Since the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 in September 2004, Hizballah has been in the international spotlight. In addition to demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the resolution calls for the “disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias,” primarily a reference to the Islamic Resistance that is Hizballah’s armed wing. Following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the resulting “Independence Uprising” in Lebanon and the hasty withdrawal of the Syrian army in the spring of 2005, some thought Hizballah would have to bow to pressure and dissolve the only Lebanese militia remaining after the Ta’if agreement that helped to end the 1975–1990 civil war. Yet months later, the Shi‘i Islamist party continues to vow to “safeguard” the Islamic Resistance, and the new Lebanese government, like its predecessor, continues to say that disarmament should be “dealt with within the framework of internal national dialogue.”

After cautiously straddling the fence during the Independence Uprising, “thanking” its erstwhile Syrian patrons for their Lebanese intervention rather than asking them to stay, Hizballah remains a powerful political actor. Syria’s departure has not obstructed the party’s steady transformation into a “normal” participant in Lebanese politics; to the contrary, for the first time, Hizballah has a minister in the Lebanese government. Hizballah has kept its transformation on course, all the while refusing to dissolve its militia. It has done this largely by emphasizing its Lebanese nationalist credentials and rejecting the charge, most recently leveled by the formerly exiled ex-general Michel Aoun, that it is “a state within a state.”

“National Unity” Cabinet

Hizballah commenced its stepped-up engagement in formal politics even before the last Syrian soldiers left Lebanon at the end of April 2005. In an unprecedented move, the party’s deputies in parliament lent their vote of confidence to the caretaker cabinet of Najib Miqati empaneled in the middle of that month. Miqati’s cabinet included a man Hizballah had named, Trad Hamada, who is not a member of the party but is a sympathizer with most of its positions. Hamada’s appointment as head of the Ministry of Labor and Agriculture was a precursor of more direct representation to come after the four rounds of parliamentary elections in May and June.

The prelude to the elections was consumed by a controversy having to do with an electoral law drafted in 2000 with heavy-handed Syrian guidance. Lebanon is divided into five provinces or governorates: Beirut, Mount Lebanon, North Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and South Lebanon. According to a system laid out in the Ta’if agreement, every electoral district must send to parliament a certain number of members of each of Lebanon’s 18 ethno-confessional communities that has demographic weight in that district. Voters in each district choose between lists each of which is composed according to the same confessional formula. Contrary to the Ta’if agreement, which says that “the electoral district shall be the governorate,” the 2000 electoral law subdivided the five provinces into 14 electoral districts: Beirut was divided into three districts; Mount Lebanon into four; North Lebanon into two; the Bekaa into three; and the South into two. Drawing the districts in this way had produced a heavily “pro-Syrian” parliament in 2000, and Christian MPs who had been in opposition to Syria demanded that it be scrapped, lest it produce the same result in 2005. They called for using a 1960 electoral law dividing the country into even smaller districts that would enhance the representation of Lebanon’s smaller ethno-confessional communities. For its part, Hizballah lobbied the government to institute a new electoral law based on proportional representation, which the party believed would give larger ethno-confessional communities — especially the Shi‘a — a more equitable share of seats. In the end, however, there was insufficient political will in parliament to redraw the districts, particularly since that process might have delayed the elections.

Although the 2005 elections were conducted according to the 2000 election law, they did not reproduce the 2000 results, maybe because the Syrians were no longer physically present. The new parliament is composed of 61 new faces and 67 incumbents, but many of the incumbents were oppositionists. Of the 84 “pro-Syrian” MPs in the previous parliament, only four remained. The forces that had been in active opposition to Syrian influence, led by Saad Hariri, son of the late prime minister, won 72 seats out of the 128, with Hariri’s own bloc winning half of the 72.

Hizballah made a strong showing through strategic alliances with its main Shi‘i rival Amal and other players, including, surprisingly to some, the Hariri bloc in Beirut and even the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces in the Baabda-Aley district of Mount Lebanon. In accordance with its policy of rotating deputies, Hizballah’s “Loyalty to the Resistance” bloc fielded ten new candidates, including a Maronite Christian and two Sunnis, alongside four incumbents. In the end, the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc added two seats to the 12 it already held.

