Hizbollah: A state within a state
By:  Ben Judah

ISN Security Watch


As Beirut allows its poorest Shi'a citizens to fall through the cracks, Hizbollah is positioning itself to catch them as they fall, and shore up support in the process.

By Ben Judah in Beirut for ISN Security Watch with additional reporting by Jonathon Tabet (14/09/07)

Lebanon is in crisis, its economy in full recession and the political process paralyzed. However, as the traditional elites of Beirut sink into a deeper malaise over the future, Hizbollah, the Shi'a Muslim faction funded by Tehran and Damascus, is stronger than ever.

The movement is setting forward a national vision and molding its districts as it sees fit, testing and breaking the rules of the political game as its power grows. With Lebanon still unable and unwilling to provide for its poorest Shi'a citizens or control the movement - Hizbollah is emerging as a state within a state.

Welcome to Dahiya
The power cuts with a thud from the air-conditioning in the shabby offices of Ibrahim Mousawi and across the Shi'a suburb of Dahiya, one of the poorest districts of south Beirut controlled by Hizbollah.

Mousawi - who emerged as one of the movement's main spokesmen during last summer's war - is the editor of Al Intiqad, Hizbollah's weekly newspaper, and former director of their international TV channel Al Manar.

He is a typical lieutenant of party leader Hassan Nasrallah, and his career is a testament to the increasing scope of their operations. His slick style, alongside impeccable organization and efficiency, are the characteristic marks of the men who made Hizbollah - and the spots that make them stand out in the corrupt and wasteful tradition left by Lebanese politicians.

Ibrahim Mousawi jokes he is far from a "Tora Bora Terrorist," but reminiscent of a bureaucrat of state.

"They call us a state within a state because of what we do for people," he told ISN Security Watch. "We are funding redevelopment, running schools, hospitals, orphanages, providing training, food aid, helping provide rent, spiritual counseling and education, direct help for farmers and much more alongside the political work we do and the resistance.

"This is not the case of a 'state within a state' - rather we are filing a state void. The government is not here, and I suggest it thank us for helping them provide these services. We are a force that changes people's lives for the better on every level!"

The electricity switches on again, and like the petrol station outside and even the restaurant across the road, it is part of Hizbollah's own extensive network that is managing life here. In Dahiya, every lamp post is adorned by the portrait of a martyr and posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and Nasrallah are never out of sight. Iranian flags flutter over busy roads, and unlike in north and central Beirut, no woman goes unveiled.

Moving through traffic, Hizbollah's brown-garbed "security forces" patrol the streets. Mousawi denies they are replacing the distinctly absent regular Lebanese police.

"They're just coordinating things - so much is going on! You know the way the Lebanese drive; you need people on the lookout."

Seen from the outside
Luis Awit, a young doctor from the Christian suburbs of Beirut in the Mettn region, does not see it that way.

"Oh yeah? Coordinating forces, how come then that a few weeks back the Lebanese police chased some thieves in their area - only to be arrested by these so called coordinators. They confiscated their weapons and then released them. Sure, Hizbollah denied it. But what happened to the weapons?"

The incident that so unnerved Awit was reported in the Arabic press as having occurred on 15 June.

"When the police can't go into their areas - are you going to tell me that's not a state within a state? I worry for the integrity of the country especially as it is so divided politically," he said.

The headquarters of the Kataeb on St Martyr's Square, a right-wing Christian front traditionally a fief of the powerful Gemayel clan, is adorned with a huge poster of Pierre Gemayel, who was assassinated last year. Many suspect that Syria and its Hizbollah allies may have played a role in the murder.

Sitting under a vast picture of the March 14 demonstrations that forced Damascus to withdraw its troops from the country in 2005, Michel Mecattaf weighs his words carefully as a rising star of the pro-western bloc. He has married into the Gemayel clan, sits on the party's central bureau and controls all its local national branches.

"We are opposed to anyone that plays outside the law," Mecattaf told ISN Security Watch. "We are opposed to all those who do so and do not have a Lebanese agenda. Hizbollah's recent actions, such as the discovery of the parallel phone network, are outside legality, and I sincerely hope their agenda is Lebanese. Otherwise, my country will be little Syria again - or little Iran.

"You may call them a state within a state if you think a state has the power to choose for itself war or peace. Remember last summer Hizbollah, and not Lebanon, chose war [with Israel]," Mecattaf said.

Nasrallah's cards
The strength of Hassan Nasrallah's movement is far from diminished a year on from last year's war with Israel. His social programs are better funded than ever thanks to Iranian money, and they have scooped up the vast majority of the Shi'a poor.

