A message from Rubin Center Director Dr. Jonathan Spyer:
Omri Nir was a lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Tragically, Dr. Nir was killed in December 2016, while attempting to shield his 10-year-old son Illai who had lost his footing during a hike in the Negev. Illai also died a few days later from his injuries. Omri Nir was a distinguished expert in the politics of modern Lebanon and in particular the Shi’a community in that country. Dr. Nir collaborated with MERIA Journal and with the Rubin Center and the GLORIA Center on a number of occasions. In 2014, he published an influential and much-quoted essay entitled “The Sunni-Shi’i balance in Lebanon and the War in Syria,” in the spring edition of MERIA. The article reprinted below in honor of his memory was published in Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis, (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), edited by GLORIA Center and MERIA founder Professor Barry Rubin.
Excerpted from Rubin, B. M. (2009). Lebanon: liberation, conflict, and crisis. New York City, NY: Palgrave-Macmillan US. Reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
An overall view of Lebanese Shi’a politics reveals three key issues. One is the change in the political status of the Shi’a from a secondary to a major player in the Lebanese political arena. Second is the shift of political power within the Shi’a community from feudal families to leftist activists and later to religious politicians. Third is the political dilemma between three choices of identities—Lebanonism, Arabism, and Shiism. This chapter deals with each of these issues and examines the linkage between the three.
FROM A SECONDARY TO A KEY PLAYER IN LEBANESE POLITICS
When examining the Lebanese Shi’a as political community one must consider some long-run processes that have taken place in Lebanon and in the Shi’a community in the course of the past 30-40 years. It is also proper to look at the current political and social status of the Lebanese Shi’a as still being in a process of change. This change has shifted the role of the Lebanese Shi’a from a supporting player to a major one in Lebanese politics and society.
Up until the 1980s, Lebanese politics was led by non-Shi’a. The Druze and Maronites led the way during the emirate period of Mount Lebanon (al-Imara), between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, and during the period of the Ottoman autonomy district in Mount Lebanon (al-Mutassari-fiyya) from the second half of the nineteenth century until World War I.
After the creation of the modern Lebanese entity in 1920, with new boundaries that included some Sunni- and Shi’a-populated areas in addition to Mount Lebanon, the political game was conducted by Maronites and Sunnis. These two communities continued to be dominant during the French mandate of Lebanon (1920-1946) and in independent Lebanon until the early 1980s. From the mid-1980s and, more intensely, with the stabilizing of the political map at the end of the civil war in 1990, a substantial change took place in the main roles when Shi’a and Sunnis became the new main actors.
The change in the Lebanese political map was mostly a result of the inter-communal military balance at the end of the civil war. The fact that the Shi’a emerged from the war as the militarily strongest religious community and the largest in number was only partly reflected in the new postwar political formula of the Ta’if Accord and electoral laws. This left the door open for political instability. According to the new formula, the Shi’a hold 27 out of 128 seats in the parliament, about 21 percent, while in fact they comprise more than 30 percent of the Lebanese population and the largest community. The Maronites, in comparison, have 34 seats (26.5 percent), and the Sunnis 27. The formula also enlarged the power of the speaker, who is always Shi’a.
In the government, the division of power is equally divided between the three major communities—the Shi’a, the Sunnis, and the Maronites. The political crisis of 2006-2008 proved that one factor for political stability is whether demography is being reflected in the distribution of political posts and powers.
The current Shi’a-Sunni struggle in Lebanon shows that political hegemony is always the subject for conflict between the largest communities. This was the case in the three previous major conflicts in Lebanon—in 1840-1860, in 1958, and in 1975-1990. However, demography is not the only cause for strong fears among non-Shi’a communities. During the violent events of May 2008, when Hizballah seized Sunni West Beirut and fighting broke out, other communities expressed strong fears of Shi’a strength—but these were rooted in previous events, including a takeover of West Beirut by the Shi’a in February 1984. In the “February Uprising” of 1984 (Intifadat Shbat), Amal, the dominant Shi’a militia of the time, together with the Druze militia, took control over West Beirut after Shi’a soldiers deserted the Shi’a 6th brigade of the Lebanese Army. For the first time in Lebanese history, the commercial and political centers of the state were under Shi’a military control.
From that point on, the Shi’a were perceived by most other Lebanese as an intimidating factor for future Lebanon. The 1984 “February Uprising” took some sleepy genies out of the bottle. As a result, an anti-Shi’a camp, comprising most of the other Lebanese communities, was formed. In some aspects, the May 2008 takeover of Beirut was a remake of the events of 1984. In 2008, the Shi’a, this time under the leadership of Hizballah with active participation by Amal, forcibly took control of Beirut and some other areas in three days, levying the heavy price of 65 casualties and about 200 wounded.
In both events, 1984 and 2008, the non-Shi’a of Lebanon shared the same fears of seeing the Shi’a emerge as the dominant political power and set the cultural and religious agenda. The principal fear is derived from the demographic situation in Lebanon, which has not only social but direct political significance given the communal proportionate division of power.
The Shi’a community is presumably the largest religious community in Lebanon although there is no official up-to-date data because no official census has been held in the country since 1932. In the last census, held while Lebanon was still under the French mandate, the Shi’a comprised 19.81 percent, ranked third after the Maronites (29.11 percent) and the Sunnis (22.63 percent). Even if these results are accepted—which may be wrong given both French interests and the objective problems of holding an accurate census—there are still three significant factors that make the Shi’a community the largest today.
One is the birthrate among the Shi’a population, which is the highest in all Lebanese religious communities. Second is the emigration of non-Shi’a Lebanese, mainly Maronites. Lebanon faced waves of emigrations following violent crises in the past (1860, 1958, 1975-1990), and according to some reports, emigration of Christians out of Lebanon following the July 2006 war between Hizballah and Israel is estimated at 100,000.
