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A United Opposition

Hezbollah After the Elections

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Dahiyeh.

While on the surface the pro-US team here did preserve its ‘majority’ the Hezbollah led opposition actually won the election by nearly ten percent of the popular vote. Of approximately 1,495,000 votes cast on June 7, 815,000 voted for the National Lebanese Resistance led by Hezbollah while 680,000 voted for the March 14 government parties.

As Lebanon’s new Prime Minister, Saad Hariri labors to put together a coalition Cabinet, Hezbollah is currently stronger politically in Lebanon than it has ever been. The Party can largely determine the construction of the next Lebanese government and insist on key cabinet posts going to its allies, as it prefers keep a low profile and influence policy through quiet consultation rather than threats and muscle flexing.

As one Hezbollah friend explained, “If Hezbollah has just one member sitting in Parliament, the Majority understands that the whole Resistance is there.  We don’t need to be flashy, rather we need to collaborate and make this new government work. Our supporters are demanding this.”

 Post election popular support for Hezbollah appears to have increased due to its post-election sportsmanlike acceptance of the results and its conduct ad efforts at accommodation with its political adversaries despite ongoing misgivings about the “US Team.”

This stance is illustrated by a Hezbollah joke that is currently bouncing around Dahiyeh, a major Resistance area where there is not massive support for the US March 14 team.

A Hezbollah member writes to Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Leader or Jurisconsult (Wali al Fiqeh) who the party often consults on religious issues and political matters.

“Dear Leader Khomeini, I am a crack dealer in Beirut who has recently been diagnosed as a carrier of the HIV virus. My parents live in the suburb of al Dahiyeh and one of my sisters, who lives in Jounieh, is married to a transvestite. My father and mother have recently been arrested by Hezbollah security for growing and selling marijuana in their small garden and are currently dependent on my other two sisters who are prostitutes in Maameltein.

“I have two brothers. One is currently serving a non-parole life sentence at Roumieh for murder of a teenage boy in 1994. The other brother is currently being held in the Trablos Jail on charges of money laundering and counterfeiting US $100 dollar bills. I have recently become engaged to marry a former Thai prostitute who lives in Jiyeh and, indeed, is still a part-time working girl in a brothel.

“My problem is this: I love my fiancée and look forward to bringing her into the family and of course I want to be totally honest with her.

“Should I tell her about my uncle who voted for 14th of March in Lebanon’s recent election?

“Signed, ‘Worried about my reputation’”

Hezbollah does have a sense of humor and the ability  to poke fun at itself.
Hezbollah got its ally, the Shia Amal leader, Nabih Berri elected to his fifth term as the politically powerful Speaker of Parliament.  Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s Christian ally Michel Aoun also increased his popular vote in the election, picking up more seats for a total of 27. He is demanding 7 cabinet posts (3 more than in the previous government) for his Free Patriotic Movement.

The Opposition did not block Saad Hariri’s appointment as Prime Minister (he received 85 out of 128 deputy votes) but sent a message that it seeks cooperation on decisions that deeply concern the party. Its allies have renewed the call for proportional representation in the new 128 seat Parliament. There are now 13 political blocks and 11 independent Mps, many of whom seek good relations with Hezbollah while curtailing their pre-election complaints about its weapons. One reason is that the Lebanese public, once more eyeing Israeli provocations and  a military buildup along the blue line have come to  agree that until the Lebanese Army is up to the task it makes sense to have a strong deterrence to the Netanyahu government projects.

The post June 7 election opposition appears quite united and ready to reach out to the newly named Lebanon First group (previously known as March 14). Some have suggested that March 8 change its designation to Lebanon Always, but Hezbollah prefers to maintain, at least for now, its loyalty to the Resistance title.

Some Hezbollah operatives have suggested that the opposition will decide on how to approach the new government, which may takes weeks to form, based on perhaps legitimizing Hezbollah’s weapons explicitly. MP Talal Arslan, a  pro-Hezbollah Druze rival of Walid Jumblatt has said the opposition will either participate as a "whole entity" in a future government or  stay out, implying that it will insist on maintaining the Doha agreed  ‘blocking third’.

