The Middle East taught me pessimism. Much of the region goes in circles instead of progressing, and I’ve seen one country after another circle the drain.
Optimism is very American. It’s not exclusively American, and of course we have our own setbacks and failures, but things have generally trended toward the better in American life since the nation was founded.
The Middle East, though, teaches another way of looking at history’s trajectory. My own naïve optimism was dashed on the rocks in Lebanon and Iraq and hasn’t recovered. I never even bothered with optimism in Egypt. There’s nothing there to be optimistic about.
And I rarely meet anybody who actually lives over there who isn’t a pessimist. Expecting the best while everyone around you is expecting the worst is a difficult thing to pull off. It probably isn’t advisable even to try.
But I’m finding a bit of homegrown optimism in some quarters of Lebanon now, despite the fact that the economy is on its back and the Syrian war threatens to blow the country to pieces again, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t report it. The place has a serious case of the jitters and everyone knows this summer will be the third bad one in a row, but the medium and long term might be a little bit better, at least for some.
Though not for Hezbollah. No, the medium and long term for Hezbollah looks bleaker than ever. That crowd still refuses to speak to me, but I did sit down and talk to three dissident members of Lebanon’s Shia community from which Hezbollah draws its support. They all think the so-called Party of God has begun its long journey downward.
“I’m optimistic,” said Nadim Koteich, whose political talk show on Future TV is one of the top-rated in the country.
“Really?” I said. “Can you explain that? Because I don’t meet many like you over here.”
“We’re approaching a turning point,” he said. “The problem for an organization like Hezbollah is that when it reaches the height of its power, it has no future. It’s all downhill from the top.”
The height of Hezbollah’s power—or its support, anyway—came on May 25 in the year 2000 when Israel withdrew its armed forces from South Lebanon, which it had occupied since the middle of Lebanon’s civil war in 1982. The Israelis invaded to demolish Yasser Arafat’s state-within-a-state along the border, which the Palestine Liberation Organization used to stage terrorist attacks against Israel, and the Israelis stayed there to ensure another group didn’t rise up in the PLO’s place.
It didn’t work out. Drunk on ambition and power, the revolutionary Islamic Republic regime in Iran, still fresh and new at the time, exported itself to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and the Israeli border area where a historically disenfranchised people had long been awaiting a savior.
Lebanon’s Shia population initially hailed the invading Israelis as liberators from Palestinian (Sunni) perfidy, but the Israelis were no match for the Shia’s co-religionists in Iran, who exported not only guns, money, and power, but also ideology. Anti-Sunnism was replaced—or, supplemented—with anti-Zionism. Iran’s new guerrilla and terrorist proxy Hezbollah used the increasingly hated Israeli occupation to rally the locals around them, and the Israelis fought Hezbollah in a slow-motion counterinsurgency for eighteen long years.
“In the late 1990s,” Koteich said, “Hezbollah actually said they were worried about what would happen if the Israelis left Lebanon. Because then what would they do?”
The Israelis did finally leave in 2000. Even Lebanese citizens who were not Shias—indeed, some of whom were not even Muslims—said Hezbollah’s resistance was justified and even heroic. But most Lebanese expected and wanted the militia to disarm since the war was over. It didn’t.
“Let me tell you a joke about Yemen,” Koteich said. “The country, as you know, is backward and poor, so the advisor to the president comes up with the idea to declare war on the United States. The president tells the advisor he’s nuts. The advisor says Japan declared war on the United States and was rebuilt from scratch. The president says, okay, so your idea is we declare war on America, we lose, and then the U.S. rebuilds the country? The advisor says, yes, Mr. President, that’s it exactly. The president says, okay, but what if we win?”
That’s the position Hezbollah found itself in after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. What was the Party of God supposed to do now? What’s a “resistance” for if there’s nothing left to resist?
“Winning is losing,” Koteich said and smiled. “Hezbollah belongs to the past. They insist their future is based on their past, which is their resistance and weapons. They need to reinvent themselves. They aren’t fighting Israel anymore, so instead they’re going head to head with this Salafist Sheikh Assir in Sidon over two or three apartments. It’s ridiculous.”
