Good News/Bad News In Massive Hizbollah Demo

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In theory, a news event that puts a crimp in Bush administration self-congratulations and infuriates my in-laws should leave me pleased as punch, but I think yesterday's huge pro-Hizbollah demonstration in Beirut was a pretty lousy development. In fact, to invoke the increasingly popular concept of writing people out of rational debate, can we all at least agree that Hizbollah's putting 500,000 or more people in the street was not good news? We can concede that many of those people may have been bussed in, some possibly from as far off as Syria. We can dismiss it as a fascist display. We can note that it took a lot more courage for the opposition to put tens of thousands of people in the street in protest against the occupying power than for Hizbollah to put hundreds of thousands in favor of it. We can dispute the official figure of 1.6 million demonstrators. After all that, it was still a goddamn big demonstration, and to dispute that is just wishful thinking. If for no other reason, it was bad because momentum is the one thing you never want to lose in these people power movements, and the narrative of the Lebanese public rising as one against the Syrian occupiers is now a much more difficult play. Coupled with the return of the never-popular prime minister Omar Karami, this is a serious setback to what was looking like a relatively smooth transition.

Other bad news: The vast, if unsurprising, range of factions willing to demonstrate on Hizbollah's behalf. Maronite stooge Suleiman Franjiyeh came out for Hizbollah. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party or "Hizbalkawmi" came out for Hizbollah, as did Nabih Berri's Amal party, the other big Shi'ite political organization. (For reasons too complicated to go into, the Hizbalkawmi are not actually a Syrian party but a disarmed North Lebanese militia with members in Parliament; you can read more about them in Daniel Pipes' Greater Syria.) It may be that Lebanon's Shi'ites are not as tied to Hizbollah as they seem (recall how Muqtada al-Sadr, supposedly a wildly popular Robin Hood figure to Iraq's Shi'ites, went busto like Howard Dean in Iowa once Iraqis actually voted), but at the moment I don't see anybody else holding the reins of this enormous demographic.

That's (some of) the black cloud. Now for some silver lining. The defining aesthetic characteristic of the demonstration (on TV at any rate) was the prominence of the Lebanese flag. Apparently these were handed out by Hizbollah members to demonstrators, but even if was a calculated gesture, it's significant that they thought to make the gesture. The thinking may have been that the demonstration would go down better both with the media and with the demonstrators themselves if the overall mood was one of patriotic excitement rather than loyalty to the occupier, pan-Arab or pan-Syrian fervor, etc. (That's at the high level anyway; the content of individual placards and pictures was less encouraging. Click the Hizbalkawmi link above for some examples, and also for one pic of a really out-of-place looking floozy in a tight pink shirt.)

It's also more than likely that the support for Syria on display yesterday (and in this poll, which is open to dispute) is not as big as it looked. By this I'm not referring to the talk about inflated figures or people being coerced into demonstrating. But there's another obvious angle here: This demonstration wasn't really about Syria at all, but about Hizbollah and its place in the post-occupation country.

Michael Young makes a very plausible case that Hassan Nasrallah, ambitious to become an international leader, has misjudged the winds. But if you posit that Hizbollah's real goals are mainly domestic (something they always say themselves), yesterday's demo makes perfect sense. In fact, it seems long overdue. For at least five years I've been wondering why Hizbollah, which has the power, the reputation, and apparently the popular support to run the country, was apparently content to get by with 12 out of 128 seats in parliament. Young accurately refers to Nasrallah's contempt for ordinary Lebanese politics, and there's plenty to be contemptous about, but that may be changing. If I were Nasrallah, I'd be calling now for a census of the population of Lebanon, an end to "confessional" representation, and direct voting. I assume he's got his reasons for not doing that, but those are the effective conditions of the "Taif" agreement, which also calls for Syria to leave and the militias to be disarmed. As far as I can see, Nasrallah's in the catbird seat: He doesn't disarm until he wants to, and when he does, he can start taking heap big control of the government. As time passes, I suspect people are going to forget that the we're-glad-Hariri's-dead march was ostensibly about the cobwebbed Syrian regime and see it as Hizbollah's coming out party.

I guess that's not actually good news. Looking at the pictures I can't help thinking "Go ahead and march on that street and that park, you fucking slobs. Hariri built every inch of that, and it's the last good thing you'll see in your fucking miserable lives." We could go to Pipes again to argue that American policy is doing nothing but empowering shiekhs, ayatollahs and raving lunatics. (Not that the bastards will ever thank us: Read this interview with Hizbollah's Mohammed Fneish, wherein I doggedly try to get him to admit the Iraq war was good for Shi'ites in general and his group in particular, and he churlishly refuses to admit it.) And if the May elections take place in an environment where Syria has "redeployed" but is still working out its ever-complicated troop withdrawal schedules (not an impossibility), will the U.S. do anything? Ultimately, is Lebanon really that important to the U.S.?

