What if Hezbollah wins?

Why Hezbollah is not the new Hamas. By Elias Muhanna The Lebanese parliamentary elections are just over a month away, and the race between the two dominant coalitions is too close to call. But it’s clear that the “March 14” coalition, a Western-backed alliance that swept into power following former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination ...

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Why Hezbollah is not the new Hamas.


Why Hezbollah is not the new Hamas.

By Elias Muhanna

The Lebanese parliamentary elections are just over a month away, and the race between the two dominant coalitions is too close to call. But it’s clear that the “March 14” coalition, a Western-backed alliance that swept into power following former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005, has suffered a string of political setbacks during the past year. Last week’s release of four Lebanese generals held in connection with Hariri’s murder by the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon has dampened March 14’s hopes of implicating the Syrian regime. More significantly, a new electoral law has redrawn various districts in ways that may threaten the coalition’s current margin of just 16 (out of a total 128) seats.

What this means is that the Lebanese opposition, which includes Hezbollah, has a decent shot at becoming the new majority on June 7. Both Britain and France have said that they will work with either side. Still, many fear a tougher response from the United States and the Sunni Arab regimes if the opposition wins — something akin to the reaction to Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections. All this has raised the stakes for the June elections, with many in Lebanon and abroad asking: What will happen if Hezbollah wins?

Interestingly, winning might not be Hezbollah’s primary goal. The party’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, announced last month that his bloc would not seek to increase the size of its own parliamentary share, which currently stands at 14 deputies. This is just one of the steps Hezbollah has taken to insulate itself and its allies from the likely portrayal of an opposition victory as a Hamas-style “takeover” of Lebanon.

The current opposition consists of three blocs: the predominantly Christian (but officially secular) Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the country’s two main Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal. Like Hezbollah, Amal is not likely to seek an expanded parliamentary share, placing the onus on the Christian bloc to put the opposition over the top. Even with an opposition win, Hezbollah would continue to represent only 11 percent of parliamentary seats. Its allies would need at least another 40 percent to become the majority.

Hezbollah has also repeatedly called for the creation of a national unity government after the elections, promising to grant March 14 a blocking veto in any opposition-led cabinet. Some have even speculated that Hezbollah and its allies would appoint Saad Hariri — the son of the slain prime minister and one of March 14’s principal figures — to the prime minister’s office as a way of ensuring the participation of his bloc within the new government. What these measures suggest is a deliberate attempt by Hezbollah to prevent its opponents in Lebanon and abroad from casting its victory as an Islamist coup against the forces of moderation.

Of course, if the opposition wins, many will do exactly that. But would the United States just cluck its disapproval, or would it follow words with punitive actions? Boycotting a Lebanese government in which Hezbollah has a relatively small share, and in which the Western-backed opposition wields a veto, would seem inconsistent for an administration that has already established talks with Hezbollah’s principal sponsors, Iran and Syria. Engaging such a government via Hezbollah’s parliamentary allies, such as the FPM, and the United States’ own European partners, such as France, seems more in line with the rolled-up-sleeves approach of this State Department.

Many think that an opposition victory would embolden Hezbollah against attempts to dismantle its military wing. Others argue that political success might serve as a great moderating influence on the party by raising the stakes of a confrontation with Israel and saddling it with the mundane duties of making Lebanon’s trains run on time. If Hezbollah and its allies prevail on June 7, both these theories will finally be put to the test.

Elias Muhanna writes the Lebanese affairs blog qifanabki.com.
He is a Ph.D. candidate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Harvard University.

Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Muhanna is a P.h.D candidate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Harvard University. He writes the Qifa Nabki blog on Lebanese affairs.

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