Sheikh Assir is a championship lunatic in the predominantly Sunni city of Sidon south of Beirut. He looks like Osama bin Laden and more or less shares the dead terrorist’s worldview. (Al Qaeda is the terrorist wing of the Salafist movement.) But the number of Lebanese Sunnis who share Assir’s and bin Laden’s view of the world is microscopic. Salafists are less relevant in Lebanese politics than even the communists. I don’t worry about them at all when I go there. In Egypt, yes, and in Tunisia to a much lesser extent, but not in Lebanon. I don’t think I’ve even seen three of them in the eight years I’ve been working there on and off. I certainly didn’t see any when I lived there, and my apartment was in a Sunni neighborhood. But Hezbollah needs someone to fight, and now they have this guy. Hezbollah, though, isn’t “resisting” the Salafists. They’re just making noise.
“Hezbollah can’t imagine a role for the Shia aside from being the ‘resistance’ of Lebanon,” Koteich said, “but it’s over. There’s nothing left to resist. They’re like communist parties in the former Soviet Union. They have their prisons, they have their bread, they have their hospitals, and that’s it.”
They’re under extraordinary pressure now and afraid of getting into another internal conflict. “Their invasion of Beirut in May of 2008 cost them so much,” he said. “They lost credibility. They’re not fighting Israel anymore. They’re just a militia that shoves the country around like bullies in high school. Sure, they can hit people and push them, but nobody likes them. If you’re a bully you can date the most beautiful girl on the campus, but you’re a sonofabitch and she’s a bitch, so who cares?”
The Shia have been in Lebanon for a thousand years, but Hezbollah has only existed since 1982. It wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the Islamic Republic regime in Iran, for Hezbollah is little more than the overseas branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Hezbollah also wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Assad regime next door in Syria. Damascus brokered the Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war, and part of that agreement required the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, including Hezbollah. Syria oversaw that disarmament. Hezbollah, however, didn’t hand over its weapons. The Syrian regime wanted Hezbollah to stick around because it’s useful against Israel and Beirut. If the Assad family had wanted Hezbollah gone in 1990, Hezbollah would have been gone.
So if Assad falls in Syria, how will it affect Hezbollah?
“It will be huge,” Koteich said. “For decades they’ve had this powerful state behind them, along with a corridor for weapons coming out of Iran. They’ve had this enormous machine and all its tools at their back, and it will be a tremendous blow when they lose it.”
The mood in the Shia community now is a mixture of fear and righteousness. Hezbollah is better than anyone in Lebanon at ginning up paranoia and fear, partly because Hezbollah itself is by far the most paranoid party in Lebanon. “They’re saying the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood are going to take over. Extremists Sunnis in Lebanon are like two or three percent, but the Shia here are afraid. They’re afraid that when Assad falls, the Nusra front will take over Syria.”
That’s an actual possibility, even if it’s remote. The only reason the Nusra front (which is the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda) has any support right now is because it’s fighting Assad. Everyone knows the secular movements in Syria (not to mention the Alawites, the Christians, the Druze, and the Kurds) will all resist Nusra once the regime is toppled. But it’s nevertheless a possibility. The most ruthless often prevail after regime-change. The Muslim Brotherhood took over Egypt, and it did so there with the consent of the governed.
But the Salafists are not going to take over Lebanon. Ninety percent of Lebanon’s Sunnis support Saad Hariri’s Future Movement party, which is liberal and capitalist.
“Who do Lebanon’s Shia fear most?” I asked Koteich. “The Sunnis or the Israelis?”
He ought to know. He’s a Shia himself. He’s not a Hezbollah supporter—not by a long shot—but he’s a Shia and he know what moves them for better or worse.
“The Sunnis, of course,” he said. “They have always feared Sunnis more than Israelis.”
So what does Hezbollah want in the year 2013, aside from preserving its interests in Syria? I asked Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of the online magazine NOW Lebanon. She grew up in South Lebanon, her family is Shia, but today she lives in Beirut.
