Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Why Lebanon Matters

Hassan Nasrallah

Apart from hosting Hezbollah and bordering Israel, Lebanon has little international significance. But with the alarming rise of radical Sunni Islamism – from Mali to Pakistan – Lebanon stands as the last bastion of moderate Sunnis, something that Hezbollah might have realized.


Lebanon's moderate Sunnis, however, face the risk of extinction. Like their Arab peers who were sidelined by fanatic generals after the Palestine defeat in 1948, they are under pressure to either stand up to Shiite bullying, or make way for those who can like Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra and similar organizations whose thought, politics and looks belong to medieval times.


Hezbollah has seemingly understood the Sunni conundrum: Shut out the Hariri family and the moderates and you will have to deal with firebrands like Ahmad al-Assir and soon enough with Jabhat al-Nusra. Perhaps this made Hezbollah unclench its fist and allow the nomination of lawmaker Tammam Salam, a member of the Hariri bloc and descendent of one of Lebanon's best-known Sunni families.


To be sure, Hezbollah has not given up its control of Lebanon's security. It has been less than six months since the assassination of Information Branch Chief Wissam al-Hassan, who had put together a competitive intelligence agency that threatened the party's dominance.


But anything less than threatening Hezbollah's control of security now looks permissible. By allowing moderate Sunnis some room, Hezbollah has broken with a template that it inherited from the Syrian rulers of Lebanon.


When Bashar al-Assad intended to extend the mandate of former President Emile Lahoud in 2004, many of his allies counseled him to the contrary, but his response was to threaten to break Lebanon on the heads of late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and former French President Jacques Chirac. Assad doubled down on his show of force, and lost, a step he would imprudently repeat when families of Deraa's tortured children tried to reason with him against an undeserved harsh punishment, the incident that is believed to have been the spark of the Syrian revolution.


Hezbollah's leadership, for its part, looks smarter than Assad. It sends its ‘black shirts’ to the streets only sparingly and seemingly does its best to avoid unnecessary fights. Thus, with the incompetent Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) now history and Hezbollah's undisputed dominance of the nation's security, the party feels secure enough to let Lebanon politics run its course and keep Sunni moderates stronger than their militant rivals.


This is good news for Lebanon. It shows that Hezbollah understands the shortcoming of its power, especially as the Arab Spring makes it harder for the practice of absolute authority.


It is good news for the Levant too. Lebanon's Sunni leaders are the only remaining cosmopolitan politicians from Ottoman times. They are mostly college graduates and self-made businesspeople, which sets them apart from other Lebanese sects whose leaders mostly come from the army corps, the religious establishment, or civil war militias.


Those who saw Salam's picture kissing his mother might have noticed that for someone her age, mother Salam was not veiled. This is not to judge veil, but to argue that Lebanon's Sunnis are still diverse rather than uniformly attached to an austere interpretation of Islam like in most of the region.


In fact, it was Salam's paternal aunt, Anbara, who caused a stir when she took off her veil in public in 1927. Born in 1897 and dead in 1986, Anbara was among the first Arabs to advocate women's rights, long before there were radical takfiris or other distractions.


The majority of Lebanon's Sunnis are known for their peaceful temper to the extent that it becomes hard to imagine them forming militant groups or producing the likes of Abu Hafs al-Libi, of Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra, or of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, of Iraq's Islamic State.


The mere fact that over the past decade almost none of al-Qaeda leaders held the surname "al-Lubnani," or the Lebanese, speaks volumes. While some Lebanese Sunnis, mainly on the fringe, might have joined al-Qaeda, their number seems insignificant.


Since he was forced out of Lebanon in 2005, Assad tried to sponsor radical Lebanese Sunni groups, a tactic that he replicated in Syria in 2011. Assad reasoned that if his enemies are radical Sunnis, rather than moderate ones, he would be justified to use brutal force against them and sell such effort to world powers striving to fight these same groups.


