THREE years ago, regional opinion polls showed that the Middle East’s most popular leaders were Hezbollah chief Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the time people appreciated that they were standing up to Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, and resisting US regional policies.
With the Arab Spring, regional public opinion has shifted toward prioritising civil rights and democratic reform over foreign policy. Today, Assad is reviled, Ahmadinejad’s government is accused of violently suppressing its own pro-democracy protesters, and both Hezbollah and Iran are condemned for continuing to back Assad as he slaughters his own population.
As a result, Hezbollah is no longer the widely popular movement that it once was across the Arab and Muslim worlds, but it remains a highly effective and heavily armed force. And, in politics, as Machiavelli pointed out long ago, it is more important to be feared than loved.
To be sure, Hezbollah is still grudgingly respected for its ability to stand up to Israel. But it has lost its halo as a voice for the oppressed and downtrodden, and has exposed itself as a partisan and sectarian party.
Hezbollah was initially thrilled at the outbreak of popular revolts against rulers closely allied with the US and the West. But, as the revolts proceeded, it emerged that people wanted good government and social justice, and were not enamoured of Iran or interested in joining an axis of resistance. Furthermore, as the Muslim Brotherhood rose in Egypt, Hezbollah’s erstwhile ally, Hamas, drifted away from it and its Syrian and Iranian backers, and found a new footing in Egypt and the Gulf.
But Hezbollah’s disappointment turned to intense concern when Syrians rebelled against Assad. If his regime falls, Hezbollah is at risk of losing its arms-supply bridge to Iran. Without the ability to resupply itself, Hezbollah would emerge from any future war a significantly weakened force.
Within Lebanon itself, Hezbollah is still strong, but its comfort level has declined. In May 2008, it demonstrated its domestic dominance by taking over the capital, Beirut. In January 2011, it brought down Saad Hariri’s government and installed one more to its liking. But, in just the last few weeks, parts of the Sunni north have erupted in armed defiance of Hezbollah and the government that it dominates, and are openly supporting the Syrian rebels.
In a sense, these Sunni groups are creating an armed enclave in northern Lebanon to counterbalance the armed Shia enclaves in Beirut, the south, and the Bekaa region.
Hezbollah faces parliamentary elections in the spring of 2013 and could lose its majority.
Strategically, Hezbollah fears that if Assad falls, and if it loses the ability to resupply itself rapidly and effectively as a result, Israel will take advantage. With tensions between Israel and Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, unresolved, this fear cannot be discounted. Even if Hezbollah can adjust to the Arab Spring, it fears the winter with Israel that might follow.
• Paul Salem is director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, Beirut.