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    Middle East
     Apr 5, 2011

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Arab revolts hand it to Hezbollah
By Chris Zambelis

As the surge of revolutionary fervor that has taken the greater Middle East by storm continues to spread, many observers are grappling with the political uncertainties the tumult has produced from Morocco to the Persian Gulf and beyond.

The popular uprisings that prompted the ouster of the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and threaten the panoply of authoritarian despots clinging to power in other countries have already had a profound effect on regional politics. Despite their highly fluid nature, it is not too early to assess the impact of these events on the position of prominent actors such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.

The movement's place amid the unfolding unrest bears special

relevance, considering the open hostility that has characterized its relations with the recently toppled Hosni Mubarak regime and other governments threatened by the wave of protest. The popularity Hezbollah enjoys among a large segment of the very same people who have taken to the streets to demand political freedoms, rule of law, representative government and economic opportunities adds another dynamic worth closer examination.

Solidarity in resistance
Having weathered the massive Israeli assault during the July 2006 war and deftly outmaneuvering attempts by political opponents to undermine its position and blame it for the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, Hezbollah's stock as a political party, social movement and paramilitary force in Lebanese and regional affairs continues to rise.

In characteristic fashion, Hezbollah has not been coy about articulating its positions on the uprisings that have shaken the foundations of power in the Middle East in various media outlets, particularly its own Beirut-based al-Manar satellite television network. [1]

Initially, however, Hezbollah adopted a cautious approach to the opposition activism that engulfed Tunisia and Egypt. Hezbollah was concerned that a show of support for the protests early on would tarnish their legitimacy and lend credence to allegations repeated by the embattled regimes that the protesters were acting at the behest of hostile foreign elements aiming to destabilize the region.

Hezbollah essentially opted to refrain from issuing an endorsement of the protests until the popular grassroots character of the rebellions entered into the discourse of global media coverage and analysis. Hezbollah's secretary general Hassan Nasrallah encapsulated this point in a statement broadcast during a February 7 event in Beirut organized to support the opposition in Egypt: "In case we announced solidarity earlier, they would have said that the revolution was motivated by Hezbollah or Hamas cells or even by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Then, this real, original and patriotic movement would be accused of serving a foreign agenda".

Hezbollah has since expressed solidarity with what it sees as the assertion of the true will of the Arab and Muslim masses who strive for social, political, and economic justice in the face of illegitimate and corrupt autocracies that it claims are beholden to the United States and Israel.

In this regard, Hezbollah has framed the political activism taking place in the region through a larger resistance narrative analogous to the one it applies to its own circumstances, a theme echoed by Nasrallah in remarks directed at the Egyptian opposition: "Our belief says that what you're doing is very great and one of the very important turning points in the history of this nation and region. Your move and victory will change the whole face of our region to the interest of its peoples in general and especially Palestine."

The fall of the Mubarak regime, a long-time enemy of the group, has had special resonance for Hezbollah. In spite of its Shi'ite character, Hezbollah is very popular in predominantly Sunni Egypt for its resistance against Israel and support for the Palestinian cause, as demonstrated by the protests in Egypt and the Sunni-led Arab world in support of Hezbollah during the July 2006 war and the heroic status Nasrallah has enjoyed since.

Amid the chaos that accompanied Mubarak's ouster, Hezbollah managed under murky circumstances to free Muhammad Yusuf Mansour (aka Sami Shehab), a member of the group serving time in an Egyptian prison. Egyptian authorities convicted Mansour along with a host of others on espionage, weapons, and terrorism-related charges in 2010.

Egyptian authorities claimed, among other things, that Mansour was planning attacks on Egyptian soil. While Nasrallah acknowledged Mansour's membership in Hezbollah, he denied that his activities threatened Egypt; instead, Mansour was leading an effort to support the Palestinians in Gaza.

In a masterstroke of political theater that has become a signature of Hezbollah, Mansour appeared in person during the group's annual February 16 commemoration of its deceased leaders in the Dahiyeh, the southern suburbs of Beirut where Hezbollah enjoys tremendous support.

Speaking to jubilant crowds though a video feed broadcast on a large screen television, Nasrallah thanked Egyptians for freeing Mansour and highlighted the fact that the Mubarak's decision to step down on February 11 coincided with the anniversary of the 1979 victory of the Iranian revolution.

Expanding on his observations of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, Nasrallah's televised March 19 speech addressed the wider unrest experienced in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen: "Our gathering today is to voice our support for our Arab people and their revolutions and sacrifices, especially in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. The value of this solidarity is moral, political, and ethical ... A great victory was achieved in Egypt and Tunisia. Libya entered civil war, and in Bahrain and Yemen the regimes put their own peoples on the brink of civil war."

Nasrallah singled out Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi over the disappearance of Imam Musa Sadr, the Iranian-born founder of the Afwaj al-Muqawama al-Lubnaniya (AMAL - Lebanese Resistance Detachments) movement and a major figure among Shi'ite in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.

Sadr is credited with helping galvanize Lebanon's Shi'ite community to assert themselves in Lebanese politics and society. Sadr went missing under mysterious circumstances along with two others during a visit to Tripoli in 1978 and is widely believed to have been executed by Libya. However, some claim that he is still being held in captivity, a view repeated by Nasrallah amid the current conflict in Libya: "We are looking forward to the day when Sadr can be liberated from this dictatorial tyrant."

Events in Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, have also not been lost on Hezbollah, especially the sectarian dynamics underlying the unrest, where a US and Saudi-backed Sunni monarchy led by King Hamad Ibn Issa al-Khalifa rules over a majority Shi'ite population that is largely underserved and faces widespread discrimination in daily life. 

Continued 1 2  

Water crisis floats Syrian unrest
(Mar 30, '11)

The missing - or recovered - imam 
(Mar 1, '11)

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(Apr 1-3, 2011)


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