After Amal leader Nabih Berri was elected to a fourth consecutive term as speaker of parliament on June 30, the president asked the legislature to approve Fuad Siniora, the ex-minister of finance and a veteran of the Hariri bloc, to form the new cabinet. Hizballah gave the newly appointed prime minister its unprecedented full and unequivocal support.

After 19 days of bickering, the first 24-seat “national unity” cabinet after the Syrian withdrawal saw the light of day on July 19. Hizballah retained its sympathizer Trad Hamada as minister of labor, and, for the first time, a leading cadre, Muhammad Fanayish, directly represents the party in the cabinet, where he serves as energy minister. During the negotiations that preceded the formation of the cabinet, Hizballah endeavored to break the taboo that bars Islamist movements from obtaining the two sensitive Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs. Hizballah pushed hard for the Foreign Ministry, but international pressure, especially from the US and France, as well as domestic reservations, stood in the way. In order to avoid deadlock, Hizballah proposed a moderate Shi‘i independent, Fawzi Salloukh, an ex-ambassador and a veteran diplomat who is also acceptable to Amal, and he was appointed. However, Hizballah is represented in the parliamentary committee for foreign affairs by two MPs who were elected to their posts.

Basic Strategic Choices

Hizballah has been sending party members to the Lebanese parliament since 1992, and the size of its delegation has previously been sufficient to warrant the offer of a ministry, but the party has never wanted to join the government before. Knowing that they would be a small minority, party leaders recoiled from the prospect of being tainted by unfavorable decisions adopted by a two-thirds majority vote of the ministers. Its representatives, the party argued, could do nothing to alter these decisions. Two ministers will not be able to alter decisions of the current government. So why did Hizballah change its mind about ministerial representation?

According to Nawwaf al-Musawi, Hizballah’s politburo member in charge of international relations, the party decided to join the Lebanese cabinet on March 5, 2005, immediately after Syrian President Bashar al-Asad announced his intention to withdraw Syria’s army from Lebanon. “Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon created a vacuum in the country’s political scene,” Musawi later explained, “and international powers are trying to take advantage of this vacuum and impose their tutelage over Lebanon.” [1] The decision to join was not public until midway through the election campaign. On June 6, Sheikh ‘Afif al-Nabulsi, the head of the Lebanese Shi‘i religious scholars of Jabal ‘Amil, signaled his approval of the idea. [2] Four days later, Hizballah Secretary-General Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah delivered a fiery speech in which he vowed the party’s complete engagement in Lebanese political and economic life as well as participation in government institutions, including the cabinet. The Syrian withdrawal, party spokesmen explained, had forced the decision.

Later, in a Reuters interview reported in Beirut’s al-Safir newspaper, Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Na‘im Qasim explained some more. The party had resolved not to join the cabinet as long as the Syrians were present in Lebanon, since their presence accorded Hizballah political protection. After the Syrian withdrawal, however, Hizballah felt that the Lebanese cabinet would be faced with decisions that might have grave consequences for the future of Lebanon, specifically the country’s official state of war with Israel, the status of the disputed Shebaa Farms and the status of the Islamic Resistance. The current parliament, Nasrallah has said, “is the most important and most dangerous (ahamm wa akhtar) parliament since 1992, because it is obliged to decide the basic political and strategic choices for Lebanon in the decades to come.” [3] The party deemed it necessary to seek a seat at the cabinet table so as to be able at least to speak strongly and directly to power against steps it opposes. [4]

To date, Hizballah’s record of success in this “most important” parliament is mixed. The party helped to prevent the proposed pardon of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), who fought alongside Israel before its May 2000 withdrawal and then fled southward. Nasrallah considered the proposal “a big insult” to the Lebanese people and “an unequivocal threat to national security.” [5] But the walkout of the Hizballah bloc did not stop the legislators from pardoning Samir Geagea — the leader of the Lebanese Forces who served an 11-year jail sentence on charges of planning the assassination of former Prime Minister Rashid Karami. Parliament is scheduled to enact a new and more representative electoral law, and is holding weekly hearings to check the performance of the cabinet, a first in Lebanese politics. It is also discussing the disarmament of Palestinians inside and outside refugee camps in accordance with UNSC 1559, which many consider the prelude to discussions of Hizballah’s disarmament. To Hizballah’s dismay, the parliament debated whether it should avail itself of FBI assistance in training Lebanese security forces to better investigate killings and assassination attempts targeting politicians and journalists.

