorious than the aspirations of the Syrian people (even as he admitted that Syria needed reform). The reaction on social media outlets was acerbic from many in Syria. They saw that in defense of his party’s and Iran’s interests, Nasrallah would abandon justice and applaud their tormentors. If Syrian protestors prevail, they will not soon forgive him his double-standards.
A third headache for Nasrallah is that he now finds himself at the epicenter of a sectarian confrontation in the Middle East. For a long time Hezbollah managed to transcend Sunni-Shia differences thanks to its accomplishments on an issue that most Arabs sympathize with, namely the battle against Israel. But much has changed since then. To a great extent Iran’s Arab enemies have made headway in portraying the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah as pursuing a project of Shia hegemony, regardless of the merits of such an accusation.
And in Syria Hezbollah’s ally, the Assad regime, also appears to be implementing a sectarian strategy. Many Arabs will have read or heard lately that Alawites are expelling Sunnis from places such as Tal Kalakh. Even diplomats in Beirut worry that this may be a step in establishing an ethnically cleansed Alawite mini-state. It would be disastrous for Nasrallah if a majority of Arabs were to begin lumping his Shia community together with the Alawites in an alleged partnership against Sunnis. He knows that for Hezbollah to be depicted as a sectarian group would undermine it as the vanguard in a model of regional resistance. And yet this has already started.
Hassan Nasrallah is behind the curve on what is going on around us in the Middle East. The Hezbollah leader is employing both rhetoric and imagery that are anachronistic in these transformative times. The future, we hope, will bring a promise of free societies, the reflexes of compromise and greater pluralism. If that fails, as it may, Nasrallah will have saved himself; but at the expense of many innocents.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle, which the Wall Street Journal listed as one of its 10 standout books for 2010. He tweets @BeirutCalling.
*The original sentence stated that Hassan Nasrallah was covering for a unit that had run over a prisoner with its tank. In fact the video did not show such an event.