The third relevant impact of demography is internal migration in Lebanon. The southern suburbs of Beirut (al-Dahiya al-Janubiyya, or, Sharit al-Ba’as) became the largest Shi’a-populated area in the country. This is highly important because Beirut is the country’s political arena and economic artery. In the past, the Shi’a feudal leadership (al-zu’ama) was able to manipulate the masses in the peripheries of southern Lebanon and the Biqa Valley.
Since the 1950s, and increasingly during the civil war of 1975-1990, this manipulation became impossible as many Shi’a moved following the important role of the Shi’a militias in the capital city. These militias of Amal and Hizballah took control over the political power in the Shi’a community during the war and in the postwar era, partly because of their ability to mobilize the Shi’a masses for political purposes. This ability was well demonstrated when the two Shi’a movements organized mass demonstrations during the political crisis of 2006-2008, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands.
Another fear shared by non-Shi’a communities is derived from strong Shi’a communal organization and military strength. The military force of Hizballah, known as the Islamic Resistance (al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya), is well trained, equipped with the best technologies, and experienced from fighting with Israel. It is the only Lebanese militia that remained following the Ta’if Accord of 1989, excepting small Palestinian militias in the refugee camps. After opposing the Ta’if Agreement initially, Hizballah accepted it eventually—presumably following a pre-understanding with Syria, the determining player in Lebanon at the time, on keeping its arms. This served the Syrian interests both for regional and Lebanese struggles. Hizballah then committed itself never to use its weapons against the Lebanese. The military occupation of western Beirut and other areas in May 2008 was a flagrant breach of this commitment, and Hizballah will probably face more internal hostility in future discussions on the issue of disarmament.
The organizational abilities of the Shia are well demonstrated through various events. Enormous efficiency was demonstrated in a series of election campaigns, when the Shi’a utilized a highly organized transportation system and headquarters. Another example of a successful Shi’a technique were the mass demonstrations during the political crisis of 2006-2008, including the establishment of the “city of tents” in downtown Beirut, which blocked central Beirut for 18 months. They also effectively organized reconstruction of thousands of houses and apartments, though fewer and slower than promised, after the July 2006 war against Israel.
Another cause of concern for the non-Shi’a communities is the Shi’a linkage to Islamism. The Shi’a community is the main paradigm of the revival of Islam in Lebailon. Following the failure of pan-Arabism and Arab socialism in the Middle East, an accelerated process of Islamization began in the mid-1970s. As a result, political Islam emerged in Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority. In Lebanon, this process occurred mainly within the Shi’a community. This trend has also existed among Sunnis since 2005 but in much lower numbers. One of the political expressions of Islamism in Lebanon is a growing support for Hizballah. Islam has become attractive as a political and social framework, and Shi’a have started to participate in growing numbers in Islamist activities—trying to promote an Islamist agenda by supporting Hizballah.
Hizballah itself has an ambivalent attitude toward Lebanon, which influences the Shi’a as a whole. It sees the state’s institutions as legitimate so long as they serve the organization’s own goals. However, when this is not so, Hizballah views the Lebanese institutions as illegitimate. This is one of the essential differences between Hizballah and Amal, which sees itself as a national Lebanese movement whose vision for the future of Lebanon is within the existing national institutions. The more the Shi’a accept the Islamist worldview, the less they respect the Lebanese national institutions.
The fact that the Shi’a community enjoys consistent support from foreign countries, namely Iran and Syria, is another source of fear in Lebanon. Up until the early 1980s, the Shi’a lacked foreign support, while some other communities enjoyed the support of Western and Arab countries. Today, the commitment of Western countries to the Christians and Sunnis in Lebanon is weaker than the Iranian and Syrian commitment to the Shi’a. Iran provides the Shi’a with economic support, arms, political backing, religious leadership, and communal activities. Iranian support is based on a religious worldview and regional interests. Syrian support, which is based on political, economic, and strategic interests in Lebanon, has roots going back to the early 1970s. Since then, the Shi’a have been the most solid ally of Syria in the country.
SHIFT OF POLITICAL POWER WITHIN THE SHI’A COMMUNITY
In general, since the formation of the Lebanese state in 1920, political power in the Lebanese Shi’a community has shifted between four elements. In the first phase, which lasted until the late 1960s, political power was all in the hands of the zu’ama. The prominent zu’ama families were al-Asad, Hamada, al-Khalil, Usayran, and Haydar. Later on, until the early 1980s, the religious scholar Musa al-Sadr, with the help of former leftist activists, became at least as important as the zu’ama. For a decade and a half, ending in the mid-1990s, a group of former leftist activists took the political wheel before a new model of religious politicians took control of Shi’a politics. The shift of political power is related to social, political, and military changes that have taken place since the mid-twentieth century. Some of these processes still influence Shi’a domestic politics.
Foremost is the urbanization factor, which started among the Shi’a in the 1950s and has not stopped since. Part of the impetus for that trend was related to economic changes in the 1950s, particularly the oil industry boom, which dramatically altered the city of Beirut. It was also affected by the bad conditions of agriculture due to changes in market demand. The result was a massive exodus of Shi’a from rural areas in order to find alternative subsistence in the big cities. Between the early 1950s and the mid-1970s, almost 40 percent of the rural Shi’a population moved to the cities. As a result, 63 percent of the Shi’a became urban; 45 percent of them lived in greater Beirut.