“Safeguarding the Resistance”

It is clear, however, from the party’s publicly expressed agenda during the campaign what cabinet step it would most militantly oppose. In speeches and interviews with party print and broadcast media, Na‘im Qasim outlined the party’s platform. The party pledged to: “safeguard the Islamic Resistance; facilitate the mission of the UN team investigating Hariri’s assassination; maintain a special relationship between Lebanon and Syria; reject foreign interference in Lebanese affairs; work hard to attract the broadest possible popular support; affirm the value of national dialogue; and stress the need for a comprehensive socio-economic program in the country.” [6] Referring to its alliances with Amal and the Hariri bloc, Hizballah emphasized that whatever electoral alliances it might strike would not come at the expense of its political beliefs. Protecting its militia from the demands of UNSC 1559 is clearly job one.

Given the publicity surrounding that resolution, Hizballah interpreted its performance in the elections as a national referendum authorizing the party to retain its arms — “a slap in the face of international pressure.” The election results do indeed imply that Hizballah is going to hold on to its weapons for the time being.

In the wake of his victory in the Beirut round, Saad Hariri told CNN that, like the Lebanese state and most Lebanese citizens, he considers Hizballah to be a national liberation movement and not a militia. He added that Hizballah would not be disarmed in the near future, unless a comprehensive peace settlement is reached in the Middle East. In that case, the Lebanese would sit together and discuss Hizballah’s military role. Saad Hariri claimed to be echoing his late father’s position, a contention bolstered by an earlier speech by Nasrallah on May 25, the fifth anniversary of the “liberation” of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation. Nasrallah revealed that, prior to Hariri’s assassination, he had held weekly meetings with the former prime minister to discuss the future of the Islamic Resistance. At those meetings, Nasrallah claimed, Hariri promised that if he came to power again he would neither fight the Resistance nor allow Lebanon to become another Algeria. If the pressure to confront Hizballah were too great, he would resign and leave the country. In the same speech, Nasrallah declared: “If anyone entertains the idea of disarming Hizballah, we will fight him as the martyrs did in Karbala’” — the Shi‘i holy city in Iraq where Imam Hussein was killed almost thirteen centuries ago. [7]

Such threatening rhetoric may be unnecessary, since Hizballah still enjoys considerable political credit from its role in the Israeli withdrawal and other Lebanese accept its strategic arguments. Many Lebanese accept Hizballah’s position — which is also the position of the Lebanese and Syrian states — that the Shebaa Farms along the border between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights are Lebanese territory. The UN and Israel claim that the farms are in the Golan, and hence are part of Syria. Edmond Naim, a Lebanese Forces member newly elected to parliament, went further, telling Hizballah’s al-Nur radio on July 15 that, from the standpoint of international law, Hizballah should not give up its arms before Israel withdraws from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. Hizballah or any other group or state, Naim contended, is entitled to come to the rescue of the weaker party.

For its own purposes, Syria also still looks out for the interests of its former “Lebanese card.” Shortly after Naim’s remarks, the Syrian prime minister stated that Hizballah’s disarmament would pose a threat to Syria’s national security since Lebanon would become a “playground for Israeli intelligence.” [8] In mid-July, Syria closed its border with Lebanon, blocking the access of Lebanese goods to the Syrian and Arab markets and stranding numerous Lebanese truckers who rely on the Beirut-Damascus trade for a living. In an attempt to appease Syria, the Lebanese parliament passed a policy statement by a margin of 92 votes upholding Hizballah’s right to bear arms and defend the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon.” The statement also stressed Lebanese respect for all UN resolutions, but specifically mentioning Resolution 194 that accords Palestinian refugees the right of return to former homes in what is now Israel, not UNSC 1559. The next day, Siniora visited Damascus. Talks bore fruit and on August 1, Syria partially lifted its economic embargo and opened the border to Lebanese trucks.