“The question,” she said, “is not what Hezbollah wants. The question is what Iran wants. Iran wants Hezbollah to stay strong in Lebanon because they can use it for some regional influence and control. Without Hezbollah, they’ll lose a lot. They’re losing the Syrian regime. They’re doing everything they can, but they know Assad is going to fall eventually. So Hezbollah is in Syria to make sure that when the government falls they will have an enclave in Syria protected by the Alawites and the Iranians so they can maintain the logistical routes for their weapons. They need to keep the city of Homs because without it they’ll lose the link. So they aren’t over there helping Assad survive, they’re over there preserving their rat line.”
She insists Hezbollah does not want an Islamic state in Lebanon. “They don’t care about that,” she said. “They couldn’t get it even if they wanted it.”
I find that hard to believe, but I should point out a few things. The parts of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah aren’t ruled by Islamic law even today. Unlike in Iran, for instance, women can wear whatever they want. Bloodletting during Ashura is banned because it’s “barbaric.” Alcohol consumption and pre-marital sex are rampant. The Hezbollah regions function like a total surveillance security state in some ways, but they don’t function like a theocracy. The security regime they’ve installed has nothing to do with the mosque and everything to do with preserving their own power and weapons.
Deep down I’m sure they would prefer a Shia theocracy like they have in Iran. I know they do, actually. This isn’t a guess. But it’s impossible in Lebanon. The Shia are a minority. So are the Sunnis. So are the Christians. Everybody in Lebanon is a minority. Theocratic Shias are a minority within their own community, even among “resistance” supporters.
And it’s impossible for even the strongest factions to rule over others, which is why not even Hezbollah attempts it. This is obvious when you’re in Lebanon. Take a drive from East Beirut up to the southern fringes of Tripoli.
You’ll pass through an enormous skyscrapering Christian entity that looks a little like Hong Kong at night. Then drive up into the mountains. That area is also almost entirely Christian, and thanks to the terrain it’s all but unconquerable.
It has been this way for two thousand years. Everybody is armed, and everybody will fight to the death to preserve their freedom to live as they please. These are the reasons why Lebanon, unlike other Middle East countries, still has so many Christians—until very recently an outright Christian majority.
Forcing those people to live in a Shia theocracy would be as difficult, if not more difficult, than pulling the same job in Texas. Theoretically the Sunnis of Lebanon would be easier to conquer, but they have the entire rest of the Arab world at their back.
“What they want,” Ghaddar said, “is political control over state institutions. And the reason they want control over state institutions is so they can control Lebanon’s foreign policy. They can use the state institutions to make sure no one gets close to their arms. They’d rather do this through elections, but they had to use their weapons to turn the election results around because they didn’t win. What they did in 2008 was a coup, basically.”
But what do the people of South Lebanon want? Most of them support Hezbollah to an extent, but they didn’t create Hezbollah, nor does it answer to them. The party takes its orders from Tehran.
“Let me put it to you this way,” she said. “The highest consumption of alcohol in Lebanon outside Beirut is in the south. This image that they’re really conservative and religious is nonsense. The amount of alcohol consumed in the dahiyeh is unbelievable. They drink huge amounts of whiskey, arak, and wine.”
Young people, she says, want to leave the country. Pretty much all of them. She didn’t leave Lebanon, but she did leave the south and moved to Beirut. There’s nothing for her in the south.
“They want a better lifestyle,” she said, “and they want security. The better lifestyle is not there, and neither is security. They think Hezbollah provides them with security, but recently they’ve started to question that. Because what Hezbollah is doing now is no longer resistance. They had their ‘divine victory’ in 2006, but the truth is they didn’t survive that. They won morally insofar as they were perceived as the heroes, but they suffered terrible losses. It’s finished. And that’s why they called it a ‘divine victory.’ They can’t have a super divine victory next, following by a super-duper divine victory. That was it.”
Now they’re fighting in Syria. I seriously doubt Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah ever thought he’d be fighting in Syria, but that’s what he’s doing. And Ghaddar says many Lebanese Shia are furious at him because of it.
“Hezbollah is dragging Lebanon into the sectarian war in Syria and dragging the Shia into another war they don’t want. Resisting Israel is one thing, but fighting the region’s Sunnis is something else.”