Part of the process can be seen as a direct result of “Shihabisrn,” the policy adopted by presidents Fuad Shihab and Charles Hilu between 1958 and 1970 in which the government made earnest efforts to bridge the economic and social gaps in Lebanese society. For the first time, the Lebanese central government attempted to enforce its authority over all aspects of life and over all districts of the country. The government intended to implement programs for improvement in underprivileged areas, with special emphasis on the Shi’a in Jabil Amil. That policy risked the status of the Shi’a zu’ama, causing them to oppose Shihab and Hilu. In return, the two acted to promote Musa al-Sadr as a political alternative to the zu’ama and helped him to establish and head the Supreme Shi’a Islamic Council (1969) as the official representative body of the Shi’a. With the title of the official leader of the Shi’a community, Sadr later established the Movement of the Deprived (al-Mahrumin) and Amal. These bodies contributed greatly to the change of the political framework of the Shi’a and their political perception.
As an outcome of urbanization, tens of thousands of Shi’a settled down in the southern suburbs of Beirut, free of the political influence of the zu’ama. Instead, they were exposed to leftist ideologies that offered them class world-views with revolutionary passion. At the same time, Musa al-Sadr offered them a social and political struggle based on traditional Shi’a roots. In fact, Sadr and the leftist movements struggled over Shi’a public support within the traditional strongholds of the zu’ama too. This nibbled away at the popularity and political status of the zu’ama and strengthened the new political alternatives.
Urbanization created a political problem, since the electoral law allocated the Shi’a parliamentary seats to the traditional Shi’a-populated areas, Jabil Amil and the Biqa Valley, while the Shi’a of Beirut’s suburbs were underrepresented. Urbanization is one of the reasons why the Shi’a zu’ama rapidly declined in the 1970s as compared to the zu’ama in other Lebanese religious communities. During the next decade, Amal was the popular choice among most of the Shi’a in the city suburbs, and since the early 1990s the Dahiya became one of Hizballah’s strongholds—with a closed compound area out of the government’s authority.
The process of urbanization contributed to another social transformation, the creation of a new Shi’a middle class. Members of this class have graduated from high schools and universities in Beirut and have become doctors and lawyers. Others are the descendants of Shi’a merchants who emigrated from Lebanon to western Africa in the 1930s due to economic difficulties and returned to Lebanon in the 1990s. The new Shi’a petit bourgeois class, which pushed for political change in the early 1970s, became the ideological and economic core of Amal’s supporters. In the mid-1990s, some of them became supporters of Hizballah, including rich Shi’a business men in Lebanon and abroad.
In spite of the growing importance of the southern suburbs of Beirut as the largest Shi’a-populated area in the country, Jabil Amil remained the political stronghold as a result of the geographical division of the communal system. According to the electoral laws following the Ta’if Agreement, 14 Shi’a are elected from Jabil Amil and 8 in the Biqa Valley, while only 2 are from Beirut. In fact, the Dahiya is not considered part of Beirut, neither municipally nor in the Lebanese poll book, and not cognitively. In the late 1980s, for instance, Hizballah took control over the Dahiya after pushing Amal out militarily and socially, but it began to lead Shi’a politics only after establishing itself in Jabil Amil. As many Shi’a from the Dahiya were still registered as residents of Jabil Amil and voted in their hometowns in the 1992 parliamentary elections, Hizballah was able to take advantage and gain great success. Hizballah made a distinction between Dahiya and Beirut—after almost a month of Israeli shelling of the Dahiya in July 2006, Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s secretary general, threatened to bomb the Israeli city of Tel Aviv if Israel bombed Beirut.
The 1975-1990 civil war was another essential factor in the shift of political power. In its first stages, the war gathered most Shi’a around the only Shi’a militia of the time, Amal. That gave the leaders of Amal political advantage, as during the war political influence depended on military force. In addition, Amal was the closest ally of Syria during the war, and Syria eventually took control over Lebanon in the late 1980s. As a result, Amal’s leader, Nabih Barri, became an important politician whose attendance has been essential in any political deal. One of the main reasons why Amal lost popularity to Hizballah in the 1990s is that Amal gave up its weapons in 1991 according to the Ta’if Accord while Hizballah kept its arms after giving a clear commitment to use them only against non-Lebanese enemies. Using arms for political purposes in May 2008 and the fact that Hizballah strengthened its leadership within the Shi’a community as a result of that violent act proves the importance of military strength in Shi’a politics.
Another factor that influenced the shift of political power was the rise of an activist political stream among the Lebanese Shi’a. This had roots in the Shi’a activism of Najaf, Iraq, during the late 1950s and the 1960s. Modern Shi’a political activism cultivated by the Iraqi Grand Ayatollahs Muhsin al-Hakim and Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was a change from the Shi’a tradition of submissiveness. The main innovation was the idea that the Shia should take an active role in shaping their own destiny. Saturated with the activist political perception, bigwigs such as Musa al-Sadr, Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, and Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din settled in Lebanon in the 1950s and 1960s.
Dozens of other Lebanese scholars educated in Najaf had to leave Iraq when the Iraqi Ba’th party came to power in 1968 and started to harass Shi’a scholars. In Lebanon some of them established Shi’a colleges based on the Najafi model (Huzat Ilmiya). Musa al-Sadr was the first to take the Lebanese Shi’a out of their political indifference during the 1960s and early 1970s and in fact created political activism in order to gain political and social improvements for the Shi’a. This was at the expense of the traditional zu’ama.
Yet Sadr’s secular associates, who took the political wheel after his disappearance in 1978 and led the Shi’a militia in the civil war after 1980, could not limit the Shi’a activism to the national political or social arena. Shi’a activism in Lebanon got out of the control of Sadr’s successors, and the activist stream advanced to link the uncompromising military stand in the war with the Shi’a religious roots of activism. The opportune moment was the February 1979 Iranian Islamist Revolution. From that point on, Shi’a activism was mainly connected with religious motivation, although politically it was only the death in 1989 of the highest spiritual authority and the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that triggered Hizballah to become a dominant political power. It enabled the movement to replace Islamic activism with national activism in order to attract secular supporters.