As for the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, weakened a bit in Lebanese election, but still the strongest Druze ‘Ziam’, he is warming to Hezbollah after feeling ‘let down by the Americans’ this past year.   The other day he spent hours with Hasan Nasrallah and is said to no longer believe Hezbollah’s weapons are a serious domestic problem as he returns to the language of Arabism and Palestinian rights in media interviews. . His staff has indicated he may even co-sponsor legislation for Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees along the lines of the “All rights but Citizenship” formula being circulated by the Sabra Shatila Foundation.  

The new Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s relations with Hezbollah have so far been cordial. He met late last week with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and has not pushed for disarming Hezbollah, and the two issued a statement after the talks declaring that they “agreed on continuing discussion in the current positive, calm atmosphere and stressed the logic of dialogue, co-operation and openness."

Hezbollah’s stance after the Iranian election

The June 12 Iranian election also initially created some joy in Israel.

There had been hope that Israel could more easily make a case for international acceptance of Israeli action to bomb Iran and increase sanctions.  Netanyahu has pressed the point on his trip to Europe this week, trying to persuade countries such as Italy, which are among Iran’s more important trading partners, to reduce their economic ties.
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Eyal Zisser, head of the department of Middle Eastern and African History at TelAviv University has expressed the view that “The Iranian election is a disturbing signal for Syria and Hezbollah. The weaker the regime is, the less it can provide support for Hezbollah."

Hezbollah disagrees. However, whatever long term changes coming to Iran as a result of the election, Party contacts insist they are more evolutionary than revolutionary. They see the recent events as unlikely to weaken Iran militarily or to affect either that country’s support for Palestine, expressly mandated by the Iranian constitution, or its commitment to the Lebanese National Resistance led by Hezbollah.

Party members unanimously express the view that Hezbollah will stay far away from any power struggle between an Ahmaddinejad/Khameni group and a  Mousavi/Rafsangani faction, and some members interviewed recently expect that Iran’s leadership, after perhaps  “some reshuffling of portfolios and accommodations” will come together for the good of its people. They explain that Hezbollah has nothing to do with Iran’s internal affairs and that it does not take sides in internal matters and that the June 12 election was solely an internal Iranian issue.

"What is happening there has nothing to do with our situation," Naim Qassim told the  Beirut media on June 25, 2009. "We have our own Lebanese identity and popularity, and these events don’t concern us,” adding that Hezbollah believes that the situation in Iran will soon return to normal and that the “Islamic republic has succeeded in overcoming this plot from overseas aimed at destabilizing the internal situation,"

Another reason Hezbollah members doubt that the contested Iranian election results  will affect  it or its agenda is that support  for Hezbollah, even Sunni groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad,  is ingrained in Iran’s Constitution and  ideology, which sees the Islamic republic as a counter to Egypt, Jordan and others that have recognized Israel.

On the subject of finances, I was advised that Iran gives Hezbollah much less aid than if usually reported in the Western media but that Iran will not cut its assistance.

Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran started with its birth and has deepened since.  Virtually all the leadership in Iran is said by Hezbollah to have close ties with it.  Iran, and increasingly other countries in the region and beyond, share Hezbollah’s goals and have pledged to maintain its relationship and indeed expand it.

According to Hezbollah, Western, and especially British and American involvement in Iran’s election and internal affairs is now clear.

"The riots and attacks in the streets were orchestrated from the outside in a bid to destabilize the country’s Islamic government,” says Qassim.

While Hezbollah is open to talks with representatives of all Western governments this will not likely include the United States any time soon even though the Party claims several U.S .officials have asked to speak with Hezbollah.

This will likely be Hezbollah’s position until the Obama administration removes it from the US Terrorism list.  According to Qassim:  "It is useless for Hezbollah have any dialogue with the Americans since they regard us as terrorists. The Europeans for their part have a role to play, especially as they are taking a different approach from the Americans.”

Near term, the recent June elections appear unlikely to fundamentally affect Hezbollah, either inside Lebanon’s new government or internationally.

FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and can be reached at fplamb@sabrashatila.com