It’s a fight they can’t win. There are fewer than two million Sunnis in Lebanon, but there are twenty million people in Syria. And most of those people are Sunnis. Hezbollah has a fighting force of only five thousand.
Tripoli, Lebanon — Sunni area
“I talked to someone last week who is close to Hezbollah officials,” she said. “This guy has been pro-resistance for sure, but he’s not happy with what’s going on now. He told me that a lot of Hezbollah officers are refusing to follow orders when they’re told to go to Syria. This never happened before. Ever. For them, this isn’t resistance. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not what they signed up for. There’s nothing left for Hezbollah to resist. Israel isn’t here. Now they’re doing operations in Bulgaria and Cyprus. That’s also not resistance. So what are they doing? Money laundering. Drug trafficking. Corruption like crazy everywhere. People in the south see it more than we do.”
Part of Hezbollah’s support used to come from the fact that they were perceived as not being corrupt, but that’s over now, too.
“Even my family members who are big Hezbollah supporters are talking about the corruption,” she said. “One of my relatives told me she hates them now. And she has always been a huge resistance supporter.”
A large number of Lebanon’s Shia may not like Hezbollah so much anymore, but the support is still there because they feel like they don’t have any choice. They are afraid. Every sect felt this way during the civil war, when even people who are natural cosmopolitan pacifists supported one of “their own” sectarian militias because they were afraid of the others. It would happen to you, too, if you lived in an environment with a weak and dysfunctional state that can’t provide security while your neighbors are trying to kill you.
“They don’t think Hezbollah is the answer anymore,” she said, “but what they see everywhere in Lebanon outside the south are people who want to eat them alive.”
What’s the United States supposed to do about this? There’s hardly anything the United States can or should do in Lebanon aside from back our friends diplomatically and sit back and watch, but Lokman Slim, Lebanon’s most famous liberal Shia activist, has a suggestion. He’s not at all likely to get his wish any time soon, but he has a suggestion.
“Washington needs a Shia policy,” he said.
A Shia policy? What does that mean?
“You can either neglect us,” he said, “which promotes the most radical among us, or you can take us seriously. And you have to realize that within the Arab world, whether you like it or not, the agents of change are Shias. In Bahrain, they are Shias. In Lebanon, for better or for worse, they are Shias. In Syria, you have to realize that the Alawites represent diversity. I hate Bashar al-Assad, but I’ll defend the Alawites. In Syria, the Alawites are part of what I’m describing as the Shia.”
The Alawites—Bashar al-Assad’s minority sect—are not actually Shias, not really. Washington thinks they are, but that’s because back in the 1970s the Lebanese cleric Musa Sadr issued a fatwa declaring them Shias. For a thousand years before that, no one thought of the Alawites as Shias or even Muslims. What they are is a secretive and closed heterodox minority that fuses Christianity, Gnosticism, and Twelver Shia Islam together into something else entirely. Muslims have always considered them infidels.
“I’m expanding the term Shia to include anyone who isn’t an orthodox Sunni,” Slim said. “What I’m referring to here are the minorities. And this is a condition for the survival of a Jewish state. Israel can’t survive on its own if it isn’t integrated into a big diverse colorful picture. This doesn’t mean I want to see Shia states. I want to see diversity become the rule of the game. First we are human beings. Only then do we have these complicated layers of identities. We need to promote a patchwork of identities.”
For all of the 20th century, and to a lesser extent so far in the 21st, Washington has thought of and treated the Middle East as a monolithic bloc of conservative Sunni Arabs. That’s because the U.S. discovered the Middle East in the Persian Gulf region thanks to the oil, and because Washington formed its most stable (though dubious) alliances there. It’s also where the American military is based in the region.
But the Gulf is the Gulf. The Eastern Mediterranean and North African parts of the Arab world are radically, drastically, different. The three disparate regions may as well be on different planets. The Levant—the Eastern Mediterranean—is mind-bogglingly diverse. It is much more culturally modern. And it’s a lot more fractious and prone to armed conflict.