The domination of Hizballah in Shi’a politics since the late 1990s is very much linked with the emergence of Iran as a regional superpower in the context of Iranian efforts to gain hegemony in the Middle East. With Iranian money and military support Hizballah enjoys a clear superiority against any rivals within the Shi’a community. Aural, the only possible alternative, tried to gain popularity through Lebanese government money, which was much less than the Iranian support. However, the intra-Shi’a political implication is even more meaningful since the dilemma of loyalty between Lebanon and the Shi’a state, Iran, has been sharpened. Hizballah is aware of the dilemma and is trying to satisfy both Lebanese supporters and Iran. This is the main reason for the process of “Lebanonization,” which will be discussed later.
Feelings of deprivation were the main reason for the wide rift opened between the zu’ama and the ordinary Shi’a people in the 1930s and for the accumulated anger against the zu’ama. This reaction pushed many Shi’a later to join leftist movements with revolutionary social ideologies. Deprivation remained on the Shi’a agenda after the decline of the zu’ama and became the key factor of al-Mahrumin and Amal. The idea that the Shi’a were suffering from injustice is rooted deep in the Shi’a religious tradition; this played an important part in shaping the unique Shi’a-Lebanese identity of these movements in the 1970s and enabled Amal domination of political power in the 1970s and 1980s.
The shift of political power to the group headed by Sadr, integrating leftist activists and religious scholars, seems a paradox because of the essential difference between the secular worldview and the religious outlook. Nevertheless, that integration was probably necessary for ending the political control of the zu’ama. The common ground was a social struggle that was first in the list of priorities of both the religious scholars and the leftist activists. In the 1990s the communal activity in the deprived Shi’a areas was among the key factors for the growth of Hizballah.
Some regional and domestic events since 2000 also strengthened the political status of Hizballah within the Shi’a community. The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon after 18 years of occupation in May 2000 was taken as a great military victory for Hizballah. The popularity of the movement and its leaders reached new heights, not only among the Shi’a population but also on the Lebanese street and in Arab countries.
The July 2006 war against Israel and the following Lebanese political crisis of 2006-2008 also strengthened the political status of Hizballah in the short term. The claim of military success in the battlefield in the first case let Hizballah present itself as the defender of Lebanon and seemed a contrast to the defeats of all Arab armies against Israel in previous wars. In addition, Hizballah swiftly succeeded in taking control of the restoration of damaged buildings and provided aid in the Shi’a areas with Iranian and foreign Shi’a money.
A day after the ceasefire, using its own effective staff of Jihad al-Bina’a (Hizballah’s holy department of building), it started promising solutions for the newly homeless. Each family that lost its home was to receive $12,000 for renting a temporary alternative residence, until Hizballah rebuilt a permanent one. This was filmed and used by the media, mainly al-Manar TV, to prove Hizballah’s devotion to the Shi’a population. Jihad al-Bina’a broadened its projects and became an employer of many workers and engineers, Shi’a and non-Shi’a. Hizballah provided salaries for 35,000 Shi’a families and was the second-largest employer in Lebanon after the government.
Politically, Hizballah showed excellent organizing capabilities during the war and at any rate, no alternative leadership appeared in the Shi’a community. The Amal movement became a kind of “branch” of Hizballah, and Amal’s leader, Nabih Barri, functioned as a middleman between Hizballah and the “outside” world.
Since the war, Hizballah has had to face some difficulties. As time passed, the credibility of the movement was undermined because it could not keep its promise to reconstruct quickly. With the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the Lebanese Army also in the south, the war seemed less successful, and Hizballah seemed more restricted in that area. Nevertheless, in the eyes of most Lebanese Shi’a—though not non-Shi’a Lebanese—the balance of Hizballah’s achievements after 2006 is bigger than the failures.
FINDING A POLITICAL PATH: BETWEEN LEBANONISM, ARABISM, AND SHIISM
The third element of Shi’a politics in Lebanon is the leadership’s need to
maneuver between three political options: Lebanonism, Arabism, and Shiism. The Shi’a in Lebanon have been linked to all three political identities, with different emphases in different time periods. For example, while some Shi’a politicians opposed the French presence at the time of the mandate, others supported it. While some advocated the formation of a separate Lebanese state, others supported the annexation of Lebanese land to Syria. Some supported the pan-Arab Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in the late 1950s while others opposed his ideology. Some backed the centralist policy of President Shihab in the early 1960s while others were clearly anti-Shihab. Some welcomed the Palestinian presence in Lebanon and others rejected it. Some were pro-Syrian in the 1980s, others pro-Iranian. Some held a secular way of life while others were more religiously oriented. Some adopted an activist approach and others a passive one. Personal struggles between politicians and internal feuds also played a role in these disagreements.
In spite of the inconsistency it is possible to find typical characteristics in each political period. The Shi’a zu’ama held a dual stand during their dominant years, until the 1960s. On the one hand they always supported a radical Arab policy, which sometimes seemed anti-Lebanese, in order to maintain public support. On the other hand, they acted to preserve the Lebanese system that served their personal, political, and demographic interests. At the time of the French mandate most of the Shi’a zu’ama opposed the Lebanese state and acted to promote an annexation of Shi’a-populated areas to Syria. Only in the mid-1930s did the leading Shi’a zu’ama join the political game. They continued to support the Arab stand during the 1958 political crisis on the question of Arabism versus Westernization and drove the Shi’a to play a significant role against the pro-Western forces.