But a few more bits of good news:

• Bush continues to lay on the get-outta-town rhetoric. I don't think (nor do I hope) that he actually intends to back it up, but Bashar should be given no wiggle room.

• Yesterday's march won't have much impact on the overall People Power trend (if there is such a trend) in the Arab world.

• Things are still relatively peaceful in Lebanon. (This talking point, which I've heard a lot today, is overrated: Since 1990, almost everything in Lebanon has been relatively peaceful.)

• Ultimately, this is democracy in action. There are a lot of Shi'ites in Lebanon, and from what little I know about them I don't find them very interesting. But in a democracy the masses get to have their voices heard, or so I've been told.

• There's been so much Lebanon shit around here lately that it feels like the grand old days of the early 90s, when Michael Young was still putting out his wonderul Lebanon Report, which boasts my favorite magazine cover of all time.

All in all, I'd trade all of the above for Hariri still alive.

NEXT: A Brief Taxonomy of Middle East Crowds

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  1. Tim, you really need to see more good magazine covers….

  2. Where’s the floozy in the tight pink shirt ?

  3. There’s been so much Lebanon shit around here lately that it feels like the grand old days of the early 90s…

    … in your college dorm room? 🙂

    (Cue “A Passage to Bangkok” by Rush.)

    (I don’t do drugs, aside from ethanol and caffeine, but I do do drug humor.)

  4. “we’re-glad-Hariri’s-dead march”

    Tim, why do you call it that? Nasrallah started his speech with a minute silence over Hariri’s assasination and demanded answers for the assasination. Also, one of the pictures in the Web site you linked to showed some demonstrators carrying Hariri’s picture.

  5. “Nasrallah started his speech with a minute silence over Hariri’s assasination and demanded answers for the assasination.”

    Did he also demand answers for Nicole Simpsons’ murder ?

  6. You know, I’d never read that interview with Fneish before. Is anyone else amazed at how reasonable the fellow sounds? His views regarding Israel may be extreme, but his stated opinions regarding theocracy and liberty in Lebanese society are a breath of fresh air. Contrast what this representative of the “Party of God” says with those conservatives here in America who declare the US to be a Christian country.

  7. It is a bit uncomfortable in the Fneish interview that “Reason” came across as an AEI symposium grilling (what about Iraq? what’s your role? And Israel? and Iran? and Islamic states as failures),while the Hizbollah guy like a semi-libertarian (dont force religion on anyone, social spending should not be done by the state, stay out of other nations’ affairs, war is ultimately a bad thing).

    C’mon, already, enough with a narrowly Beiruti bourgoisie eye-view of the Middle East.

  8. One of the nightly news reports said there were so many Lebanese flags because they were told to keep the H. flags at home. It’s not good news that they decided to do this.

  9. We could go to Pipes again to argue that American policy is doing nothing but empowering shiekhs, ayatollahs and raving lunatics.

    Not to mention that, so far, it’s left the two most potent Islamist regimes in the region largely untouched (perhaps even strengthened their hands by taking out Saddam).

    Bush continues to lay on the get-outta-town rhetoric. I don’t think (nor do I hope) that he actually intends to back it up

    Would you oppose US-French attempts to place UN sanctions on Syria if they chose not to leave? I think that’s a possibility, though I don’t know if the Russians and Chinese would allow it to succeed.

    Ultimately, this is democracy in action.

    Yup. And I would think that a libertarian would be well-aware of how ugly its results can be at times.

    One thing that the Hizbollah demonstration has got me thinking about is what the actual ground realities are in the land of their largest sponsor. Like the Beirut anti-Syrian demonstrations, the anti-mullah demonstrations in Tehran have been led by the “bourgeoisie”. Relatively wealthy, well-educated Iranians who often have relatives living elsewhere, and have a good understanding of the world beyond their borders. The numbers in these protests have been meaningful, and worthy of respect considering the dangers that the protestors often brave, but they haven’t been enormous either.

    In light of recent events, I wonder how much the Iranian masses – those poorer, less-educated Iranians who are less prone to owning satellite dishes and shopping at designer clothing stores, and who benefit a lot from the welfare spending spawned by the government’s oil wealth – share the sentiments of those protestors. We’ve never seen a massive counter-demonstration at the behest of the mullahs, but perhaps that’s only becaue it’s been unnecessary.

