Hezbollah's Nasrallah walks a tight rope
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Many in the Arab world are puzzled by Hassan Nasrallah's position on
the Arab Spring. The Hezbollah leader in Lebanon showered Egyptian rebels with
praise in January, having personally come short - just a few months earlier -
of calling on them to rise up against president Hosni Mubarak.
Members of Hezbollah after all, were in Egyptian jails, arrested simply for
serving as liaisons with Palestinians in Gaza.
Nasrallah had no sympathy for Mubarak, whom he had always accused of being an
autocrat "closely allied to the US and Israel".
In 2008, he publicly called on Egyptians to bring him down after the aged
Egyptian president shut the Rafah crossing between
Egypt and Palestine during the Israeli war on Gaza.
The same could be said vis-a-vis his position on Libya, where he also had an
old grudge to settle with Muammar Gaddafi. Back in 1978, the colonel had
abducted - and probably liquidated - Nasrallah's mentor and role model, Imam
Mousa al-Sadr, while the latter was on a visit to Tripoli. Prominent Shi'ite
politicians have spent the past 33 years demanding his release, blaming Gaddafi
for his disappearance.
When it came to Bahrain, Nasrallah was even more vocal, calling on young
Bahrainis to topple the regime, fiercely condemning the violence practiced
against demonstrators since February. Those demonstrators, it must be noted,
were fellow Shi'ites like himself rising against Sunni officialdom.
Nasrallah saw the Bahrain revolt as an extension of a centuries-long conflict
between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.
On Yemen, he was also strongly critical of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who
had fought Yemeni Shi'ites, known as al-Houthis, for years. Saleh should learn
lessons from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain, Nasrallah warned, advising him
to step down and face whatever could be salvaged of his reputation and dignity.
On Syria, however, Nasrallah has spoken a very different tone. From where he
sees things, it is understandable and reflects the positions of his allies in
Nasrallah, a strong ally of Damascus for nearly 20 years, has refused to praise
Syrian demonstrators who have been staging protests that have turned very
bloody since March, arguing that Bashar al-Assad's regime - unlike other Arab
ones - does not deserve to fall.
Syria was a strategic ally for Hezbollah, he reminded his audience, adding that
the Syrians had stuck by him through thick and thin for two decades, while most
Arabs looked the other way. It was both improper and unimaginable for him to
side with its enemies today, accusing them of being part of "an international
When meeting Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in mid-October, Nasrallah bluntly told
him that he believed that the Syrian regime would outlive the crisis "and
emerge stronger from it". He said it was a political, moral and religious duty
for him to abide by "those who had supported the resistance in Lebanon, Iraq
Nasrallah, with little doubt, was for more than 10 years the most popular and
celebrated Arab figure in Syria. His speeches, along with Hezbollah anthems,
could be downloaded as cell phone ringtones, whereas his photos were plastered
on car windows and in shops throughout Syrian cities.
His inflammatory speeches would almost always attract a wide audience, often
resulting in empty streets as both young and old gathered in cafes to hear him
speak, promising to "destroy Israel". Most Syrians believed him - simply put -
and saw him as a saintly figure.
While most Arab leaders were living a lavish lifestyle, Nasrallah lived an
aesthetic one, more like a monk than a political party leader. The death of his
eldest son Hadi in 1997 only endeared him to Syrian masses, who watched as the
sons of Arab leaders drove around in expensive cars, ran "successful
businesses" and vacationed in Europe.
The secret of Nasrallah's dramatic success was his ability to confront and
inflict serious pain on the Israelis. That scene is now no longer accurate,
although the Hezbollah leader continues to enjoy an impressive power base among
There are several reasons for Nasrallah's diminishing popularity in Syria.
Contrary to what many people believe, not all are linked to his position
vis-a-vis the disturbances that erupted in March.
Nasrallah lost much of his charm when for security reasons he literally
disappeared from public life in Lebanon, addressing his audience through live
televised speeches rather than the crowd-packed public rallies for which he was
Watching someone on screen is one thing, and seeing him in person connecting to
an audience and enflaming their emotions is something completely different.
His absence created a physical and psychological barrier between him and his
fans, both at home and in neighboring Syria. It also prevented him from
acquiring new fans in the Arab and Muslim world.
Then came Nasrallah's obsession with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)
investigating the 2005 murder of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik
al-Hariri. He famously accused it of being an Israeli project because it
pointed fingers at four members of Hezbollah, naming them earlier this year in
its "bill of indictment".
People respected Nasrallah and cheered him on because they felt he was a
selfless politician who cared more for his cause, regardless of whether they
agreed with it or not, than for party politics. Nasrallah seemed suddenly to
care more about the STL than anything else in Lebanon.
It is one thing to criticize the STL and focus on destroying it, but what
Nasrallah did was forget about everything else in Lebanese politics, simply for
the sake of the STL. Hezbollah reached its current standing, after all, because
of the reputation it carefully constructed for itself, as savior of the poor
and those in need - especially within the Shi'ite community.
Nasrallah came across as the social, political and military hero of his
constituency, able to provide them with running water, good hospitals, improved
schools, cheaper medication - and an impressive track record on the
battlefront. In recent years, however, Hezbollah became over-involved in petty
politics, distancing itself from both "resistance" and "nation-building".
The anti-regime street in Damascus is furious with Nasrallah. Very
unrealistically, they expected him to stand by the anti-regime street,
forgetting the unwavering Iranian support for Syria, and his own fear that a
regime collapse in Syria would damage the resistance in Lebanon.
Early into the crisis, demonstrators burned Hezbollah's yellow flags and in
some cases tore down posters of the Hezbollah leader.
Meanwhile, pro-regime demonstrators showered him with praise, "praying to the
heavens to preserve Nasrallah". Nasrallah realized that there is an entire
Syrian street that he does not know, and which speak a language that he does
For years, he believed - wrongly - that Syrians of all colors were firmly
supportive of him and Hezbollah. That illusion was shattered in March, when
Nasrallah realized that not all Syrians supported him.
On the contrary, some had no affection for him whatsoever, either because of
their Sunni zeal, because he was a Shi'ite warrior, or because of his
unwavering support for the Syrian government.
In summer, Hezbollah began to build bridges with the "other street" in Syria,
trying to explore it and know more about it, because clear from what was
happening, Hezbollah knew only the pro-regime street in Syria.
Their official position remained firmly in favor of the Syrian government, but
they nevertheless called on their Syrian allies to institute serious political
and economic reforms, and at one point tried to play the mediator between the
Syrian street, opposition and government.
That did not work because as far as the anti-regime street goes, Hezbollah is
not an honest broker, having clearly taken sides with Syrian officialdom
"because of its support for the Lebanese resistance".
As the crisis in Syria unfolds, Nasrallah will have to walk a tightrope,
maintaining an alliance with his traditional friends but, meanwhile, reaching
out to other segments of society.
For years, political cunning, as far as he was concerned, was needed only for
the complex game of Lebanese politics. He didn't need to maneuver much in order
to endear himself to the masses in Syria; they supported him regardless. All he
had to do was be himself and that guaranteed him full support on the Syrian
That is now no longer the case. Nasrallah will not have to play politics - the
Syrian way - if he wants to sustain the massive popularity that he enjoyed, not
too long ago in Syria.
Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian and editor-in-chief of
Forward Magazine in Syria.
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