The political positions of Musa al-Sadr, the next prominent political leader, were unique in the Lebanese political arena. Sadr combined Lebanese national political targets with a Shi’a-Islamic tradition. As a religious scholar he urged for a national solution that would ameliorate the deprived Shi’a lives. At Shi’a mass gatherings he emphasized the linkage between the modern social and political struggle of the Shi’a in Lebanon during the early 1970s and the historic struggle of the Shi’a in the early days of Islam. Sadr also adopted some Arab political views, such as supporting the Syrian presence in Lebanon and supporting the Palestinian struggle in Lebanon. By adopting these policies, Sadr hoped to attract Shi’a activists from leftist movements, who held a social agenda, and to give them “esprit de corps” as Shi’a. In many aspects he personally was the combining force among all the opponents of the zu’ama, including religious scholars, leftist activists, rural and urban Shi’a, farmers, and liberal professionals. Therefore, he held a unique combination of Lebanese, Islamic, and Arabic political positions. His disappearance in August 1978 dismantled that coalition into separate groups.
Politically, Sadr’s successors were young activists whose political background was rooted in leftist movements before they joined Sadr’s Amal movement. ‘Under Nabih Barri, Amal adopted a Lebanese ‘political identity with some Arabism and drew away from Shi’a Islamism. One of the reasons for the political weakness of Amal in the struggle against Hizballah today is the absence of a Lebanese spiritual figure identified with the movement while Hizballah has close relations with Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah. Amal’s good relations with the head of the Supreme Shi’a Islamic Council in Lebanon, Abd al-Amir Qabalan, are not enough. Although maximum efforts are made by Amal to link with Shi’a Islamism in the public consciousness, it is still recognized by most Shi’a as a secular movement.
The religious politicians of Hizballah who have led Shi’a politics since the late 1990s started with a clear Shi’a-Islamic political agenda in the mid-1980s and gradually adopted a national Lebanese policy. Hizballah published its political platform in an open letter in February 1985. The platform displayed a clear religious Islamic vision, with a clear, decisive negation of Lebanon as a multi-confessional state. In October 2005 Hizballah joined the Lebanese government under the same political multi-confessional system, with a Maronite Christian still the head of the state. This was made possible due to a process in which Hizballah blurred its Islamic revolutionary dogmas and gradually adopted a Lebanese identity. This process is often called “Lebanonization.”
The process began with some structural changes and later with some policy modifications right after the death of its Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in June 1989. From a structural standpoint, the movement had for the first time a Lebanese leader (secretary general) and not an Iranian one, although the spiritual leadership remained in the hands of Iranian Ali Khamene’i. The slogan “The Islamic Revolution in Lebanon” (al-thawra al-Islamiyya fi Lubnan) was removed from the movement’s banner in order to emphasize that Hizballah is a Lebanese movement, acting within the Lebanese reality. At that stage, during the last days of the civil war when Lebanon started to implement the Ta’if Accord as a new formula for Lebanese politics, Hizballah was struggling to gain status and influence. Hizballah opposed the agreement at first due to articles that confirmed the multi-confessional system with Christian privileges and the demand for disarmament of all militias. The second important opponent to the Ta’if Accord was Maronite General Michael Aoun, who became Hizballah’s ally in the Lebanese political crisis that started in November 2006. Only after it became clear that the agreement would be implemented did Hizballah accept it, very likely with a promise from Syria that Hizballah would be able to keep its arms.
The next stage of “Lebanonization” was Hizballah’s decision to participate in the first postwar elections during the summer of 1992, after obtaining permission from its top spiritual authority—the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei’i. Hizballah’s great success in these elections reflected the desire of many Shi’a for political change. Over the course of time Hizballah participated in all-Lebanese national forums for reconciliation between religious groups and adversaries after the civil war. Moreover, the extensive public service system of the movement opened its gates to non-Shi’a as well, although for payment.
In the mid-1990s leaders in Hizballah clearly blurred most of the Islamic revolutionary dogmas in speeches and declarations and correspondingly emphasized Lebanese nationalism. Lebanonism became a central argument in Hizballah’s political platforms in further parliamentary and municipal election campaigns. The most important struggle of the movement in the 1990s, the one against the Israeli army in the “security belt” in the south, was also presented as a Lebanese struggle, not an Islamic one. The Israeli withdrawal in May 2000 was presented as a religious and political triumph but mostly as a great victory for Lebanon. Lebanese flags and Hizballah’s yellow ones were waved side-by-side.
Hizballah also showed loyalty to the state by handing over collaborators with Israel to the Lebanese special court martial in Beirut after the Israeli withdrawal rather than punishing them itself on behalf of the “resistance.” The abduction of Israeli soldiers in October 2000 as well as in July 2006 were also presented to the Lebanese public as part of the national Lebanese struggle and as an Arab one in order to assure the release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners, not specifically Shi’a ones. The next step was the joining of Hizballah to the government for the first time, after the 2005 parliamentary elections.
The “Lebanonization” process enabled Hizballah to break some barriers among secular Shi’a with a national- or Arab-national outlook and to become a legitimate political framework for the Shi’a community. In the Lebanese arena, the process enabled Hizballah to establish relationships with nonShi’a groups and to become a strong player in the parliamentary game. However, the July 2006 war against Israel and the following political crisis put a question mark on this process, its depth, and its real aim.
While the war strengthened the status of Hizballah as the dominant leadership of the Shi’a and a leading power in Lebanese politics on the one hand, it revealed fundamental controversies that have been blurred during the years of the “Lebanonization” process on the other. Some of the moves taken by Hizballah during and after the war stand in contrast to the process. The fact that Hizballah justifies its actions with contradictory arguments shows it knows the value of the political line of “Lebanonization” and does not want to abandon it openly.
