Eyes on Nasrallah

The Hezbollah leader is surprisingly media savvy, using television to exert his global influence fro

Shi’a leader and Hezbollah General Secretary Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is Lebanon’s one of the most popular leaders. Since last summer’s Hezbollah-Israeli confrontation in Southern Lebanon Nasrallah has taken cover in a 'mystical' hideout, believed to be somewhere in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

However, this has not prevented the leader from repeated TV appearances with the aim of reassuring militant followers of his resolve in realising a godly victory over the 'infidels'. Streets in Beirut and elsewhere in the country become deserted as people gather around screens in anticipation of the Sayyed’s live message.

Whether you support or oppose the man you have to listen to him. After all, his televised appearances can swing both national and regional political moods. Hezbollah fighters under his command in the South are ready to unleash rocket attacks against Israeli towns and cities.

Nasrallah has declared in his live messages to be in possession of over 20,000 short and medium range missiles, placing Tel Aviv and even its nuclear facilities in Negev within rocket range.

These proclamations have alarmed Israel, prompting its army to carry out unprecedented military exercises on the Lebanese borders involving over 50,000 soldiers. A possible confrontation with Hezbollah would place approximately 15,000 UNIFIL soldiers positioned on the borders in the line of fire. The situation has disturbed the international community as soldiers from the UNIFIL coalition of European, Asian and African nations continue to be stationed in Hezbollah controlled territories.

In his furious televised speeches Nasrallah has pledged to bring an end to the chronic historical sense of Arab and Islamic humiliation and the “beginning of a victorious epoch”; a slogan displayed on giant banners all over Shi’a strongholds. Such statements have been echoed by Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad, an ally of Nasrallah.

Many believe that a confrontation with Israel, instigated by Hezbollah, would drag Syria and Iran into the conflict. Some observers are suggesting that the prospect of an Iranian-Syrian-Hamas-Hezbollah axis of influence in the region would be so concerning to Egypt, Jordan and other pro-western Sunni Arab regimes that they may even favour an Israeli victory in any future conflict.

It is not only Israelis watching Nasrallah’s defiant televised speeches with apprehension; his Lebanese rivals are also glued to the screens when the Sayyed addresses his audience. Downtown Beirut, rebuilt from rubble after the 1975 Lebanese Civil War and earmarked as a Mecca for tourism and business, has become a deserted ghost town after a year long anti-government public sit-in called for by Nasrallah.

His opponents fear that domestic differences over the country’s presidential elections and Hezbollah’s possession of a vast cache of weapons beyond government control may signal an all out domestic confrontation and the spread of civil unrest.

Everyone awaits the “Nasrallah’s televised password” that sets the public mood of either optimism or pessimism over the country’s future. His messages instigate public reactions with his charged supporters taking to the streets, obstructing traffic with roadblocks, enforcing unofficial curfews, or simply engaging in mass celebrations.

The Hezbollah leader's television audience is global. The sizeable Lebanese diasporic communities who have invested in the country, awaiting permanent or temporary return or concerned over the safety of their relatives, are eager to watch from continents across the world. Sympathizers among the Lebanese-Americans in the U.S. city of Dearborn, Michigan, a Lebanese Shi’a enclave, gather in large groups in homes and local restaurants to listen attentively to the leader's messages.

However, Nasrallah is most closely watched in Syria. Since the assassination of anti-Syrian former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005, a plot widely believed to have been orchestrated by the Syrian regime, Nasrallah has managed to undermine the authenticity of both the investigation and the formation of an international tribunal court.

In November 2006 Nasrallah instructed Shi’a government ministers to withdraw from the cabinet in protest of the government's approval of the formation of an international tribunal court, leading the country into one of its deepest national crises since independence.

Syria, fearing international indictment and condemnation, has rushed to Nasrallah’s defence in order to quell suspicions. In turn Nasrallah has poured scorn upon both the investigation and the court, labelling both as part of a U.S.-Zionist ploy against Syria and Lebanon.

He went as far as presupposing that any future allegations against the Syrian regime will only be faced with street confrontation and opposition. For the Syrian regime, Nasrallah has emerged as an important player in rebuffing attacks against Syria and in helping reposition its strategic role in the region while simultaneously strengthening its critical alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

For the time being Nasrallah remains in his hideout, adding suspense to his TV appearances that bring him closer to millions of adherents and rivals around the globe. With many important cards in his hand, Nasrallah has emerged as a master tactician in the political arena. In the mean time, the world watches in anticipation over his next move.

Imad Salamey is a specialist in Middle Eastern studies, particularly in the areas of democracy and governance and ethnic conflict transformation. He is currently the assistant professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University, Beirut.