The Shia are a minority in Lebanon, making up only a third or so of the population. They’re an even smaller minority region-wide, and a smaller minority still in the wider world of Islam. The overwhelming majority of Muslims on earth are Sunnis. The Shia have been historically disenfranchised pretty much everywhere in the world outside Iran. The only people on earth reaching out to the Shia of Lebanon are the Iranians. That’s what Lokman Slim wants to change. Before, they were neglected by Lebanon’s Sunnis, Christians, and Druze. They were neglected by the West and by the Israelis. They were neglected even by the Shah’s regime in Iran. Nobody paid them the slightest bit of respect or attention until the Iranian Revolution installed Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Shia of Iraq have a similar complex. “You discovered Iraq in 2003,” Slim said, “so you don’t know that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used to serve tea here at Sayyed Fadlallah’s mansion. He has had only two ties in his whole life and he used to serve tea to Fadlallah in Lebanon. Now he’s prime minister, but you should ask him where he spent his dark years. I don’t like him, but you should understand where he comes from and what he fears.”
Like all the world’s Shia, Maliki fears the Sunnis, the ancient oppressor and foe.
“The Saudis,” Slim said, “are the biggest idiots, but the West never made an effort to get to know the others, the Shia, the Kurds, the Alawites. Re-read the speech Condoleezza Rice made in Cairo in 2006. She said that for sixty years the U.S. relied on allies to provide security in the region, but the region didn’t get security and didn’t get democracy. John Kerry and Barack Obama need to understand that this region is fed up, but Obama can do whatever he wants. He’ll only stay for a couple of years. Our civil wars will remain.”
He mentioned a hypothetical Shia woman in South Lebanon who runs a shop and would like to expand her business. She isn’t interested in theocracy or “resistance.” She wants to expand her business and live something that at least approximates normal life.
“What does she think about Bashar al-Assad?” I said. Assad takes Lebanon’s Shia seriously, or pretends to, at any rate. He provides joint support with Iran for Hezbollah, at least.
“She hates Sunnis,” he said. “She doesn’t think anything about Bashar. She hates and fears the guys of Al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra.”
“As well she should,” I said.
“As well she should,” he said. “She sells whiskey and arak. And the guys from al-Nusra and Al Qaeda are suicide bombers. You can’t do politics with them. You can’t start a project with suicidal people if it won’t be finished until 2015. The rest of us don’t want to go to heaven. We want to create heaven on earth.”
I have no idea, really, how many people he’s speaking for here. The Shia of Lebanon did not elect him as their spokesman. He’s a dissident within the community, an ideological minority. But he’s also a part of that community. He shares their culture and frames of reference if not their politics.
“If you don’t talk to us,” he said, “we will become more stubborn, but if you open up we can finally become who we really are.”
Saifi, Central Beirut
“Hezbollah won’t talk to us,” I said.
It’s actually against the law for anyone in the United States government to talk to Hezbollah, but even if that weren’t the case, Hezbollah still wouldn’t talk to us. I don’t work for the government and never have, but Hezbollah won’t talk to me either.
“Forget Hezbollah,” he said. “It is just a component of Iran’s imperial system. Hezbollah can go to hell.”
“So who in Lebanon’s Shia community are we supposed to talk to?” I said.
“Washington knows everybody,” he said, “but there is no policy. When there is a decision to call a carrot a carrot, Washington will get everything it needs from our community.”
“That could take a while,” I said.
“That’s okay,” he said and comfortably leaned back in his chair. “We will still be sitting here drinking ourarak and will be ready when they are.”
Slim doesn’t only oppose Hezbollah’s’ ideology of “resistance.” He also opposes its radical Islam, root and branch, as do most Lebanese and even a sizeable percentage of “resistance” supporters. But other parts of the Middle East swoon to radical Islam. An outright majority of Egyptians do to one extent or another. Even a sizeable minority in Tunisia voted for the allegedly “moderate” (but not really) Islamist Ennahda. The region may have to pass through a turbulent era of Islamist ascendancy before crashing and burning and getting it out of its system. Even Lebanon, where radical Islam enjoys less support, has suffered greatly because of it.
“We need to live through this difficult period,” Slim said, “and we need you to help us get through it as quickly as possible. The camel passes, but the desert remains. Help Islam fade. Help Islam become just an identity. Help Islam rest in peace calmly.”