Two historical trends have been significant to the Middle East’s socio-political development and will continue to shape the region’s future: a long-term Muslim determination to resist Western hegemony, and a widening self-assertion by minorities within their own polities. Hezbollah – The Party of God – is the product of these political and psychological forces that, in one form or another, persist throughout the region regardless of sect.
Recent changes in the composition of the Lebanese government reflect the ascendancy of Hezbollah in Lebanese affairs over the past two decades. Through its forceful backing of Mikati, Hezbollah has clearly demonstrated that it is the dominant political and military force in Lebanon, while simultaneously helping Iran and Syria to gain more influence in the Lebanese theatre. Thanks to its smart positioning, successes against Israel, and social services network, Hezbollah has grown into an independent actor in the Lebanese political scene and this necessitates a sharp focus on the movement as an actor in itself.
Early in the life of Hezbollah, the organization was amorphous and decision-making was decentralized. Nevertheless, with time and with the increasing need to better coordinate and control the decisions and the actions of the organization, Hezbollah has matured into a more hierarchical and more effective institution. This evolution reflects Hezbollah’s growing strength and stature on the Lebanese scene, and its determination not to limit its activities to resistance only. This is clearly evident in its heavy reliance on the use of widespread media network in order to propagate its doctrine and its vision to all of its followers in Lebanon and the wider Muslim world. Currently, it operates a number of powerful means of communications the most prominent of which are al-Manar Television and Radio al-Nour.
For Hezbollah, moreover, the support that it has received from Iran and Syria has almost become the raison d’être of the organisation. The connection is of such intensity that some have argued that Hezbollah is a mere proxy for Syria and Iran in their attempts to carry out their foreign policies by other, more ambiguous, means. In reality, however, the actual influence of external actors has never been to such an extent and thus to see Hezbollah as a proxy element of Iran and Syria is erroneous.
Although state support has been crucial to Hezbollah, the organization has also felt limited by it. In other words, Hezbollah’s power also relies on its standing at home and regional image both of which have suffered from appearing to be a proxy. As a “conventional political party”, Hezbollah has to work with a number of other political parties and organizations. As a “welfare agency”, it has to deal with other Lebanese sects, while, as a militia, it has to “consider the regional balance of power” when engaging in resistance. Anthony Cordesman reported from Israel in August 2006 that no serving Israeli official, intelligence officer, or other military officers with whom he had spoken felt that Hezbollah had acted under the direction of Iran or Syria.
In fact, to achieve a level of autonomy from state sponsorship the Party has sought out aid and support from other sources so it can detach itself from any external sources that would limit the decisions and activities of the organization.
Hezbollah has entered into large-scale business operations by opening co-operative supermarkets in the suburbs of Beirut and other parts of Lebanon. It has revenue coming in from school fees, bookshops, farms, fisheries, factories, and bakeries. It manufactures Islamic clothing which it exports to the expatriate Lebanese Shiite community around the globe. The group has also entered the booming property market in Lebanon and the UAE. Furthermore, many sympathetic individuals in the west have created venture companies that invested Hezbollah money in stocks and shares of commodities. It also uses its faction in the Lebanese Parliament to persuade and/or pressure the government to finance its projects in Shiite population centres.
Historically, tistorically he Lebanese state has never served the Lebanese Shi‘a well. The Shi‘a have been an ignored and deprived underclass that has never received an equal share of the Lebanese infrastructure, political representation, or economic benefits. Consequently, Shi‘a have little confidence that the state can or will meet their needs and thus place greater confidence in Hezbollah as their political instruments.
Hezbollah’s ability, unprecedented in Arab history, to stand up to a superior Israeli military machine and force it to a truce is electrifying. Its character is mainstream Shiite, but its rhetoric focuses on Arab unity, the illegitimacy of the Israeli state, and the need for change in Arab leadership. It represents a powerful regional current and thus cannot be easily suppressed or disarmed. It is a highly credited organisation among the Arab public and a powerful voice for the Shiites in Lebanese affairs which has linked them to the larger Shiite community in the region, especially Iran.
What this observation implies, therefore, is that Hezbollah will willingly seek to remain above the state rather than to be the state. Hezbollah was drawn deeper into Lebanese politics due to its need to protect its armed status after the Syrian withdrawal. Hence, it is primarily concerned about having a dominant say in Lebanon foreign and security policy to ensure the immunity of its armed status from UN resolutions or Lebanon’s relations with the outside world.
Moreover, Hezbollah’s status as a non-state actor is beneficial to the Party because it exempts it from international obligations and restrictions that are imposed upon states and their conducts of foreign policy or military operations. In essence, this is a quality that makes Hezbollah more attractive to the Iranian government and thus helps the Hezbollah’s leadership to secure uninterrupted fellow of financial and military aids from Tehran. This is especially the case now since the Lebanese cabinet, imposed by Hezbollah, is unlikely to be capable of constraining Hezbollah’s strategic choices in matters of war and peace.
In addition, Syria may have appeared as the main beneficiary of the recent changes at the top of the Lebanese state by having an ally in the Office of the Prime Minister, thereby regaining its influence in Lebanon. Nonetheless, it cannot realistically run the show should Hezbollah chooses not to cooperate with it. Syria’s ability to influence political developments in Lebanon was closely tied to its ability to play local politicians against one another due to its direct military presence. This is no longer the case and that it is Syria that needs Hezbollah in order to be able to influence political outcomes there. And in all these, one thing is clear and that is that from now on what Hezbollah says and does matter greatly.