For instance, the abduction of the Israeli soldiers was not coordinated with any governmental factor in Lebanon in spite of the direct military and political implications it has had on the Lebanese state. To finesse this problem, Hizballah says that since the one goal of the operation was to release the Lebanese Druze Samir Quntar, it is not a Shi’a agenda but a Lebanese national issue.
Another example is the way Hizballah conducted the war with no consideration of the national implications, leaving Lebanon in ruins. Once again Hizballah justifies itself by claiming to defend Lebanon from a planned Israeli invasion and proved itself the only Lebanese military body capable of doing so. This argument also justifies the decisive stand against disarmament, an issue that was on the Lebanese political agenda before July 2006 and has remained there since. Nasrallah also tried to show Lebanese patriotism when he threatened to bomb Tel Aviv if Beirut was bombarded. Accusations of Iranian involvement in the war and the blocking of the government from helping Shi’a were all rejected by Hizballah.
Whether these protestations of Lebanese patriotism were sincere or not—much if not most of the other communities reject them—they are vital if Hizballah is going to operate in Lebanese politics. To the extent, of course, that it violates Lebanese interests or is perceived as doing so by the other communities, Hizballah’s power is challenged and limited.
The postwar situation raised further allegations against Hizballah on promoting Iranian and Syrian interests in Lebanon at the expense of Lebanese interests, as well as of course Shi’a interests instead of national ones. The political crisis that started in November 2006 with the resignation of the five Shi’a ministers called into question the nature of “Lebanonization” in Hizballah even more than the war did. For 18 months during the crisis, the Shi’a, under the hegemony of Hizballah, blocked national Lebanese institutions such as the government, the parliament, and the presidency. Hizballah undermined the Lebanese government although it was an elected government that represented the Lebanese electoral majority. The Shi’a political bloc used the authority of the speaker, Nabih Barri of Amal, to prevent the legislators from assembling, thus stopping the government from providing financial aid to war-damaged areas and leaving Hizballah to be the sole benefactor.
Hizballah also tried to build civilian systems parallel to those of the state, thereby acting as a state within a state. After the government tried to dismantle Hizballah’s private, parallel communication system in May 2008, violence broke out. At this point, Hizballah and its allies used their weapons against the Lebanese people, contradicting their clear promise in the early 1990s. Following negotiations in Doha, Qatar, which fulfilled almost all the political demands of the Shi’a, Hizballah tried to blur the events of May by describing them as civil disobedience.
When viewing the issue of the Shi’a political dilemma between Lebanonism, Arabism, and Shiism, a dynamic development can be seen_ The line starts with Arabism as their first political preference between the 1920s and the 1960s, then turning to Shi’a-Islamism in the late 1980s. In between, the line crosses a unique Lebanese-Shi’a political identity, which integrates religious elements on the one hand and Lebanese national elements on the other. In the early 1990s the tendency of the imaginary line was changed once again toward the direction of Lebanese political identity, thereby blurring Islamism but still maintaining the Shi’a communal interest foremost. After the 2008 violent collisions the so-called Lebanese political identity was changed a little, and became a better representative of Shi’a political views. The Doha Agreement, the basic principles of the 2008 unity government and of the national dialogue talks, shows that an anti-Shi’a political coalition accepted some of the Shi’a’s previous stands as the new golden path of Lebanon’s politics.
The Shi’a community became a crucial factor in Lebanese politics in the post–civil war era. Political developments that occurred in the last 40 years within the Shi’a community and within Lebanese politics in general lead to the conclusion that Lebanon may well be in the middle of a slow Shi’a political and social revolution. The May 2008 takeover of Beirut by arms, which led to Shi’a political victory in a long crisis, was only another step toward the fulfillment of that revolution. Naturally, however, the Shi’a are facing difficulties in their relations with other religious communities who feel threatened by these developments. These communities, which still form the majority of the country’s population, continue to hold their own territories, identity, and resources. Thus, the story is by no means over nor is a particular future inevitable.
The upgrade in the status of the Shi’a in the Lebanese political system in the 1980s and afterward could not have happened without the shift of political power within the community to Amal and later to Hizballah. The latter could not have become a leading political power if it had not adopted a Lebanese political identity in the early 1990s and blurred its Islamic ideology—a process known as Hizballah’s “Lebanonization.”
Shi’a politics in the postwar era provide two political alternatives for the Shi’a. One, represented by Amal, accepts the Lebanese state as the homeland for the Lebanese Shi’a. Its vision for the Lebanese state is based on its strong linkage to Arab nationalism and weak linkage to Islamism. The second, represented by Hizballah, sees the Lebanese state as an instrument to fulfill a wider Islamist ideology, with some linkage to the Lebanese state and Arabism. Therefore, Hizballah accepts the Lebanese state only as long as it serves its own interests, but if the state disturbs those interests the state becomes illegitimate. That might be the proper context for explaining Hizballah’s policy and statements during the political crisis of 2006-2008 and particularly the events of May 2008.
One interesting point is that political power shifted from Amal to Hizballah although it was Hizballah that adopted, at least outwardly, most of Amal’s political platform while Amal did not change. History also shows that the Lebanese reality and public opinion prevent the total fulfillment of Islamist ideology.
