While finishing work on my book manuscript I came across this video from an October 2013 talk I gave at Claremont MacKenna College. I share it here mainly so that my mother can watch it, but it captures my thinking at a moment when the forces of reaction were consolidating power and crushing dissent across the Arab region. This talk was one of my first attempts to synthesize the different regional events and at the same time find some reason to remain hopeful. Four months later there’s even less reason to retain even a shred of optimism.
Just a year ago, Hezbollah was sitting pretty. Lebanon’s Party of God had consolidated its influence across the Arab world with a durable set of alliances. Its Axis of Resistance, formed with Iran, Syria and Hamas, had emerged as the most credible and authoritative force in Middle Eastern politics. Its central idea—to mobilize self-reliant communities around a frontal confrontation with Israel—seemed to be setting the region’s agenda.
But the Arab Spring changed the rules of the game that Hezbollah so masterfully played for the last two decades. Today, the party faces perhaps the biggest threats to the legitimacy it has worked so hard to cultivate among cadres, casual supporters and even the political opponents who have come to grudgingly respect the effectiveness of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
The first, and more short-term, challenge comes from Syria, where a tottering Assad regime could severely curtail Hezbollah’s military room for maneuver. The second, more enduring, issue is the Arab political renaissance underway, which could produce movements well positioned to steal Hezbollah’s anti-Israel thunder with a resistance program free from the party’s sectarian, militant baggage.
During the six turbulent years since Rafik Hariri was blown up on the Beirut waterfront, supporters of the outspoken billionaire former prime minister longed for the day that his killers would face justice.
But the indictments submitted this week by the UN-mandated Special Tribunal for Lebanon hit with more splutter than splash. In the short term, Hezbollah will face minimal fallout from the charges against two of its officials, which the Tribunal named as ringleaders in the assassination.
The more serious threats to Hezbollah’s primacy in the long run lie elsewhere. The first comes from the Tribunal, which will exert leverage over Lebanon not by the suspects it indicts but by the strength of the case it presents. The second and perhaps more important challenge to Hezbollah stems from the radical political changes sweeping the Arab world, which threaten its Syrian government sponsors in Damascus, and have put Hezbollah in the position of siding with authoritarian dictators in the era of the Arab spring.
The popular uprising in Egypt today will conclusively change the political dynamics in the most populous Arab country, no matter what the short term outcome. Hosni Mubarak might hang on to the presidency for some time, but the parameters have radically changed. (I can’t take my eyes off Al Jazeera.)
In August and September, all the Egyptians I interviewed about their country after Mubarak ruled out mass protests as even a remote possibility – especially mass protests not organized by the Muslim Brotherhood.
But that’s exactly what we’ve seen now; tens of thousands of people, maybe more, in virtually every major Egyptian city, willing to march and knock heads and risk death to call for an end to Mubarak’s rule. They’re not doing it under the banner of the Muslim Brothers or of the small, organized secular opposition.
So one shibboleth of Egyptian politics has been cast aside: the Egyptian people are capable of revolt.
What follows will depend on many factors: the endurance and persistence of the protestors; the choices of influential politicians, in and out of the regime; and most of all, I think, the choices the military makes.
Right now, police and intelligence run Mubarak’s police state. The military governs its own fiefdom, and considers itself the steward of the nation’s sovereignty. As retired General Hosam Sowilam told me this summer, in a time of transition the military “shall obey the president because he will be accepted by the people. But we will not accept any interference by the political parties into our military affairs.”
If the people withdraw their support from Mubarak, I guess the military will see its advantage in standing with them and not with the regime. In terms of bald self-interest, the military will want to maximize its influence with whomever follows Mubarak. That’s similar to the choice Tunisia’s military made.
A handful of power centers can play a role in crafting an alternative to Mubarak’s rule: Egypt’s intelligence chief; the military; the interior ministry; and to a lesser extent the institutions of civil society, both pro- and anti-regime: the NDP, the Muslim Brotherhood, the secular opposition parties, the protest movement, ElBaradei’s organization. Only the military has the weight to tilt the balance on its own.