Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 August 2006
Issue No. 807
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

A state like no other

Hizbullah has given pride to the Arab world, as has Lebanese society as a whole, writes Hassan Nafaa*

The Lebanese crisis is multi-faceted. Part of the crisis is related to the structure of the Lebanese society and state. Another part is related to bickering that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri. The assassination set off an acrimonious dynamic that culminated in the Israeli- US offensive on Lebanon, the aim of which was to liquidate Hizbullah.

Al-Hariri's assassination damaged the state and society of Lebanon in a manner reminiscent of many sad episodes in that country's history. Paradoxically, the recent Israeli-US aggression has united the Lebanese in a way that surprised many of us. Lebanon, once again, proved to be a paradox, a place where a fragile state coexists with a strong society. The Lebanese state is so fragile it seems about to disintegrate at anytime. And yet Lebanese society is so strong it manages to survive against all odds.

Countries that need to maintain a delicate sectarian balance are weak by definition. But Lebanese society remains vibrant and mature. Whenever the state fails to perform one of its tasks, civil society steps in to fill the void. The trouble is that the agendas of various civil society groups diverge from that of the state. Hizbullah couldn't have achieved prominence without acting on behalf of the state. And it couldn't have done so in the absence of a supporting societal environment, even from people who differ in their views. Hizbullah stepped in when the state proved incapable of fighting off Zionist designs in Lebanon.

Hizbullah is a typical Lebanese phenomenon. The party couldn't have grown and prospered except in an environment similar to Lebanon's. To this day, some analysts link the birth of Hizbullah with the Iranian revolution. I find their arguments tentative at best. Lebanon has been, and still is, an arena for power games among regional and non-regional forces. Why, I wonder, has Iran succeeded where others failed? Why has Hizbullah, of all Lebanese parties, focused on resisting Zionist designs in Lebanon?

There is no denying the influence of the Iranian revolution on many of the political elites in Arab and Islamic countries, especially among the Shias. But this influence alone doesn't explain why Hizbullah grew so strong in Lebanon and only there. One may argue that Hizbullah is just a Shia organisation, a sectarian party amid many in Lebanon. But that doesn't answer the question: why has Hizbullah, and only that party, staked its political future on resisting Zionist designs in Lebanon and the region?

Several researchers -- including Amal Saad Ghorayeb in Hizbullah: Religion and Politics -- link Hizbullah's birth to Israel's invasion of South Lebanon in 1982 rather than the Iranian revolution of 1979. I tend to agree. When Israel invaded Lebanon's south, destroyed nearly 80 per cent of its villages, killed nearly 20,000 people, and wounded 30,000 more, the inability of the Lebanese state to repulse the aggression is what radicalised younger generations and made Hizbullah what it is today.

Hizbullah was also formed on the back of Israel's suppression and persecution of the Shia community during its occupation of South Lebanon. The Israelis abolished the Ashura celebrations, a major Shia festival. They assassinated several religious leaders and detained others. Thus, Hizbullah's hatred of Israel doesn't arise from ideological or religious considerations. As consequence, Hizbullah allied itself with all Lebanese groups hostile to Zionist designs, regardless of ideology and creed. Hizbullah is close to Shia Iran, Alawite Syria, and Sunni Palestinian organisations.

Hizbullah gained immense combat expertise in its repeated clashes with the Israeli occupation army, especially in 1993, 1996 and 2000. For the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a resistance group managed to force Israel to withdraw unconditionally from occupied Arab territory. It is true that Israel's withdrawal in 2000 wasn't just a result of Hizbullah's successful guerrilla war, but also of the way all Lebanese, from all sects and political currents, rallied around the resistance. The backing of Syria and Iran helped too. For a while, the international community understood Syria's reasons to maintain presence in Lebanon. But Israel's withdrawal from the south changed all that.

The Israeli withdrawal revived debate over the sovereignty of the Lebanese state. That was when the debate over Hizbullah's weapons restarted. The argument was simple. The resistance had achieved its objective. So Hizbullah was expected to lay down its arms and not become a state within the state. The argument made sense, but only in theory. There is a difference between a state that is powerful enough to protect all of its citizens and a state based on fragile sectarian foundations that have given way in the past. Hizbullah was understandably hesitant to hand over its arms to a state that could not guarantee security against Israel. Following Israel's withdrawal in 2000, everyone was hoping that the Lebanese would iron things out. But developments on the regional and international scene complicated matters further.

The second Camp David conference failed and the Oslo Accords began to founder, which paved the way for Sharon to arise to power. In 2001 the 9/11 attacks gave the US administration an excuse to treat resistance organisations in Palestine and Lebanon as terrorist outfits. Then the US administration invaded and occupied Iraq without an international mandate. These developments led to a shift in domestic alliances in Lebanon. As the Lebanese pondered their options, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, throwing things out of kilter. The assassination of Al-Hariri and the subsequent Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon were all matters that many expected to lead to the disarming of Hizbullah. When it became clear that Hizbullah was not about to be disarmed by peaceful means, Israel and the US made a decision to liquidate Hizbullah militarily, even if Lebanon was to fall apart in the process.

The four-week war in Lebanon is proof that both Israel and Hizbullah were preparing for an inevitable confrontation. But the legendary steadfastness of the resistance in the south reveals a fact that is even more crucial; namely, that the declared aim of the war has nothing to do with the real aim of the war. The declared aim of the war is to enable the Lebanese state to impose its sovereignty over its entire national soil. The real aim of the war is to eradicate the culture of resistance from the mind of Arab nations, just as it has been eradicated from the mind of Arab governments. This is why the war seemed to pit Israel and those who back it (including Arab regimes) against the Arab nations who stood from coast to coast behind Hizbullah, their newly found symbol of resistance.

At some point, the guns will fall silent. At that point, the uneasy relation between Hizbullah and the Lebanese government will come to the surface again. We face a problem that will remain unresolved unless the nature of the state in the Arab world -- not just in Lebanon -- changes. Those who imagine that the current crisis will end with Hizbullah being further incorporated into Lebanese political institutions are mistaken. Hizbullah is not the cause of the crisis in the Lebanese state. That crisis is much older than Hizbullah.

A state that cannot protect its citizenry is not worth its name. A nation-state, as defined in Western political literature, has to provide equality to citizens through an elected government. Using this definition, one has to conclude that Arab states, and not just Lebanon, have not yet become nation-states. So far, Arab states are but a geographical shell. Arab states are places where nations are ruled by a family, a tribe, or non-elected elites. None of these elites derive their legitimacy from the will of their nations. Likewise, Arab nations are composed, for Arab rulers, of subjects not citizens. Until such a day comes when Arab states become nation-states, Arab societies will keep spawning groups and organisations that challenge the status quo.

In the recent confrontation with Israel, we've been treated to opposing images. One is Israel, a military behemoth with no sense of morality. The other is the resistance, which challenges and humiliated that monster. Hizbullah comes out of this confrontation looking more polished than all Arab governments combined. And the Lebanese people come out looking more resourceful than all other Arab societies. One hopes that the imposition of the Lebanese state's sovereignty over its land -- an admirable goal -- will not lead to the demise of the most capable and gifted social institution the Arabs have ever known.

* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

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