“Wouldn’t it be ironic if the popular awakening sweeping the Middle East had the unintended effect of undermining the one established Arab democracy?” Dexter Filkins asks in The New Yorker.
Hezbollah’s role in undermining Lebanese democracy and backing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is also demonstrating that authoritarian “uncivil society” groups increasingly counter their democratic civil society counterparts, and that the rise of networked non-state actors is not necessarily benign or conducive to democratic development, says a leading analyst.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned last week following a stand-off over the re-appointment of a senior internal security official responsible and a new election law, but the underlying cause was Hezbollah’s de facto veto of both measures and its role in Syria’s increasingly sectarian civil war.
“The dissolution of the government threatens to delay the selection of a new parliament,” notes the Project for Middle East Democracy. “Elections are scheduled for June, but without a cabinet in place, the new election law may not be approved in time for the polls to occur on schedule.”
The Obama administration is concerned about Lebanon’s combustibility in an already volatile region, and it has “grave concerns about the role that Hezbollah plays,” said Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s spokesperson.
“Since 1990, when its own civil war ended, Lebanon has maintained a fitful but functioning democracy, one that relies on a delicate balance of power among its main sectarian groups: the Christians, the Sunnis, the Shia, and the Druze,” and the principal threat to that fragile arrangement “has been the Syrian regime of Assad and his local proxies, Hezbollah,” says Filkins, who recently reported on the group’s unacknowledged activities in support of the Assad regime:
If Lebanon’s President, Michel Suleiman, accepts Mikati’s resignation, as he seems likely to do, the country could be entering a protracted political crisis, without a functional government. That kind of power vacuum, in a country as fragile as Lebanon, could lead to sectarian violence. Mikati himself, in his televised statement on Friday, seemed to hint at just such a possibility. “The region is heading toward the unknown,’’ he said.
Events, especially in the Sahel, Algeria and Libya indicate that Al-Qaeda’s loosely-bound affiliates also seem to have gained a new momentum. It is not clear that this is a regional trend consequent to the Arab spring per se, however. The way that power vacuums in the Sahel, and Mali in particular, have burnished a new wave of jihadism is undoubtedly of acute concern. Others point to events in the Sinai, the rise of Salafi militia and Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon as further evidence of the rise in non-state actorness.
But it would be an exaggeration to argue that the growth of non-state actor radicalism “portends a new region- wide ascendancy of non-state-actor radicals, as opposed to being driven by country-specific factors,” says Young.
“The over-riding narrative of the Arab spring – however beleaguered the hopes of reform now stand – remains one that challenges the Al- Qaeda narrative.”
Hezbollah has a number of advantages over its democratic or liberal counterparts, including generous, largely covert funding from Iran, its principal state sponsor, and a hybrid structure that allows it to present itself as a political party or social movement, an advantage that has allowed it to so far evade inclusion on the European Union’s list of proscribed terrorist groups.
“Hezbollah is multiple things,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Matthew Levitt told the Council on Foreign Relations. ”Hezbollah is one of the dominant political parties in Lebanon, as well as a social and religious movement, catering first and foremost to Lebanon’s Shiite community. The group is also Lebanon’s largest militia.”
The group’s “ideological commitment to Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary doctrine of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist), which holds that a Shiite Islamic cleric should serve as the supreme head of government, is a key source of conflict,” Levitt writes for Foreign Policy. “The group is thus simultaneously committed to the decrees of Iranian clerics, the Lebanese state, its sectarian Shiite community within Lebanon, and fellow Shiites abroad.”
The group’s “sophisticated organizational and leadership structure” also gives it a strategic advantage over political party rivals and less ideological, single issue civil society groups, says Levitt, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God:
The overall governing authority, the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council), wields all decision-making power and directs several subordinate functional councils. Each functional council reports directly to the Majlis al-Shura, which, as Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem wrote in his book, is “in charge of drawing the overall vision and policies, overseeing the general strategies for the party’s function, and taking political decisions.”
U.S. assessments echo Qassem’s description. “Hezbollah has a unified leadership structure that oversees the organization’s complementary, partially compartmentalized elements,” reads a Congressional Research Service report.
In short, Hezbollah has a Leninist-like ideological drive, political discipline and organizational sophistication, factors that have allowed it to emerge as one of the principal countervailing forces to the initially democratic impetus of the Arab Awakening, not least in its home base.
“For all Lebanon’s travails, its democracy has been an example to its neighbors,” writes The New Yorker’s Filkins. “It would be especially sad if it became a victim.”