The Magazine

Going Backwards in Beirut

Hezbollah still holds power despite losing the election.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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In February 2005 a massive car bomb killed Rafik Hariri, Saad's billionaire father, along with more than 20 others. The elder Hariri had made his fortune in Saudi Arabia in the construction business. After Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990, he returned to his native land to spearhead the rebuilding of Beirut. His success led to his 1992 election as prime minister. He served until 1998, and then again from 2000 to 2004. It was widely assumed that his assassination was engineered by Syria, which continues to serve as the conduit through which Iranian arms flow to Hezbollah. And it was commonly understood that the assassination was meant to dramatize the cost that Syria and Hezbollah would exact from those working toward a Lebanon free of foreign tutelage. Four weeks after Hariri's murder, on March 8, 2005, approximately 500,000 people, mostly Shia, held a rally in Beirut to reaffirm their pro-Syria loyalties.

Six days later, on March 14, a Sunni, Christian, and Druze crowd of more than 1 million--a quarter of Lebanon's population--shook their nation by gathering in downtown Beirut to outdo the pro-Syria demonstrators and show their devotion to a sovereign Lebanon. The stunning upsurge of pro-liberty and pro-democracy sentiment in what became known as the Cedar Revolution combined with international indignation over the Hariri assassination compelled Syria, which had occupied the country for 29 years, to withdraw its forces by the end of April. The forces of freedom exulted.

Three years later, on May 7, 2008, however, the March 14 coalition suffered a huge blow. Hezbollah forces, carrying little more than light arms but backed by a formidable guerrilla machine in the south and the threat of far more devastating force, rolled into Beirut and took over the city in a matter of hours. Lebanon's liberals and democrats were devastated by the failure of the United States and Europe to come to Lebanon's aid even as its cosmopolitan capital was overrun by ragtag fighters equipped by, and loyal to, Iran's Islamic revolutionaries. Hezbollah lifted the siege at the end of the month with the signing of the Doha Agreement, which, most importantly, gave it, a minority party, a veto over government action in a new national unity government.

A little over a year after this trauma, with the implications of Hezbollah's takeover still very much up in the air, the June 2009 elections turned on the single issue of whether Lebanon would submit to Hezbollah and the political authority of Syria and Iran, or build a free and democratic state. Despite eking out a narrow parliamentary majority, the March 14 coalition could not form a government for five months because Hezbollah blocked it--formally, by means of the powers it obtained through the Doha Agreement, and informally, through threats and intimidation. The newly announced national unity government gives 2 of the 30 ministerial port-folios to Hezbollah politicians.

One hears from all sections of Lebanese society that Israel is the key to reining in Hezbollah. Many Sunnis say this; so do significant parts of the Christian community as well as some Druze, in addition to Shia who are not aligned with Hezbollah or Amal, a Shia party friendly to Syria. According to this common line of thinking, Hezbollah's claim to uphold "resistance" would be substantially weakened by an Israeli decision to negotiate with the Lebanese government to leave the Shebaa Farms, some eight square miles of strategically important land on the slopes overlooking southern Lebanon, which almost everybody in Lebanon contends Israel occupies illegally. And Hezbollah's status would be weakened decisively, from this point of view, were Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories and allow the approximately 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon--half of them still in refugee camps 60 years after the armistice Lebanon signed with Israel, and all of them facing restrictions on the kinds of jobs they can hold--to return to an independent Palestinian state. Once all illegal Israeli occupation ends, so the argument goes, Hezbollah's reasons for existing as a fighting force will vanish.

But our New Opinion hosts, and several of the liberal Shia to whom we spoke, adamantly rejected this analysis. For Hezbollah, they persuasively argued, resistance does not refer merely to armed struggle against Israel's occupation of this or that piece of land, or even the battle against Israel's very existence, but a fight to the death against the claims of liberty and democracy in Lebanon and throughout the region in the name of Islamic law as dictated by the Iranian mullahs.