  10. I wonder why in the interview Tim didn’t ask him about the two bombings in Buenos Aires. He would probably have denied involvement, but it would have been interesting to watch.

  11. Tim Cavanaugh,

    In fact, to invoke the increasingly popular concept of writing people out of rational debate, can we all at least agree that Hizbollah’s putting 500,000 or more people in the street was not good news?

    No. The idea that Lebanon can become a more enlightened society without such demonstrations is plainly silly.

    …and the narrative of the Lebanese public rising as one against the Syrian occupiers is now a much more difficult play.

    Well, that narrative is never wholly true in any of the “people power” movements. You’re dealing with reality here and not myth.

    The defining aesthetic characteristic of the demonstration (on TV at any rate) was the prominence of the Lebanese flag.

    Smart.

    But there’s another obvious angle here: This demonstration wasn’t really about Syria at all, but about Hizbollah and its place in the post-occupation country.

    And thus you undercut your earlier “doom and gloom” spin.

    Ultimately, is Lebanon really that important to the U.S.?

    I’d say that its more important to France.

  12. “But there’s another obvious angle here: This demonstration wasn’t really about Syria at all, but about Hizbollah and its place in the post-occupation country.”

    I tend to doubt that Amal was marching for Hizbollah’s place in post-occupation Lebanon.

  13. >>Ultimately, this is democracy in action. There >>are a lot of Shi’ites in Lebanon, and from what >>little I know about them I don’t find them very >>interesting. But in a democracy the masses get >>to have their voices heard, or so I’ve been >>told.

    The problem is, Bush has been trying to convince us that terrorism cannot flourish where there is freedom and democracy. Hizbullah is a terrorist organization. If the masses democratically voice their support for a terrorist organization,it rather tends to undercut the whole rationale for democratizing the ME.

  14. Mark Borok, the liberal version of democracy promotion theory states that groups like Hizbollah will cease to be terroristic when there are peaceful, democratic means of pursuing their agendas.

    This differs from the neocon version, in which it is a given that there isn’t really any popular support for hostile, terroristic, “Islamofascist” political movements, and that the common people of the Middle East will line up to vote for a pro-American party whose platform is based on Enlightenment principles just as soon as they get a chance, because our system of government is universally beloved.

  15. If the masses democratically voice their support for a terrorist organization, it rather tends to undercut the whole rationale for democratizing the ME.

    Not really. Instead of a country with murky mix of terror supporters and supposed official friends like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, they become a self-admitted terror-supporting state and a clear enemy, like Afghanistan and Iraq used to be. In many ways it’s easier to deal with the latter.

  16. But according to the official PNAC line, free and democratic countries never support terrorism!

  17. joe

    Does the liberal model of “democracy-promotion” ALWAYS assume that groups like the IRA, Hezbollah, still less AQ have popular support, bordering on consensus? Do you PREFER street demos to elections?

    They have their causes. Which cause do you want to promote “peacefully” joe? A thirtysix-county Ireland? The restored califate? Destroying the Zionist Entity?

  18. My point joe, is that a RATIONAL theory of how democracy defangs terrorism is NOT that those causes continue to live on in the successful democratic polity…but that they become irrelevant. People get control of their lives, and find better things to do. Authoritarian conditions cause people to focus on those unreal collectivities, and hateful fantasies…

    ….but you’re coming from the Left, joe – you admire those ureal collectivisms, right?

  19. I like what Slate called it: Hezbollahpalooza…

  20. “Does the liberal model of “democracy-promotion” ALWAYS assume that groups like the IRA, Hezbollah, still less AQ have popular support, bordering on consensus?”

    Of course not. Liberals allow the real political dynamics of other countries to define our view of who has popular support, and how much. When we see 500,000+ people turn out for a march, we don’t pretend it’s a sign that they have no public support.

    Of course, I could have made my point better. In many cases, the public that supports a terroristic group will leave it for a more democratic, peaceful party if that party can address their concerns via electoral politics. So even if Hizbollah or the IRA continue to be militant groups, the people who they relied on may no longer be there for them.

    “Do you PREFER street demos to elections?” I think they’re both important activities that occur under a democratic system.

    “Which cause do you want to promote “peacefully” joe?” Humane, pedestrian-oriented community design, mostly. Why do you ask? OK, and a United Irish Republic, someday, through peaceful democratic means.

    Though I agree, under a democratic system, people find better political goals than during wartime – since the military imperitive to defeat the enemy is less likely to be confused with the political imperitive to, say, provide good access to employment.

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