Hizbullah’s Identity Crisis
Monday, January 16,2006 00:00
By Michael Young, Newsweek International

 The focus in next week’s Palestinian legislative elections is on the Islamic group Hamas, with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority wary of its entry into mainstream politics. Late last year all eyes were on Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood, which fed off growing disillusionment with President Hosni Mubarak’s regime to take home the second largest number of votes in parliamentary elections. Optimists want desperately to believe that democratic processes make Islamist militants more moderate. But is that really so?

The evidence is, at best, ambiguous. Since winning the vote in 2002, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s "post-Islamist" Justice and Development Party has cleaned up corruption, modernized human-rights laws and spearheaded Turkey’s drive to join the European Union, all while accepting (if sometimes contentiously) the country’s secular bona fides. But Lebanon’s Hizbullah presents a contrarian example, one that illustrates how Islamists can exploit elections (and entry into state institutions) to defeat efforts to stifle their militancy.

In 1992 the group went through a divisive internal debate over whether to take part in Lebanon’s first postwar parliamentary vote. Secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah backed participation and found vindication in Hizbullah’s subsequent electoral successes. Since then the party has been a fixture of the Lebanese political scene and has emerged as the country’s dominant Shiite representative. Yet that has not made it any less combative, particularly vis-a-vis Israel or the United States. Hizbullah continues to describe itself as a "national resistance," retains its weapons and is arguably the most effective military force in Lebanon. It rejects U.N. demands that it disarm, despite growing domestic sentiment that an autonomous armed militia should not be fighting the nation’s battles in lieu of the Army—especially a group so attuned to Syrian and Iranian interests.

At the same time, since the Syrians withdrew last April, Hizbullah’s aura of invincibility has vanished. Today the group is paying a price for its on-going alliance with the Syrian regime, which many Lebanese believe is trying to reassert control over their country. When Hizbullah parliamentarians were booed at the December funeral of assassinated Lebanese journalist Gebran Tueni, it showed how much the party’s fortunes have changed over the past year.

In the aftermath of Syria’s pullout, Hizbullah thus faces major dilemmas. It remains powerful militarily, but this is increasingly meaningless in a country where decisions are taken by communal consensus. It is stridently pro-Syrian at a time when most Lebanese blame Syria for the assassination last February of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as well as for a series of bombings and killings since then (including Tueni’s). Though Hizbullah subsequently joined Lebanon’s coalition government—a first—its partners are anything but friendly toward Damascus. Hizbullah, they insist, must choose its loyalties—to Lebanon, or to Syria and Iran, on whose behalf the party’s rockets would be used in case Israel decides to attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities.

Hizbullah’s identity crisis goes deeper still. After driving Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, the party hoped to become the region’s standard-bearer in the struggle against Israel. Instead, for obvious reasons, that role falls to Palestinian groups, particularly Hamas and Fatah. And while Hizbullah publicly ascribes its popularity to the purity of its militant ideology, the party in fact owes much of its following to the efficiency of its vast patronage networks. Nasrallah once said that Lebanon needed "great men and great leaders, not leaders of alleyways." What he won’t admit is that Hizbullah’s comparative advantage lies with the parochial public services it provides, not the promise of permanent revolution.

As for religion, is Hizbullah working toward an Islamic state or not? Nasrallah’s decision to contest the elections showed the party had accepted a non-Islamic political system. Listening to Hizbullah officials these days, one hears blessed little about God, and very much about theways of men.

Ultimately, these contradictions are self-defeating. Something will have to give. Democracy has already begun to impose choices on Hizbullah. But elections alone do not guarantee the choices will be good ones.

Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.