The importance of the Shi’a clerics in politics provides another key interpretation of Shi’a politics. These figures have been continuously involved. All the substantial alterations in Shi’a politics were an outcome of activities led by religious scholars. They were the first to accept and internalize the idea of a separate Lebanese state in the 1920s and later they waved the banner of Shi’a uniqueness in Lebanon. They emphasized Shi’a-Islamism in the Supreme Shi’a Islamic Council and in Hizballah, which was a turning point in Shi’a identity. One can say that the Shi’a political leadership in the 1980s, which was dominated by politicians with leftist backgrounds, took advantage of the Shi’a-Islamist wave, while in the 1990s the religious politicians of Hizballah took advantage of the political and military position of the community—a position that was taken by the secular leadership of the I980s.
An overall view of Shi’a politics in Lebanon leads to the conclusion that the Lebanese Shi’a did not fully adopt any political ideology. Most of them seek the best political platform in order to achieve social and political improvement. This argument is supported by the historical fact that the critical masses of Shi’a political activists were members of communist movements in the mid-1970s, of Amal in the early 1980s, and of Hizballah in the early 1990s. In 15 years they shifted their political support from a secular-leftist movement to an extremist Islamist movement.
Within this context the popularity of Hizballah should be understood as the current best platform for the Shi’a but not necessarily the future one. Two reservations should be made regarding this point. One is that Lebanon and the Shi’a are both infected by the rise of Islamism in the region, which causes more and more Shi’a to adopt a religious-Islamist worldview. Without the emergence of a political alternative or a drastic decline in Hizballah’s situation there is a chance that Hizballah will not be looked at only as a means for socioeconomic improvement but as reflecting a massive process of Islamization. The second reservation is related to the demographic process in Lebanon. The closer the Shi’a get to being a majority the closer they will come to achieving their political and social revolution, which might turn Lebanon into a much more religious Islamic state than it is today. Yet if Hizballah’s ambitions or power grow, in a typically Lebanese way, the more the opposition from other communities would also intensify. This might push Lebanon into the next violent round, a negotiating process through which a political compromise could be reached in which the Shi’a would improve their position. What seems most likely, however, is that the Shi’a factor in Lebanese politics will become more important and powerful, though whether that happens and in what direction it leads Lebanon is largely dependent on Hizballah’s actions. For this reason, particularly after the Shi’a takeover of West Beirut in May 2008, the anti-Shi’a political camp is partly adapting itself with Hizballah, knowing that Lebanon needs to compromise on a new common denominator that is closer to the Shi’a political line. Therefore the new middle way, until the next crisis, reflects not only Hizballah’s “Lebanonization” but also Lebanon’s “Hizballization.”
*Dr. Omri Nir was a lecturer in the departments of Middle-Eastern and Islamic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv University, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His expertise is the history and politics of modern Lebanon and the Arab Shi’a.
 The. Ta’if Accord set the number of seats in the Lebanese parliament at 108 in article 6, section II, “On Political Reforms.” It was changed to 128 in the electoral law of June 1992. For more on the number of seats, see (in Arabic) Farid al-Khazan and Bul Salam, al-Intikhabat al-Niyabiyva al-Ulan fi Lubnan ma Ba’ad al-Harb al-Argam, wal-Waqa’i’ wal-Dalalat (Beirut: al-Markaz al-Islami lil-Dirasat, 1993), p. 53.
 The “February Uprising” of 1984 was a follow-up to the “Black Saturday” heavy fighting on February 4. See al-Nahar, February 5, 1984. According to Nabih Barri, the leader of Amal, 14,400 Shi’a and Druze soldiers deserted the Lebanese Army. See The Voice of the Mountain, February 7, 1984, in: FBIS -DR, February 8, 1984, p. G7.
 The press reported on 65-84 dead and around 200 wounded. See al-Nahar, May 14, 2008; and Nadim Ladki, “Lebanese Army Says Will Intervene from Tuesday,” Reuters, May 12, 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/ idUSL1250503820080512.
 Meir Zamir, The Formation of Modern Lebanon (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1.988), p. 98.
 Several statistics were published in recent years. Youssef Douwayhi, based on official birth records (sijilat al-nufus) since 1905, published a demographic survey in al-Nahar, November 13, 2006, that the Shi’a are 29.05% of the population, the Sunnis are 29.06%, and Maronites are 19.47%. The study included all the Lebanese born, including those who immigrated from Lebanon; the list of registered voters published prior to the 2005 elections indicated 26.5% Sunni, 26.2% Shi’a, and 22.1% Maronite, but the registrations only include adults older than 21. See al-Safir, February 11, 2005, and al-Nahar, February 11, 2005. Majed Malawi, A Lebanon Defined: Musa Al-Sadr and the Shi’a Community (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992), p. 50, estimated the number of Shi’a at 1,325,499 out of a population of 4,044,784 in 1988 (32%).
 In 1971, Shi’a showed the highest fertility rate of 3.8, followed by Sunnis (2.8) and Maronite and non-Maronite Catholics (2). See Joseph Chamie, Religion and Fertility (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 85; Muhammad Faour, in “Religion, Demography and Politics in Lebanon,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, No. 6 (2007), p. 914, suggests that Sunni and Shi’a fertility rates are now roughly equal, based on data published by the Lebanese government in 1996. For a discussion on fertility see Mark Farha, “Demography and Democracy in Lebanon,” Mideast Monitor, Vol. 3, No. 1 (January—March 2008), http;//www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0801/0801_2.htm#_ftnref22.
 The Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir estimated the number of Maronites who left Lebanon after the July 2006 war in the hundred thousands. He was quoted on the U.S. Copts Association Internet site. See “The Christian Exodus from the Arab World, http://www.copts.com/english1/index.php/2007/01/10/a-christian-exodus-from-the-arab-world/ (accessed January 10, 2007); see also: Rana Fil, “Lebanon’s Exodus,” Newsweek Web, http://www.newsweek.com/ id/76551 (accessed December 11, 2007).
