Hezbollah's Penance: The Shiite Militia Works to Rebuild its Tarnished Image
4:00 PM, Mar 5, 2010 • By DAVID SCHENKER
One article in the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily Al-Akbar, written by the paper’s editor Ibrahim al Amin shortly after the scandal broke, provides a good picture of the sentiment of Hezbollah’s base. Al Amin accused the organization of going soft after decades of hardship and of starting to live the good life corrupted by “greed.” This cultured lifestyle, he wrote, was “in opposition to the principle of sacrifice” that once was the hallmark of the resistance. Ending with a flourish, al Amin cited the famed Israeli Ministry of Defense advisor on Lebanon, Uri Lubrani, who long ago said that Israel would only defeat Hezbollah “when it became infected with the virus of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon, in other words, when it alters its appearance and becomes bourgeoisie.”
It’s less clear how this scandal and other Hezbollah missteps are impacting the organization’s standing throughout the Arab world. While much of the regional polling is unreliable, it does reveal some trends. Pew polls taken in 2007 and 2009 indicate consistently high levels of Shiite confidence in Nasrallah, reaching 97 percent in 2009. During this same two year period, however, Sunni Muslim confidence in Seyyid Hasan dropped from an already low 9 percent to 2 percent. (The same 2009 poll showed a decline from 2007 in favorable views of the organization among Egyptians, Jordanians, and Palestinians). Other polls of Arabs also suggest a decline in support. According to polls conducted by Zogby International, in 2008 Nasrallah was the top vote-getter (at 27 percent) when Arabs were asked about their most admired foreign leader. In 2009—even prior to the Ezzedin affair—he only received 11 percent.
Although difficult to prove, both based on the public opinion polling and anecdotal evidence, it appears that the last two years have undercut some of Hezbollah’s hard-won currency in the region. Of course, public opinion is fickle, and there is little doubt that the militia’s popularity would increase if another round of fighting erupted between the organization and Israel. During the summer war of 2006, for example, over a 33-day period, Hezbollah’s al-Manar satellite station viewership soared from 38 in the rankings into the top ten.
Still, recent actions by Hezbollah suggest that the organization is concerned with its image in Lebanon and the Arab world. In November, two months after the scandal broke, for example, Nasrallah changed the topic and published a new Hezbollah “manifesto,” updating the 1985 charter. Like the previous document, the 2009 manifesto spelled out its enmity toward Israel and the United States. At the same time, though, the new charter sought to appeal to a broader Sunni audience by downplaying the organization’s historic allegiance to the clerical leadership in Tehran. Likewise, rather than urging Lebanese Christians to convert—“We call upon you to embrace Islam” read the 1985 manifesto—in 2009, Hezbollah adopted more conciliatory language toward its fellow countrymen.
Likewise, in December, to counter the growing impression of Hezbollah corruption, Nasrallah gave a speech promoting (of all things) adherence to Lebanese laws, including respecting traffic signals, paying for—and not stealing—Government water and electricity, abiding by building laws and civil codes, ending smuggling that undercuts Lebanese businesses, and emphasizing the importance of civil servants showing up for their jobs and actually performing their duties.
This past February, the resistance really put the spin machine into full gear. First, in a speech during “Martyred Leaders Week,” Nasrallah—in an obvious bid to regain his standing with the Arab street—pledged that during the next war with Israel, Hezbollah would go toe-to-toe with Israel, threatening to “bomb Ben Gurion airport,” if the Jewish state targeted Beirut International.
Then, following the martyrs speech, Hezbollah’s website published a bizarre interview with Lebanese “economists” claiming that by establishing a credible deterrent threat, the Shiite militia had actually “improved [the] economic situation in Lebanon,” particularly the performance of the Beirut Stock Exchange. Not coincidentally, at about the same time, Al-Akbar publicized a poll by the pro-Hezbollah Beirut Center for Research and Information, indicating that 84 percent of Lebanese “trust the resistances’ capabilities facing any Israeli attack.”