Perhaps sensing the fragility of a Lebanese consensus enforced partly by intimidation, Hizballah has backed away from long-standing rhetoric about needing its militia to liberate Palestine as well as Lebanon. Speaking on the al-Arabiyya satellite channel on September 2, Nasrallah spelled out clearly that after Israel withdraws from the Shebaa Farms, Hizballah is ready to put down its arms after receiving assurances and guarantees from the international community and leading world powers that Israel would not attack Lebanon again. “Resistance is a reaction against aggression,” he said. “When the aggression ends, resistance ends.” [9] Although this development is too recent for adequate analysis, it seems to be a rhetorical shift rather than a policy shift, since no one in the international community would presently enforce guarantees, and Hizballah would never be satisfied with mere assurances. The move may also be tied to the weakening of the armed Palestinian intifada in the last two years. Still, in a speech on October 13, Nasrallah reiterated the offer: “We do not need a regional war to regain occupied land; we just need to liberate Lebanese occupied land [Shebaa Farms] and free our remaining prisoners of war…. If this could be accomplished by recourse to the international community and international relations, then we welcome that.”

Washington’s Circumspection

Such overtures, of course, are partly intended for the ears of the US government, which brands Hizballah a “terrorist organization” and vocally seeks its disarmament in accordance with UNSC 1559. Faced with the reality of attitudes toward Hizballah like Saad Hariri’s, Washington has remained more circumspect than one might think about the Shi‘i party’s incorporation into the government. When Trad Hamada joined Miqati’s cabinet, the US did not voice opposition. On the contrary, in June and with Hizballah’s blessing, Hamada met US officials including Elizabeth Dibble, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, in his capacity as a minister representing Hizballah in the cabinet. At that meeting, Hamada advised the US to place UNSC 1559 on the shelf for at least two years. [10]

In response to the appointment of Fanayish, the State Department said it would not have any dealings with “terrorists,” but had to clarify that while it would boycott the Hizballah minister, his presence in government would not adversely affect regular dealings with the cabinet. Fanayish responded that the US should stop interfering in Lebanese affairs. Making clear that Hizballah’s animosity is toward the US government, not the American people, Muhammad Raad, the head of Hizballah’s parliamentary bloc, argued that if the Bush administration considers Hizballah a terrorist organization then it should boycott the whole cabinet. [11] Hizballah MP Hussein Hajj Hasan told al-Nur radio that the party refuses to deal with the “oppressive” Bush administration that is “against freedom and democracy” because it will not recognize that the will of the Lebanese people accorded Hizballah its representation in the parliament and cabinet.

In her unexpected visit to Lebanon on July 22, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Lebanon’s “progressive path towards democracy.” She affirmed the Bush administration’s desire for full implementation of UNSC 1559 “even if it would take some time,” while stressing the need for Lebanon to honor its obligations. But this pressure seems, so far at least, to be only verbal.

Tending to the Base

The reality is that Hizballah is too important a part of the Lebanese political and social order to be dealt with by the police action that Washington might prefer. First, there is the weight of being a prime representative of the Lebanese Shi‘a. Nasrallah claimed in August that Rafiq al-Hariri had told him that Muslims constitute 70–75 percent of the population, while Christians are estimated at 20–25 percent. Nasrallah added that independent research centers gauge the Christian population at 17–20 percent. [12] But as recent estimates by the Ministry of Interior indicate, the Shi‘a comprise around 55 percent of the population — they are the majority. [13]

Then there are Hizballah’s substantial financial resources. Since 1995, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, appointed Nasrallah and Sheikh Muhammad Yazbak as his religious deputies, the one-fifth tithe (khums) imposed on those Lebanese Shi‘a who follow Khamenei as their marja‘, as well as their alms (zakat) and religious (shar‘i) monies have poured directly into Hizballah coffers, instead of being channeled through Iran, as had been the case. Already before 1995, these monies had allowed Hizballah to found an efficient network of NGOs and social welfare institutions that are open to the public, irrespective of communal origin. These include the Institution of the Good Loan, the Association of Islamic Health, the Institution of Construction and Development, the Association of the Relief Committees of Imam Khomeini and the Educational Foundation, all established over the period 1982–1991. In addition, Hizballah boasts its own media and research institutions. Its weekly mouthpiece al-‘Ahd, established in 1984, was renamed al-Intiqad in 2001. Its think tank, the Consultative Center for Studies and Documentation, and its al-Nur satellite radio station were both founded in 1988. The flagship al-Manar satellite TV channel, the only channel belonging to an Islamist movement in the Middle East, was watched by 10 million people in 2004.

