Friday, June 29, 2012

Pointless days for Hezbollah

You have to wonder when Prime Minister Najib Mikati will use the single weapon he has, a threat of resignation, to impose some order on that ghastly assemblage some insist on calling a government.

When March 14 demanded that Mikati resign some weeks ago, the idea sounded, justifiably, terrible. The fighting in Tripoli had started, and it was no time for Lebanon to enter into a governmental vacuum. Nor, in the present political mood, is there any chance that Hezbollah and Michel Aoun will accept a technocratic, or a neutral, government to replace the one that they dominate. In other words, the proposal of March 14 was political, designed to embarrass Mikati, and made in the full knowledge that it would not be taken seriously.

However, Mikati has done himself no favors since then. The situation has morphed from ruinous into catastrophic. A major part of the problem is that Hezbollah appears to be going through a schizophrenic seizure, as it tries to both stabilize the political system and has simultaneously destabilized it, so as to guarantee that it retains the initiative over a perceptibly disgruntled Shia community.

What does Hezbollah offer its flock these days? It dominates the government, but cannot even give its supporters electricity. In recent weeks the cutting off of roads has troubled the party, as it has struggled to contain the spontaneous rage, and it may even be seen as partly responsible for the abysmal condition of the power sector.

At the same time, the crime rate in Lebanon, especially in Shia districts, has sharply risen. Shia throughout the Middle East, notably in the Gulf, have been targeted as pariahs because of their alleged sympathy for Iran. Hezbollah has been unable to liberate the Shia pilgrims kidnapped in Syria. And almost daily there seems to be an armed confrontation in the southern suburbs, usually between untamed Bekaa families, which Hezbollah has been unable to prevent.

Does this mean the party is losing support? Perhaps not in a decisive way. But it does show that Hezbollah can be just as mediocre when it comes to governing Lebanon as anyone else, even as the patience of the Shia community is fraying. The party can manage big issues, but has never been adept at managing smaller bread and butter issues.

Which makes you wonder: Is the mobilization of Shia youths in recent days on behalf of Wissam Alaeddine, the arsonist caught after trying to set the Al-Jadeed TV station alight, an effort by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement to create an artificial crisis that re-imposes communal solidarity and detracts from their own shortcomings?

It’s difficult to say, but what a disgraceful step down it has been for the purported paragons of the Resistance. Here they are deploying rowdy youths to block roads, making life miserable for all Lebanese, in order to release someone caught on tape committing a crime. The Israelis must be quivering in their boots. Next year in Jerusalem!

And who is it that the Hezbollah and Amal boys are actually demonstrating against? The very government that Hezbollah put together and wants to keep in place until parliamentary elections next year. When the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, affirms that he aspires to a “strong state,” he has to explain how the forcible release of Alaeddine would enhance the state’s credibility.

For that matter, how might the Mikati government, or the security forces and army, look after such a decision? Mikati must resign if this blackmail stands. If Alaeddine walks, then I walk, the prime minister has to warn Nasrallah. And if Mikati is reminded that Shadi Mawlawi, who was detained in Tripoli several weeks ago, was released thanks to pressure from the Sunni street, then the prime minister should ask Hezbollah whose side they’re on, before reminding them that Mawlawi’s arrest was a provocation by Syria in coordination with the party, using an organ of the state over which Hezbollah has influence.

Some might argue that Mikati doesn’t have the latitude to resign. The prime minister would respond that he cannot, in good conscience, leave behind a void. Both statements may be true. But the cabinet’s worst enemy is the cabinet itself. We are watching spontaneous combustion, and Mikati is being burned beyond recognition.

Hezbollah’s strategy is to win a parliamentary majority in the elections next year. The party’s intention is to anchor itself in the political system to better navigate through the aftershocks of the Assad downfall. Yet everything its followers are doing is alarming the Christians, whose electoral choices will decide who controls parliament. No one has been more discredited by the road closures and the ambient thuggery in Beirut than Michel Aoun, while his son-in-law has become a lightning rod for discontent in the streets.

Intimidation is Hezbollah’s way of setting markers around its Lebanese foes at a time of great volatility. The Al-Jadeed assault was a reminder to media outlets that criticism of Hezbollah and Amal, or interviews like those with Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who has been unsparing in his attacks against Nasrallah, is forbidden. But Hezbollah cannot possibly emerge from these sordid scraps looking better off. Rarely has the party seemed so pointless, and one gets a sense that its followers, loyal as they may be, sense this.

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