But this is another tactic on which Assad and Hezbollah diverge, and therefore where MP Michel Aoun disagrees with Hezbollah over Salam. The Party of God has enough of a Shiite base to remain in power without the need for radical Sunni enemies to justify its power. Hezbollah might also believe that Assad’s tactics could backfire: Pretend radical Sunni groups might become real, snowball and turn into a formidable enemy that the party can do without.


With Hezbollah so far proving saner than blood-drenched Assad, and with Lebanon's moderate Sunnis getting a chance at resurgence, Lebanon should matter. Relations between its Shiites and Sunnis, though still tense, might be better than how things are in Syria and Iraq. The world should take notice.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. Follow him on Twitter @hahussain.

Hezbollah is making well-thought-out decisions regarding its regional role. (AFP photo)

“By allowing moderate Sunnis some room, Hezbollah has broken with a template that it inherited from the Syrian rulers of Lebanon.”

  • Petrossou

    What ever analysis will be done nowadays, there is only one conclusion to it: Hezbollah is living the end of its era. Since 2005, his aura has been going down the drain due to his continuous lies and arrogant behavior starting with its involvement in the assassinations, the famous "If I new" of Hassan Nasrallah back in 2006, the military coup in 2008, the scandals his members or family members are involved in, the ones his allies are involved in and its involvement in the Syria war. In Lebanon, no theocratic, or dictatorial regime can survive. History is there as a proof to that statement. Hezbollah, as clever as he is, is too much controlled by Iran and very soon will have to make its strategic choices, will he join Lebanon or will he choose to disappear in pain? The ball is in his side of the field and the more he delays his decision the more difficult it will be for him and for the country.

    April 16, 2013

  • Beiruti

    A very good analysis piece by the writer, but I agree with what Hanibaal-Atheos has written. I know within the Christian party rank and file of the FPM, Hezbollah's erstwhile Lebanese ally, that the people have been sold on the Shiite alliance by making a boogie man of the Sunni parties, particularly of Saad Hariri and the KSA. The rationale for being with Hezbollah is that they are a better ally to assure Christian political power than the dreaded Salafists and Wahabis of the Sunni extreme. Never mind that Hariri and Future do not advocate the same extremism as a Salafist, he and Future have been characterized as such as justification for the FPM to ally with Hezbollah. Now, if Hezbollah is turning to Future and the Hariri elements of the Sunni political currents in Lebanon to serve as a buffer against the more radical Sunnis, particularly those operating in Syria and drawing Hezbollah's blood there, it will be very difficult for Aoun to justify the alliance any longer with his constituents. Hanibaal is correct in that this will cause Aoun to split eventually from Hezbollah, unless he can find some new rationale to sell to his constituents for this alliance. Of course, internally, the rationale is plain, he and his people are paid by Iran for their alliance with the Iranian entity which is the armed Hezbollah. But that is no rationale that will sell with the public. Aoun will have to let it go and move instead to a new source of patronage. Maybe that is why Bassil sought a meeting with the Saudi Ambassador.

    April 16, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    But Hezbollah also seemingly understands its own conundrum, which is that on one hand it itself - as a fundamentalist radical ultra-religious organization - has really no future and cannot fully realize it self-declared identity in a diverse Lebanon, and on the other hand, it can only go as far as the Iranian tether allows it. Between those two extremes, Hezbollah cannot sustain any reasonable middle ground. The only two parameters that allow it to go on for now is Iranian money (weakened by the imploding Syrian logistical component) and a Lebanese Shiite population which is more sophisticated than Hezbollah really understands, and which is bound one day to shake off the Iranian-Hezbollah stranglehold and emancipate itself and reintegrate the vastly secular Lebanese middle class. Hezbollah's BIG LIE of liberating some made up occupied territory in the south has long ago vanished, and right now Hezbollah is running out of air and is beginning to choke in its own vomit to say the least. I predict two things will happen within a year: Aoun will break up with Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime will fall. The it will be bye bye Hassan!

    April 16, 2013