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Nasrallah’s Speech and the Coming Elections

May 18, 2009

I apologize for the long period of inactivity and I promise that regular posting resumes today.  The provocative speech Hassan Nasrallah deliered last Friday has already been commented upon at Qifa Nabki’s blog.  I just have a couple of brief remarks to add. 

I think it is important to examine the speech as a whole so as to put Nasrallah’s more incendiary remarks towards the end in their proper context.  One theme that he reiterates throughout is Hezbollah’s respect for the state and its desire to not subvert, but rather reform it.  Not coincidentally, he also makes clear that those who defeated Israel are “capable of running a country 100 times larger than Lebanon”.  Nasrallah explains at length, when discussing the Israeli spies, that Hezbollah surrenders suspects to the civil authorities and does not summarily judge and punish them.  In his view, this makes Hezbollah more just and righteous than any other resistance movement in the past.  He also discusses the lack of judicial authority and the need for proportional representation in Parliament.  The argument Nasrallah offers here is that the Lebanese state is flawed and Hezbollah, as the most just and capable group in Lebanon, is best suited to fix it.

The later remarks about May 7 ought to be read in this context as well.  I disagree with those who argue that Nasrallah is deliberately trying to lose the elections; there are better ways to lose an election than by giving an ambiguous speech.  Broadly, Nasrallah is trying to reframe the historical narrative in a particular way that makes clear who he believes was right and wrong last May, just in time for the elections.  He understands that many in Lebanon view Hezbollah as the aggressor in the violence of May 7.  Thus, Nasrallah argues that May 7 occurred first and foremost due to the actions of an illegitimate government on May 5, and not on Hezbollah’s initiative.  The narrative he offers is not new, namely that Israel, the United States, other foreign powers etc., sought to sow fitna (sedition) between Sunni and Shia in Lebanon and that the March 14 led government on May 5 set about implementing this plan.  In an election where the Christian electorate will determine the outcome, Nasrallah pointedly leaves them out of the May 7 conflict.  In his view, Hezbollah acted in the interest of Lebanon and the state against nefarious foreign powers and their local agents.  Ultimately, the recasting of May 7 as “a glorious day for the resistance” is similar to referring to the outcome of the 2006 war as a “divine victory”.  Stalwart Hariri supporters are not likely to be swayed by the rhetoric, but there are still undecided minds up for grabs and Nasrallah wants their votes on June 7.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Qifa Nabki 05.19.09 at 07:25

Let’s have an opinion, al. :) What do you think of his reading?

al 05.19.09 at 09:23

Of course I can’t be sure about what happened on May 5, but nonetheless I don’t buy Nasrallah’s account. Here’s my theory. Nasrallah gets it wrong if he thinks that for March 14 May 5 was primarily about the Party’s weapons/telecommunications network (which he seems to believe). When Jumblatt called for the replacement of the head of airport security and the dismantling of the telecommunications network it was primarily a ploy to end the stalemate over the Presidency or at least shift the balance to M14’s advantage. Simply put, I don’t think that the United States, Israel, or any other foreign power aimed to disarm Hezbollah by starting with the telecommunications network on May 5. While disarming the Party is central to Resolution 1701 and policy for all of the aforementioned actors, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it was the aim of what happened in May 2008.

A number of factors are at play though. March 14 likely was wary that unwavering American support may not be permanent, especially as the US continued to flirt with Syria. On the other hand, there was US support at the time for electing a President by a simple majority. And more importantly, within March 14 there was an internal debate around whether or not to escalate by electing a President on the basis of a simple majority. The May 5th position of M14 suggests a compromise. I think that ex ante May 5, many in March 14 thought that electing the President based on a simple majority would yield violence, but that the more moderate position of calling for the replacement of the chief of airport security and state control of the telecommunications network represented a half step that would likely yield further talks- though from a more advantageous position. I take Nasrallah at his word and I believe that this was understood by the Party as part of March 14’s aim (as well as the US and Israel) to dismantle Hezbollah’s weapons. Moreover, in the 5/15/09 speech I don’t recall Nasrallah mentioning the head of airport security, but he dwelled on the issue of the telecommunications network. Thus, it was the threat against its weapons, and not so much the escalation itself, that led to the ultimatum and then violence. Finally, Hezbollah’s ultimatum put M14 in a position where they would lose big by backing down and thus they preferred the unknowns of confrontation.

mrrobinson 05.19.09 at 16:21

This is a peripheral point at best, but I always thought that dismissing Shoukair could also easily be construed as a direct attack on Hizb’s weapons. I’d wager more weapons get flown directly into Beirut International straight from Tehran than get smuggled over the border. Sayid Hassan didn’t emphasize the point in his speeches because Iran didn’t want vocal broadcasting of their shuttling weapons through the airport.

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