Successful Hezbollah has image problem

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Special to The Times

Hezbollah’s offensive against mostly Sunni Muslim political rivals in Lebanon has sullied its image in the Arab world as an armed force engaged in a righteous struggle against Israel.

But interviews with analysts and Arab news media accounts suggest that the Shiite Muslim group still came out ahead. It won major concessions from the Lebanese government after its assault and largely retained its popularity despite turning its weapons against fellow Muslims.

Hezbollah fighters this month briefly took over Sunni-dominated West Beirut in what they described as legitimate protection of their military might from a Lebanese government targeting the movement’s key telecommunications and intelligence assets.


Satellite television channels across the region broadcast images of Shiite militiamen armed with rocket launchers and assault rifles. West-leaning TV stations spoke of a Hezbollah “occupation” of Beirut streets and described the events as an “armed coup orchestrated by Iran,” playing on the growing rift between Sunnis who dominate the region and Shiites who control Iran.

Hezbollah had broken a promise, they said, by using its formidable arsenal against domestic rivals.

“For many Arabs, Hezbollah lost much of its glow as a pure resistance group fighting against Israel,” said Mishari Thaydi, a Saudi columnist for the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Sharq al Awsat. “By laying siege to the residence of lawmaker Saad Hariri, a symbol of Sunni leadership in Lebanon, and attacking other Sunni figures, Hezbollah projected an irreparable image as a sectarian militia.”

U.S. officials have voiced optimism that the offensive will damp Arab enthusiasm for the Iranian- and Syrian-backed movement.

“Hezbollah lost something very important, which is any argument that it is somehow a resistance movement on behalf of the Lebanese people,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Thursday in the Bay Area.

But the swiftness of Hezbollah’s operation and the political compromise that followed Wednesday, giving the movement veto power over major government decisions while bolstering its U.S.-backed rivals’ election prospects, may have helped the group retain its popularity and calm sectarian tensions that work against its influence, analysts said.


Aiding Hezbollah’s cause is the deep hostility in the Arab streets toward the United States and its allies, which often extends to the Lebanese government.

“If the clashes had remained a week or two longer, that would have fueled a strong sectarian cause,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an independent Lebanese researcher and author. “But if the turning point will produce a final settlement, most of the people are going to say at least we had this conflict over with.”

The Lebanese violence also coincided with the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, an event widely viewed by Arabs as the Nakba, or disaster. Whatever flaws Hezbollah may have, to many Arabs it remains the group that fought Israel to a standstill in Lebanon during the summer of 2006.

“Hezbollah might be seen as representing Iranian interests, but the Lebanese government on the other hand failed to draw sympathy to its cause by associating itself to U.S. projects and vision in the region,” said Mohammed Masri, a political scientist at the University of Jordan in Amman, the Jordanian capital. “Hezbollah’s actions were perceived as a measure of self-defense.”

During the recent violence, news media, politicians and clerics throughout the Sunni Arab world refrained from depicting Hezbollah’s push as a Shiite or Iranian coup d’etat, as it was described by pro-government Lebanese politicians and TV. The widely watched Qatar-based Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera described the unrest as a political conflict rather than a sectarian clash.

Many Sunni Arabs voiced support for Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, not for the Sunni-led government.


“Arab unity is built on the resistance to the occupation in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and throughout the Arab land,” a number of Jordanian activists wrote in a letter addressed to Hezbollah and published in the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Hayat. “The fate of the Arab nation and its future are all decided now in the battles between the resistance forces and the occupation forces.”

In Egypt, despite some religious leaders’ warnings of the danger of “Iranian-sponsored expansion of Shiism in the country,” many voiced support for Hezbollah, which regularly describes Lebanon’s government as a dupe of Israel and Washington neoconservatives.

“Serving Israeli interests is the foremost concern of moderate regimes backed by the U.S. in the Arab region,” Ibrahim Issa, editor in chief of the Egyptian opposition daily Al Dustour, wrote May 12. “These regimes wage fierce media, political and financial attacks against Hezbollah.”

“In reality,” he wrote, “the Buddhist who stands up against Zionism is closer to our hearts than the Sunni who allies with Israel.”

Still, sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have been rising in Lebanon since the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an eminent Sunni politician and tycoon, and Saad Hariri’s father. The killing was widely blamed on Hezbollah-backer Syria.

The recent violence, which left dozens dead, exacerbated the tensions, though the most ferocious battles were between Druze and Shiites southeast of the capital and between Sunnis and secular pro-Syrian factions in the north.


Hezbollah appears to have recognized the danger of Sunni anger. It has launched a media campaign to reduce the repercussions of its military action.

The Hezbollah-run television station Al Manar gave voice to Sunni families who support the Shiite resistance group, casting the takeover of the capital by its fighters as an “upheaval of Beirut families” against pro-government thugs. It also has aired live Oprah-style talk shows in which Sunnis and Shiites discuss their anger and hope.

“Hezbollah will have to exercise serious damage control,” said Saad-Ghorayeb, the researcher and author. “It’s going to have to reach out to Sunnis more than it ever has before.”


Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.