These resources notwithstanding, Hizballah has systematically affirmed that it is not “a state within a state,” as Aoun and others have alleged. In the pre-Ta’if era, Nasrallah said: “Muslims have no right whatsoever to entertain the idea of a Muslim canton or a Shi‘i canton or a Sunni canton…. Talking about cantons annihilates the Muslims, destroys their potential power and leads them from one internal war to another.” [14] In Hizballah’s case, founding a Shi‘i canton in the areas under its control would imply establishing an Islamic state in miniature. In response to comments like Aoun’s, Nasrallah and Muhammad Raad have said that they have never imposed their ideology or political program on anyone; on the contrary, Hizballah always respected the opinions, beliefs and ideas of others. Nasrallah adds that the party views the existence of 18 ethno-confessional communities in Lebanon as an asset, and that the party aspires to openness and dialogue among all Lebanese. Hizballah has repeatedly refused to be a social, political or security alternative to the Lebanese state and its institutions. [15] If nothing else, said Hajj ‘Imad Faqih, a mid-ranking cadre, assuming functions of the state would eventually dirty the party’s hands, which Hizballah cannot afford, having spent years nurturing a reputation for probity. [16] So it would appear that the logic of operating within the bounds of the Lebanese state has prevailed over the logic of revolution.

Achieving the Ordinary

As a mainstream political party, Hizballah operates according to realpolitik calculations of political expediency, benefit and interest. The party’s move ever closer to being a full participant in “normal” Lebanese politics, with the limitations that implies, begs the question of how much it is willing to be coopted into the Lebanese political system and state institutions. Hizballah’s political victories in 2005 illustrated the patriotic-nationalistic character of a party that is supported not only by its major Shi‘i constituency, but also by many Sunnis, Druze and Christians. Based on its following, Hizballah aims to portray itself as the biggest political force in Lebanon. Although Hizballah denies it, its success at balancing its nationalist political commitments and its Islamist background came at the price of compromise (even on some doctrinal issues). Through arguing for civil peace, public freedoms and a functioning civil society, Hizballah attempted to preserve its Islamic identity while working within the domain of the Lebanese state’s sovereignty and inside the confines of a non-Islamic state and a multi-confessional polity. On these grounds, Hizballah conferred de facto recognition upon the Lebanese state, and its supporters know this. Thus, Hizballah cannot go beyond being an “ordinary” political party.

One should be careful not to read too much into the elections and Hizballah’s decision to join the cabinet. It is interesting to note, here, that since the cabinet reflects the power balances in the parliament, it is obvious that any popular dismay with the parliament will be extended to the cabinet, and vice versa. However, Hizballah’s electoral success suggests that the party has been able to win the “hearts and minds” of many Lebanese voters, especially in its major Shi‘i constituencies, thus confirming the efficacy of its “opening up” (infitah) to pluralist politics, while continuing to earn a reputation for integrity in its socio-economic work. Through its NGOs, Hizballah has triumphantly portrayed itself as a Lebanese nationalist political party working in favor of the “wretched of the earth,” without confessional fear or favor. Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, along with the Syrian withdrawal and its aftermath, accelerated the political changes within Hizballah. It may be that disarming and becoming an
“ordinary” political party, far from causing the party’s demise, would boost its domestic political power even further.


[1] Daily Star, June 18, 2005.
[2] Al-Safir, June 7, 2005.
[3] Al-Safir, July 29, 2005.
[4] Al-Safir, August 17, 2005.
[5] Interview with al-Safir, July 29, 2005.
[6] See, for example, the interview with Qasim in al-Intiqad, April 26, 2005.
[7] Al-Intiqad, May 27, 2005.
[8] Al-Nahar, July 21, 2005.
[9] Al-Safir, September 3, 2005.
[10] Hamada has also repeatedly met with Jeffrey Feldman, the US ambassador to Lebanon. Al-Safir, July 19, 2005.
[11] Al-Safir, July 21, 2005.
[12] Interview with al-Ra’y al-‘Amm [Kuwait], August 26, 2005.
[13] The Ministry of Interior figures were viewed by the author in Beirut in October 2005.
[14] Al-‘Ahd, April 18, 1986.
[15] Al-Safir, July 11, 2001.
[16] Interview with the author, November 2, 2004.


How to cite this article:

Joseph Alagha "Hizballah After the Syrian Withdrawal," Middle East Report 237 (Winter 2005).

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