Hezbollah and the Arab revolution

The group’s leader keeps his ear close to the ground, bonding with the dispossessed and speaking their language.

Heralded by millions of fans as ‘the mastermind of the resistance’ – and demonised by the US and Israel as a ‘terrorist’, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah’s rhetoric towards Syria is equally divisive [GALLO/GETTY]

Is there something amiss within Hezbollah?

It rose from the ignominy of oblivion, feudal exploitation, sectarian bias, and overall marginalisation to occupy political centre stage. In fewer than thirty years it converted Shia socio-political weightlessness into a counterbalancing political gravity.

It stood up against the Israeli Goliath. It survived the “incendiaries” dropped on it by Arab politicians arrayed against it from Amman to Cairo. It outclassed its enemies within and outside of Lebanon, with imaginative political guile and fine calculation against all odds.

But resisting the Goliath of Tel Aviv while embracing the lion of Damascus risks a decreasing commitment to Arab revolution within “the Party of God” – and to its own revolutionary standing.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah: Born in revolution

He was born to lead.

Most leaders are born within existing political organisations. Not Sayyed Hassan. His political birth preceded the founding of Hezbollah by four years.

He was no stranger to revolution, Palestinian and Iranian. But it was within the bosom of the Iranian revolution that his leadership was conceived.

At 21 years of age, Nasrallah was acclaimed as a rising star by the late Ayatollah Khomeini in the Jamaran Husseiniyyah, North of Tehran in 1981. The young Nasrallah was in the company comrades-in-arms from Amal, another Shia political organisation, and the gist of the discussion was about ways of supporting the Palestinian cause and humbling the supremacist powers of the West. 

Impressed with the young Nasrallah, Khomeini sealed Sayyid Hassan’s leadership by consecrating and empowering him for the collection and distribution of religious taxes – known as hisbiyyah – including the khums (one-fifth of gain or profit) and the obligatory Islamic alms-giving tax, zakat.

Khomeini was very selective as well as frugal in assignment of hisbiyyah roles, roles not assigned to the party’s first Secretary-General, Subhi al-Tufaily until 1987 and to his successor, Sayyid Abbas Musawi, the young Nasrallah’s mentor, in 1986.

Moreover, the anointment was additionally sealed by Khomeini’s address to the young Nasrallah as a “Hojjat al-Islam”, a ranking denoting high scholarly accomplishment.

Musawi, Nasrallah’s teacher in the Holy Najaf seminary, and later his mentor as Secretary-General of Hezbollah until his assassination in 1992, also saw leadership potential in the young Nasrallah. This explains the camaraderie that bound the two men. They joined and split from Amal, then fought it, moving on with others to mould a small band of zealous combatants into a formidable political and military organisation: Hezbollah.

‘Lebanon’s Che Guevara’

“Praise to God … who chose a martyr from my family, bestowing upon us the gift of martyrdom, and including us in the community of the Holy Martyrs’ families.” Thus Sayyed Hassan celebrated the killing by Israel of his eldest son Hadi in combat in September 1997.

In that same speech, Nasrallah expressed relief at Hadi’s martyrdom for putting him and his family on equal with all other parents who lost their sons in the fight against Israel. 

This is a story worth recounting, for two reasons. Firstly, Sayyed Nasrallah strikes a chord with his Arab constituency for having always acted, thought, and spoken as one of them. He knew poverty; he saw action in the battlefield; and he consistently commits himself to the ideals he has preached.

The other reason, and specifically in relation to the cast of leadership Arab revolution is sweeping away, Nasrallah stands out: the privileges accrued by Arab leaders, their families, sons and daughters – from Libya to Syria – are never tolerated by Hezbollah.

Hadi Nasrallah was neither a Saif Gaddafi nor a Gamal Mubarak; and Nasrallah’s cousin, Hashim Safi Al-Din, assigned to the command of the Southern Lebanon region since November 2010, is no Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s corrupt billionaire.

‘Oracle of the oppressed’

For me two leitmotifs explain Hezbollah: “deprivation” and “resistance”. They go hand in hand. They set people like Ragheb Harb, and before him Musa Al-Sadr, who engineered Shia empowerment, on a fascinating course of political history: resistance within against “deprivation” or hirman, and against occupation.

Hezbollah’s 1985 first political manifesto, The Open Letter, [“al-Risalah al-Maftuhah“], resonates with Che-Khomeini rhetoric: the language of “world imperialism” mixed with meaning about “the oppressed”, “down-trodden”, “justice”, “self-determination” and “liberty”.

The sea of people I saw in August 2006 that came to greet and listen to Nasrallah after the 34-day war with Israel related to these messages. They still do. Many more do the same from Rabat to Sana’a.

