I was only ten when I first heard of Hezbollah. My village in the south of Lebanon was still waking up to a new reality: The PLO had left, the Israel Defense Forces had come, and some kind of Islamic resistance was forming.
People were both curious and anxious. The Amal Movement had proved itself to be the opposite of what it initially claimed, which was a party focused on social justice for the underprivileged. But the “Islamic” resistance did not resonate so well in the South. After all, the Shiites were the main component of most of the secular parties in Lebanon at that time.
At the beginning, Hezbollah did not impose itself upon the people. Its gradual evolution was shaped by its modest approach on both religious and social levels. Over time, the fear of Islamic rule faded and the party managed to win people’s hearts and minds. Humility and humbleness marked Hezbollah’s behavior, which was new and refreshing for the people of the South who had suffered from feudal arrogance and Amal’s corruption.
But as Hezbollah grew and became more powerful, modesty began to fade and the gap between the party leadership and the people grew. In turn, as Hezbollah became more confident, it increasingly emphasized fusion between the religious and political aspects, which was more subtle during the 1980s.
For example, Ashoura started to gain more political meaning, and the battles against the enemy – first Israel, and now the Sunnis – are presented in sacred terms. Meanwhile, the war in Syria is viewed as the battle to prepare for the Mahdi’s reappearance, and the political dynamics in Lebanon are not about the resistance anymore as much as to prove the “ghalaba” (“victory”) of the Shiites, a term that has religious and historic meanings. The consequences have been extreme hatred toward Shiites by many Sunnis in the region.
In the 1980s, before my teens, Hezbollah had yet not achieved any victories. It was a resistance group that worked more or less under the radar. Hezbollah support was and remains in every home, through siblings, parents, and friends. Its members were the people you loved and grew up with – we didn’t consider it the enemy.
But as Hezbollah achieved one victory after another, arrogance took hold. Growing up with Hezbollah, you learned that victory is not always a good thing, especially when it leads, at its best, to arrogance. It started with the liberation of the South in 2000. Hezbollah refused to hand its arms to the Lebanese state, which opened the door to antagonism. Then, in 2005, Hezbollah sided with the Syrian regime as they withdrew from Lebanon, placing itself against all Lebanese, including many Shiites, who demonstrated and celebrated in Martyr’s Square. Of course, the use of arms against Lebanese in the events of May 7, 2008 and then the black shirts coup that toppled Saad Hariri’s government in 2010 did not help to bridge the gap between Lebanon’s diverse communities. Last but not least, the party’s involvement in Syria made it extremely difficult for anyone in the region to forgive Hezbollah or, for that matter, the Shiite community at large.
Arrogance takes hold
The party’s arrogance inside the community and in its general political rhetoric grew throughout all this. “We are the most honorable people,” Nasrallah declared after the victory of 2006. “This is our time,” Nasrallah said earlier this week, claiming that victory in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran had arrived.
As Hezbollah grew and became more powerful, modesty began to fadeHanin Ghaddar
The worst part is the underlying arrogance of Nasrallah’s speech. This condescending, I-know-it-all attitude and pitiful tone, will not only further isolate the Shiites: It also means that Hezbollah is risking everything on Iran-U.S. negotiations.
Even the core of Hezbollah’s ideology flipped in a matter of days, and Nasrallah’s speech failed to refer to the usual “Zionist” and “imperialist” enemy that has always conspired against resistance. To be sure, the change has come about after all anti-American slogans were removed from Tehran’s streets last week. The change of tone reflects the recent Iran-U.S. rapprochement and the failure of the West to do anything in Syria to stop Iran’s takeover. But what if the negotiations fail, or what if the compromises that Iran has to make affect Hezbollah’s power or arms? Worse, what if all this leads to a more deadly war between the Sunnis and the Shiites in the region?
Already, Hezbollah has been sending fighters to Syria to aid Assad in killing his people. This has resulted in more than one million Sunni Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Now that the party of arrogance has decided that victory means more power and that there is no need to compromise, its new political endeavors will be marked with more greed and condescension. But if we have learned anything from Lebanon’s history, it is that no supreme power can last. Things change constantly and the political dynamics are nothing if not unstable. Allies and enemies move to different sides all the time. The only thing that could keep your head above the water is your readiness to cooperate and compromise, and not act as God.
It seems Hezbollah has forgotten how to be modest in victory. Along the way, the dignity of the Shiites – their one main historic and religious value – will be sacrificed.
This article was first published in NOW Lebanon on Nov. 1, 2013.
Hanin Ghaddar is the Managing Editor of NOW Lebanon - English, where she has written on Lebanese and regional politics. She contributes regularly to a number of magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times and Foreign Policy. She has been a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Fall 2012). Ghaddar wrote for Assafir, Annahar and al-Hayat and also worked as a researcher for the UNDP regional office between 2002 and 2004