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Making over the militia

Observations on Hezbollah

“If our coalition wins, it will not be a dramatic change in Lebanon,” says the prospective Hezbollah MP Ali Fayyad.

It is a somewhat unusual campaign pledge, especially from a party with its roots in the Iranian Revolution. But then Hezbollah, the radical Shia militia that forced Israel out of Lebanon, and whose political wing could become the most powerful party in the country after the parliamentary elections on 7 June, is running an unusual campaign.

While its American-backed opponents have been warning darkly for months of the “fateful” significance of the 7 June result, the Iranian-backed group has been, until recently, keeping an uncharacteristically low profile.

In part, this is because it does not really need to campaign for its own seats. Under Lebanon’s complex electoral system, seats are allotted by sect. Hezbollah largely has the Shia vote sewn up, except in areas controlled by its parliamentary ally Amal.

Hezbollah’s chief opponent, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, is also reasonably assured of its Sunni electoral base. For either party to take a majority, therefore, its allies have to win the Christian vote. Hezbollah is allied with the Free Patriotic Movement’s Michel Aoun, who has been campaigning fiercely in the swing districts. But many Christians find Hezbollah unsavoury. “The quieter Hezbollah is, the more it helps its allies,” says Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

Hezbollah’s campaign therefore relies on a paradoxical strategy of promulgating its own lack of significance. Normally, the airport road out of Beirut is bedecked with party posters celebrating martyrdom and resistance. Now it sports shiny, yellow and green billboards with the possessive pronouns “our”, “your” and “their” scratched out above the simple slogan “Lebanon”, and the party’s famous Kalashnikov logo faded to a watermark.

“Their advertising has become way more sophisticated,” says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Hezbollah expert. “This is geared towards other members of their alliance.”

It is not only Lebanese Christians that Hezbollah needs to reassure. Bicom, a pro-Israel lobbying group in Britain, says that the outcome of the elections is “of real concern to Israel”, ominously noting that a victory for the militant coalition “would further blur the distinction between official Lebanon and the Hezbollah para-state”.

The United States, unlike Britain, does not recognise the distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wings. There are fears that the US might respond to a Hezbollah win as it did to Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, leading to Lebanon’s diplomatic and financial isolation.

“We think Lebanon is a different case,” says Fayyad. “Hezbollah will not control the country, we will be a national unity government – we are ready to give [the Future Movement’s coalition] a blocking third. We understand our political system; it is a consensual system.”

“I’m sure they want desperately to form a national unity government,” says Elias Muhanna, author of the popular political blog “Although Saad Hariri might refuse to join.”

Unlike the other major parties, Hezbollah has actually published an extensive political programme whose bureaucratic tenor is an effective publicity repellent in itself. “We intend to confront corruption, progress public service and form a national commission to abolish sectarianism,” says Fayyad. “We also intend to introduce administrative decentralisation.”

Whether Hezbollah’s campaign to establish itself as bland and unthreatening is having any success remains to be seen. As the stakes of the Lebanese election have grown higher, with the US vice-president, Joe Biden, visiting Beirut last weekend to show his support for “freedom”, it has become harder for the party to maintain its lofty stance above the fray.

Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hasan Nasrallah, made a televised speech on 15 May addressing criticisms of the party’s opponents. This seems to have had an inflammatory, rather than a calming, effect.

“The international reaction is particularly hard to predict,” says Muhanna. “If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is re-elected in Iran a few days later, one can imagine Israel making a lot of noise about Iran’s growing power in the region. How will this affect American policy? We just don’t know.”

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother