In Lebanon, Hizbullah's rise provokes Shiite dissent
They worry that its quest to topple the Western-backed government will hurt their long-term interests.
Hizbullah's ability to draw hundreds of thousands of Shiites to central Beirut to rally against the Lebanese government is the most visible evidence that the militants are now the undisputed representative of the country's Shiite community.
Yet some of the party's coreligionists have started to publicly question Hizbullah's political monopoly. They worry that its ambitious gambit to topple the Western-backed government is intended to benefit backers in Iran and Syria and will be detrimental to the long-term interests of Shiites.
"Hizbullah's actions definitely are not in the interests of Shiites nor of Lebanon," says Sheikh Ali al-Amine, the Shiite mufti of the Jabal Amel district of south Lebanon.
Shiite voices of dissent are few, but are gaining more attention at a time when Lebanon is serving as a battleground in the emerging struggle between Iran and its regional allies – dubbed by some as a "Shiite crescent" – and the Sunni-dominated Arab world led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Hizbullah is caught in the vortex of this regional contest, torn between satisfying the demands of its foreign patrons while serving the needs of its domestic Shiite constituency.
Demonstrations calling for the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora have been ongoing since Dec. 1. Since then, the numbers of Hizbullah and opposition supporters filling downtown Beirut seem to ebb and flow at the call of Hizbullah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
Thursday, in a bid to ease the political crisis, the Lebanese government and opposition groups agreed on a national unity cabinet in which major decisions could be taken only by consensus, said Arab League chief Amr Moussa. He told reporters, however, that more talks were required to conclude the deal.
Mr. Moussa called on all the parties to defuse the tension and expressed hope that the remaining issues could be resolved in the next two weeks. "Progress is clear and consensus is rising. Please be patient a bit longer," he said. "We hope to finish in the next two weeks or at the end of the month."
Sheikh Amine has become Hizbullah's most visible critic after sparking controversy four months ago by publicly refuting Hizbullah's claim of a "divine victory" in its summer war against Israel. Still, he appears an unlikely critic of Hizbullah.
Wearing a black turban that marks him as a descendent of the prophet Muhammad, he was once close to Hizbullah and in 1981 taught the youthful Hassan Nasrallah at a Shiite seminary in the Iranian city of Qom. The sheikh remembers the future Hizbullah leader as "clever and a quick learner."
"I never wanted to turn myself into a figure of opposition to Hizbullah. But during the war I saw mistakes," he says. "The aim of Hizbullah is to capture all the Shiite sect and push it into the unknown."
During the war, Mona Fayyad, a professor at the Lebanese University in Beirut, penned an acerbic opinion piece titled "To be a Shiite now," railing against the sect's subservience to Hizbullah.
"To be a Shiite is to keep silent and not to ask what is the purpose of liberating a country. Is it to destroy it all over again and to make it possible for it to be occupied once more?" she wrote.
A year ago, Mohammed Mattar, a Shiite lawyer, filed a lawsuit against a prominent Hizbullah cleric who had issued a fatwa, or religious edict, forbidding any Shiite from accepting a ministerial post after the pro-Hizbullah ministers walked out of the government.
"The edict crossed the red line between democracy and a parliamentary system run by the clergy," Mr. Mattar says, describing the fatwa as the "politics of intimidation."
The lawsuit, which was signed by five Shiites and three Christians, was, he says, "bold, but ultimately you have to defend the principles of the republic. If you want to live in a society ruled by clerics, go to Iran."
Those that have spoken out against Hizbullah say they have been subjected to subtle intimidation. Amine had to cancel his e-mail address after receiving anonymous hate mail, while others have been told they are not welcome at social events.
Lokman Slim, a vocal Hizbullah critic who heads Hayya Bina, a political reform group, says his name was included on two "lists of dishonor" circulated on the Web during the war.
"The Hayya Bina website was shut down during the war due to kindly advice, slash, threats," he says with a wry smile.
Hizbullah's dominance of Shiite politics in Lebanon has its roots in the Lebanese state's historical neglect of the Shiite community. Traditionally marginalized by Lebanon's Christian and Sunni elite and ruled by a handful of feudal clans, the Shiites were mainly confined to the impoverished rural south and east.
Hizbullah was established with Iranian support in the wake of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and soon began to challenge the already existing Amal Movement for dominance of Shiite politics.
Both groups secured loyalty through offering services to their constituents. Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal and Lebanon's parliamentary speaker, adopted a typically Lebanese system of patronage, using his influence within the state to provide his supporters with employment in government institutions.
Hizbullah, which initially operated outside the state, used Iranian funds to build a shadow social welfare network for poor Shiites that included schools and hospitals. The battlefield successes of Hizbullah's military wing against Israeli occupation forces further sustained its popularity and earned it a regional standing.
Today, Hizbullah is a formidable multifaceted organization, arguably the second-largest employer after the Lebanese state, with some 35,000 Shiite families directly or indirectly dependent on the party.
Last year, it formed a strategic alliance with rival Amal, effectively absorbing the movement into its own apparatus. That leaves Hizbullah as the only real representative of Shiites, making it all but impossible for an alternative Shiite political entity to emerge.
"According to opinion polls, Hizbullah commands the support of over 90 percent of the community and it's very difficult for any new group to compete against that," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.
Hizbullah's Shiite opponents argue that the party's popularity is lower than the polls suggest. But they agree that the state's historical disregard for Shiites is to blame as it created a social and political vacuum that was subsequently filled by Hizbullah. Although they say there is a need for a political alternative, swaying Shiite public opinion away from Hizbullah is a near hopeless task.
"We are unable to compete against Hizbullah as secular republican Shiites," says Mr. Slim. "They have God on their side, and it's impossible to compete."
• Wire services were used in this article.