Long neglected, Shi'a were traditionally laughed at and despised as "peasants" by the Sunni and Christian bourgeoisie. The Lebanese government has left the south of Beirut, and the south and east of the country has been underfunded since the beginning of the French mandate period.

Rami, who sells belt buckles for a living in a gloomy shopping mall, views this as the secret of Hizbollah's success. "They just moved in and built all this stuff for the really poor. And so they love him [Nasrallah], because everyone abused them before. They are efficient and incorrupt and that has given them enormous power because the people who now rely on them will do anything they say. Because they now need Hizbollah - more than they need the government they never see."

For the western-orientated and the US Embassy in Lebanon, more disturbing news in the past few months testifies to just how deep Nasrallah's rule now extends in his areas.

The discovery of a parallel phone network has been condemned as a "state violation" by the government, which has set about trying to dismantle it, and the news that Hizbollah is buying up land along the Litani River to expand the areas under its control and better fight Israel in an anticipated future war is ominous.

Ensuing news that an Iranian-funded road will cross through the area, and accusations that Tehran's ambassador had been sold vast tracts of land have heightened a tense atmosphere as it becomes clear just how strong Hizbollah really is.

In Dahiya, the "Thank You Iran" placards mark out in the territory that Hizbollah and its allies have rebuilt, which far outperforms the Lebanese government.

The bloc's allegiance to Iran, which is theological, political and financial, unnerves the other Lebanese sects by putting into question just how national its agenda can possibly be.

Militarily, Hizbollah remains constitutionally the national resistance and its armed forces have been vastly expanded since the war. Israel estimates its rocket supplies are greater than ever, its recruits are increasing and there is much speculation that anti-aircraft weaponry is now in its hands. This leaves Hizbollah standing like a giant among rival political pygmies in the continuing cold civil war for Lebanon's political identity and orientation.

However, Hizbollah has not traditionally been the single dominant party among the Shi'a - or even the strongest.

Amal, led by Nabih Berri, who holds the reserved Shi'a position of speaker of parliament, still has a strong presence on the ground. Yet Amal has no militia and lacks the strong ties to Iran and Syria and the all encompassing social networks. The vast boost Hizbollah gained during the last war with Israel gave it even further stature above its older traditional rival. If anything, they have become partners in the political world in the "house Hassan built."

The nephew of a key Amal MP spoke to ISN Security Watch on the condition of anonymity about the state of the party. "Amal is over. It will linger for maybe 30 years at the utmost, but as a movement it is finished. The vitality has been sucked out of it because it has merely become an extended patronage network for the clan leaders and old bosses - what we know as zaim. Hizbollah is still not a zaim movement; it is a people's party and a true social movement."

Living apart, together
Controlling the politics, territory and society of its group - Hizbollah, like the Kurds in northern Iraq, can justly be said to lead a state within a state. Some believe that the Lebanese and the Iraqis both need to learn how to live together - apart. Hopefully then, the small open societies in Beirut and Baghdad would stand a chance of surviving political turmoil.

Nadim Shehadi, Lebanon representative for the UK think tank Chatham House, takes a balanced and nuanced view of the situation.

"The Lebanese don't do unity. This is a divided society like many others. You can't accuse Hizbollah of being different because they run schools, hospitals and universities. The Protestants do that in this country, as do the Maronites and the Sunnis," Shehadi told ISN Security Watch during an interview.

"What makes Hizbollah different is that they are armed, and it is vital to remember that they are permitted to do so under the constitution. This is a question of decommissioning, of finding a way to disarm the movement. The trouble is that the Israeli attack last year ruined the arguments of those who sought to stress that the resistance was no longer necessary."

In Bcharre in the north of Lebanon, the Christian Maronites fly their own flags and live out an identity greatly different than those in Dahiya, likewise the Sunni of Sidon.

As the political crisis deepens and the situation in the Middle East deteriorates, Lebanon still lacks a strong national cement to hold its people together. Hizbollah's state within a state is a reality, and considering even the Israeli army failed in its set task, one that cannot be destroyed or wished away.

The best eventuality may be for the country to legitimize it by moving toward a new federal structure based on the Swiss model that can ensure disarmament and stability for a fragile country. Perhaps, some feel, creating a weak central state not worth fighting over could keep it from being ripped apart. A new national pact and new political system may be the only way to prevent the cold civil war for control of the state from turning hot.
Ben Judah is a correspondent for ISN Security Watch. He is based in London.