Across the Bay

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Patrick Haenni on Hezbollah

Patrick Haenni, who authored the recent ICG report on Hezbollah, which I posted on here, recently spoke to NOW Lebanon. The interview is quite interesting and is recommended reading, as it debunks many of the myths about Hezbollah currently in vogue. Although I should state that there are a few places where I strongly disagree with Haenni, especially in his recommendations, some of which I think are paradoxical, inapplicable and ultimately disastrous.

At one point, Haenni raises an issue near and dear to my heart, that of the infamous "Toilet Paper" agreement with Aoun. Haenni notices the obvious, that the worthless MoU is interpreted in two diametrically opposed ways by Aoun and Hezbollah! In fact, the text of the MoU is quite clearly more advantageous to Hezbollah, and this is precisely how they're selling it. Haenni remarks:

Hezbollah can no longer recruit the Sunnis at the same level as its main-stream competitors. Basically they lost influence.

What is left is the Christians and Michael Aoun. The relationship works and it is pretty strong. Very strangely, it works very well for Hezbollah because… Aoun is showing the agreement [they made] to the foreigners and saying this is the political process that is going to realize UN Resolution 1559. Hezbollah, at the same time, is saying to their people, “look we have these Christians that are ready to give legitimacy to our weapons because [the agreement] states that the Lebanese have the right to defend themselves.” For Aoun, this is a very weak statement. He was very supportive during the war last year at the political and social level, and he got nothing in return. Where is the political process [that will] develop UN Resolution 1559? Basically, there is none. So you still have this pending relation with the Christians, but it is very tricky for Hezbollah now because it puts them in a contradiction. They have to be supportive of Aoun; they desperately need him because if they lost him they would be a purely Shia force, and they cannot accept that. At the same time, they say they want a consensual president because they think in terms of consensus... The argument for consensus can always give to the minority the possibility to block the majority, which is crucial for Hezbollah now that they have lost their foreign cover since the withdrawal of the Syrians.

This brings us to [internal] politics. In [2005], Hezbollah realized that they had [to be internally involved to a greater extent], but the issue was still to secure their weapons. However, with things going on on the ground -- especially the military situation -- it is more than that. Hezbollah has a real interest in making the state part of its global project. (Emphasis mine.)

The last bit is of great importance. As Haenni states later (for those who still think, to quote one especially ludicrous ME Studies professor, that Hezbollah is a "democratic force"), Hezbollah "need[s] the state, and [it] cannot wait until the elections, so [it] will go through street politics." I.e., mob thuggery. Hezbollah has clearly failed the democratic test (in fact, they've done everything to deface it in Lebanon), if there were ever any doubt.

This raises another issue I've talked about often, and that is that all these so-called non-state actors actually need state structures to leach off of. (But in Hezbollah's case, it's important to prevent the state from being strong and effective. That's why, contrary to the idiotic myths, Hezbollah is against any reform. Instead it seeks to be able to sabotage the state so as to be able to guide it to suit its agenda. As such, Hezbollah, as we know it, and a normal Lebanese state are two mutually exclusive projects).

This is also precisely why Hezbollah is actively seeking to reinstate the Syrian-controlled status quo, as it cannot impose its writ without it. As such, foreign policy luminaries should once and for all realize that contrary to the idiotic common wisdom (and the propaganda of the Syrian regime and its agents of influence), giving Syria a free hand in Lebanon will not be a limiting factor on Hezbollah. It's the exact opposite. That theory, stupidly endorsed by the Israelis in the 90s, has long been finished (since the mid-80s in fact), if it ever were a reality (in fact, the entire premise was wrong).

It is the Syria-free Lebanon that is proving problematic for Hezbollah to coexist with. As Ghassan Tueni wrote in his editorial on Monday, "it is impossible for the black turbans, who abide by the fatwas of the rule of the jurisprudent (تستفتي الفقيه ولاية), to rule Lebanon." They cannot tip the balance, and that's why they domestically use Aoun, but regionally, need to reinstate the Syrian order and eliminate all international resolutions including the international tribunal.

Of course, this means increased tensions with the rest of the country, who will not stand by and let that happen. And so Hezbollah's options are narrowing fast. The raison d'être of the "resistance" is finished, and it's clear that the rest of the country thinks so. The problem of course is that they continue to push towards the abyss, overestimating their power, not understanding their limits, and continuing to ignore and underestimate, to use Haenni's term, the other local forces, and not realizing that the culture of intimidation that the Syrians helped them establish is gone.

In the end, as Tueni put it, Hezbollah must understand that "any civil war it would embark on, would be impossible to win."