Nasrallah’s oratory in the “Divine Pledge” [al-Wa’d al-Sadiq] before hundreds of thousands, was electrifying – as ever, the oracle of the down-trodden, crushed by injustice and occupation. In Nasrallah’s mantra of change via resistance, or muqawamah, they find solace, a kind of redemption, and hope for reconstitution as equals to all free human beings.

This is why in 2006, as in 2000 when Israel was forced to end its occupation of Lebanon’s south, Nasrallah rode high on a wave of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic popularity not known in the Arab world since the death of Nasser in September 1970. A leader from the minority sect of Islam replaced Sunni Nasser as the emblem of resistance and freedom.

Inspired by Imam Khomeini, Nasrallah modernised Hezbollah and articulated a political project, which embodied empowerment, transforming Ashura and the entirety of the Karabala imaginary into a potent inventory for re-inventing not only the political, but also Shia identity in Lebanon.

Hezbollah and Syria’s Revolution

Heralded by millions of Muslim fans as “the mastermind of the resistance” – or “the Muslim Che Guevara” – while demonised by the US Congress and Israel as a “terrorist”, Nasrallah’s rhetoric vis-à-vis the Syrian regime makes him an oddity in two ways.

Firstly, resistance is not divisible. Resistance is resistance, whether deployed against a colonial oppressor or against the indigenous oppressor, occupying, in this instance, the Arab state.

The same goes for freedom; it is not divisible. Resistance in the quest for freedom applies to the occupied Lebanese and Palestinian as much as to the oppressed Syrian or Yemeni.

Nasrallah was among the first to lend support to Arab revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and later to the down-trodden protesting against marginalisation in Bahrain. Withholding support for the uprising in Syria – because the regime supports muqawamah and opposes imperialism – is speaking with two tongues vis-à-vis Arab revolution.

It is the Syrian masses who stand behind Hezbollah’s resistance. The credit does not belong to the Assad dynasty. Some credit is due to the state even if the Assads, for whatever reasons or interests, prefer resistance by proxy, in Gaza and Southern Lebanon – but not in the Golan Heights.

The Assads will depart some day. The Syrians are here to stay.

Syria: Maher or Bashar?

Secondly, Nasrallah did not need state endorsement of the Syrian regime – even though his speech back in May expressed equal appreciation to the Syrian people and concern for stability.

Back in 2006, a pearl of wisdom from Sayyed Hassan suggested the Jordanian and Egyptian leaders held their tongues instead of criticising Hezbollah at a critical time – when bombs were raining on the South and al-Dahiya. Silence may have been more eloquent on this occasion too, rather than speaking in favour of a regime that was at the time guilty of massive brutality against many Syrian towns and their communities.

Protests from average citizens eloquently state that they desire a Syria of the people, from and to the people. Not a dynasty. This casts doubt as to whether the current regime is still favoured by a majority of the people – Nasrallah’s information suggests otherwise.

Arab revolutions have been indicative referenda in countries where no such things take place – and when they do they are pre-ordained.

Equally important is whether Bashar al-Assad is even in charge – and if he is a lame-duck president completely bamboozled by younger brother Maher and the likes of brother-in-law Asef Shawkat, then Bashar is no longer of use either to the muqawamah in Lebanon or to his own people.

It may be that Bashar represents the gentler side of politics in Syria – as his rhetoric about planned reforms months ago seemed to intimate. But how are Syrians to ascertain that ,when no reforms have taken place? Moreover, today it is Maher’s tanks that are doing the talking and leading in Syria.

The only difference between the martyrs whose pictures ornate the streets of al-Dahiya and Harat Hrayek, including Sayyed Hadi Nasrallah Boulevard and the hundreds killed in Syria is the latter are victims fallen at the hands of compatriot rulers.

Is Bashar still in control? If he is he must stop Maher’s killing fields.

Hirman – marginalisation and misery

The displaced and dispossessed of Lebanon, including the Shia population, know the full meaning of hirman or deprivation and misery. Thus, they are the first to relate to the Arab revolution. It is the fodder of the protesting masses and the very trigger that led Mohamed Bou’azizi back in December 2010 to set himself alight.

The language of deprivation is an inseparable bond between the deprived of the streets of al-Dahiya al-Janubiyyah and Sidi Bouzid, Dar’aa, Taiz or Imbaba. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has always had his ear close to the ground, bonding with the dispossessed. This is the real and secret moral arsenal Hezbollah is in possession of, not its rockets and military prowess.

Perhaps his eloquence will rediscover that language in order to re-edit, on this occasion, a clumsy transcript. Particularly, to edit out his endorsement of those responsible for oppression in Syria, to counsel radical reform, a government through popular choice, as stated in The Open Letter, Hezbollah’s 1985 manifesto, and to reconnect with the ethos of peaceful resistance as a natural right for the downtrodden.

In politics, it is never late to do so.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.