The Magazine

A Hezbollah Crack-up?

Lebanon’s fratricidal extremists.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By LEE SMITH
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Beirut

Photo of Hassan Mchaymech

Hassan Mchaymech

Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah, wants out. Things have gotten so tense for Hezbollah, says Lokman Slim, an independent Lebanese Shiite activist, that according to well-sourced accounts of a meeting two weeks ago, Nasrallah “complained he no longer wanted the job.”

It’s hard to blame him. A figure once revered by Arabs for his (relative) success against Israel, Nasrallah is now tainted in the Sunni-majority Middle East by his association with a Syrian regime that has been slaughtering its Sunni opponents. More to the point, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Hezbollah’s patron in Damascus will survive the uprising. Some Lebanese observers are even wondering if the clerical regime in Iran, Hezbollah’s main sponsor, will survive. With mounting pressure in the form of U.S. and EU sanctions, a devalued currency, a secret war waged, it seems, by the Americans, Israelis, and perhaps internal adversaries, the Iranians are reduced to making threats—like closing the Strait of Hormuz—that if acted upon could spell the regime’s demise.

If Hezbollah’s regional partners are in trouble, the domestic arena presents even more daunting challenges for the party of God. Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon’s Shiite community seems to be unraveling. There’s crime and social unrest in Shiite areas that the party is incapable of curtailing. It has had to ask the Lebanese state for assistance in policing Hezbollah’s own areas. 

“After the 2006 war,” says Slim, “the Iranians handed out cash and everyone became accustomed to a certain standard of living. The party kept telling the Shiites that they were the best and most virtuous of people. So even the car thieves and drug dealers were the most virtuous of people. Now they can’t control it.”

Perhaps the most telling sign of a fragmented resistance is the news that Hezbollah has been infiltrated by foreign intelligence services. The party can’t get a fix on how to package the revelations. If they boast about uncovering CIA assets in their midst, they admit that the American clandestine service was able to penetrate an organization whose prestige rests on a reputation for tight security and lockstep discipline.

Like any totalitarian institution, Hezbollah is paranoid. Accordingly, the worse things get for Hezbollah, the more the party sees itself surrounded by enemies, real or imagined. Worst of all is when Hezbollah feels pressure on the most vulnerable part of its structure, its religious foundations. Which may be why the party is seeking the death penalty for one of its former top clerics.

Last October, a Lebanese military court, supervised by a judge close to Hezbollah, charged Sheikh Hassan Mchaymech with collaborating with Israel. “The message is not just for Hassan Mchaymech,” says his eldest son, Reda. “It is for the other Shiite clerics working outside the radius of Hezbollah. The message is that anyone who is against Hezbollah is a collaborator.”

Last week I met with Reda, a 27-year-old who as family spokesman has taken on more than he ever might have expected—not only working to secure his father’s release but also facing down Hezbollah.

“When they came to show us my father’s so-called confession,” Reda says, “we hadn’t seen him or heard from him in nine months.” The elder members of the Mchaymech clan, a large family in the southern town of Kfar Seer, had gathered to meet with Hezbollah officials. “The Hezbollah people put on a CD of my father confessing,” says Reda. “He wasn’t the same man. He had lost 20 kilos, and was nodding like he was drugged or something. There were subtitles because his voice was inaudible. I said, there might be some people around this table willing to believe this, but not me.”

Two decades ago, Hassan Mchay-mech was a central figure in Hezbollah’s power structure. As first assistant to the party’s original secretary general, Sobhi Tufayli, Mchay-mech was responsible for the organization’s clerics. When Tufayli left the party in 1992, replaced first by Abbas Mussawi and then, after his assassination, Hassan Nasrallah, Mchaymech’s time with Hezbollah was running out.

“My father said that Nasrallah came straight from Iran to run Hezbollah,” says Reda. “Tufayli could take positions different from the Hezbollah security apparatus, but not Nasrallah. He can’t make decisions independent of Iran.”

In 1998, Nasrallah and the now freelance Tufayli butted heads, and Nasrallah was angry that Mchaymech seemed to side with his rival. “Nasrallah’s deputy summoned my father,” says Reda. The party was also concerned that Mchaymech no longer believed in Hezbollah’s foundational concept, wilayet al-faqih, or guardianship of the jurist.

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