 Al-Nahar, November 20, 2006, quoted Hassan Nasrallah’s speech of one day earlier in which he called Hizballah’s supporters “psychologically” ready to take to the streets in mass demonstrations to support the Islamic group’s demand for a national unity government. In the coming months mass demonstrations took place in central Beirut.
 On Sunni Islamist activity after 2005, see Gary C. Gambill, “Salafi-Jihadism in Lebanon,” Mideast Monitor, Vol. 3, No. 1 (January—March 2008), http://www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0801/0801_1. htm.
 The Maronites were supported by France and the West; the Sunnis and Palestinians in Lebanon were supported by most of the Arab states; the Druze were historically supported by Britain and later by Libya; and the Orthodox by Russia and later the USSR.
 Salim Nasr, “Roots of the Shii Movement,” MERIP Reports,- Vol. 15, No. 5 (June 1985), p. 11.
 On the struggle between Sadr and the prominent za’im, Speaker Kamil al-As’ad, see Thorn Sicking and Shereen Khairallah, “The Shi’a Awakening in Lebanon,” CEMAM Reports, No. 2 (1974), pp. 97-130.
 Only 16,480 Shi’a voters were registered in Beirut in 2007, compared to 343,330 in the southern electoral districts of Marj Ayun, Nabatiyya, Bint Jbayl, Sa’ida, and Sur, and to 163,720 in the Biqa Valley’s districts of Ba’albek and Hermel. See Mark Farha, “Demography and Democracy in Lebanon,” Mideast Monitor, Vol. 3, No. 1 (January–March 2008), http://www.mideastmonitor.org/ issues/0801/0801_2.htm.
 Nassrallah said in a television address on August 3, 2006, after 23 days of massive Israeli strikes on Dahiya al-Janubiyya: “If you hit Beirut, the Islamic resistance will hit Tel Aviv and is able to do that with God’s help.” It means he does not see the Dahiya as part of Beirut. The speech is quoted in al-Nahar, August 4. 2006.
 He participated in the Lebanese conventions of Geneva (1983) and Lausanne (1984); he was also a major factor in the tripartite agreement (1985) under Syrian patronage and in all the Lebanese reconciliation talks in the 1990s. Since 1984 Barri served as a minister in most Lebanese governments, and since 1992 he has been the speaker of the parliament.
 Al-Aharam Weekly, No. 810 (August 31–September 6, 2006); The U.S. Department of the Treasury declared Jihad al-Binaa as a terrorist organization in February 2007. See the official statement at http://www.ustreas.gov/press/releases/hp271.htm (accessed February 20, 2007); and in the Federal Register, Vol. 72, No. 37, http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/pdf/E7-3193.pdf (accessed February 26, 2007).
 Nicholas Blanford, “In Lebanon, Hizbullah’s Rise Provokes Shiite Dissent,” Christian Science Monitor, December 15, 2006, http://www.csmonitor. com/2006/1215/p01s02-wome.html
 The war raised anti-Hizballah voices among the Shi’a community, but none of them has the potential to emerge as a political or public alternative to Hizballah in the short term. The loudest criticism comes from Shi’a Mufti Muhammad Hajj Hasan, who established “the Liberal Shi’a Stream” (al-Tayyar al-Hurr); other critics are Shaykh Ali al-Amin of Tyre and Jabil Amil and, a Shi’a professor at the Lebanese University, Mona Fayyad.
 The official assessment by the Lebanese government counted after the war more 1 than 10,000 homes entirely destroyed, 1,255 partially destroyed, and 73,000 damaged. See http://www.rebuildlebanon.gov.lb/english/f/NewsArticle.asp?CNewsID=501 (accessed October 24, 2006).
 Omri Nir, “The Shi’ites during the 1958 Lebanese Crisis,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 40, No. 6 (November 2004), p. 127.
 See the emphasis on religious issues on Amal’s official Internet site, and particularly the importance of the Iraqi scholar, Ali al-Sistani, http://www.amal-movement.com/
 The relevant articles in the Ta’if Agreement are: 2.a.6—”On the Equal Division between Christians and Muslims”; 3.b.b.—”On Freedom of Belief and Education for all Religions”; and in the second part of the accord, article 1—”On Disarmament of all Militias.” For the full text of the accord in English, see http://www.al-bab.com/arab/docs/lebanon/taif.htm
 Hizballah and Aoun entered into political alliance in February 2006 on personal and anti-American motivations. Aoun later explained to his supporters who rejected the alliance that the agreement assures the Lebanese national institution as well as the rules of the political game in the future, when the Shi’a might be a majority in Lebanon. For the full text of the Aoun-Hizballah agreement in English see http://yalibnan.com/site/archives/2006/02/full_english_te.php.
 Al-Diyar, June 17, 1992, mentioned a fatwa addressed by Khamene’i, but other sources described it only as permission.
 Hizballah gained eight seats and became the largest political party in parliament. See Khazan and Salam, al-Intikhabat al-Niyabiyya al-Ulaa fi Lubnan ma Ba’ad al-Harb, Table 32, p. 84.
 Nizar Hamzeh, “Lebanon’s Hizballah: From Islamic Revolution to Parliamentary Accommodation,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1993), p. 328; and Helena Cobban, “Hizbullah’s New Face,” Boston Review (April—May 2005), http://www.bostonreview.net/BR30.2/cobban.html
 For example, see Nasrallah’s speech: “… the resistance won its victory on May 25, 2000 … these Lebanese people made the miracle of the victory that stunned the world and humiliated the Zionists” in al-Nahar, July 15, 2006. On the eighth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal Nasrallah said: “… brilliant victory for Lebanon, Arabs, and the nation …” in al-Akhbar, May 28, 2008.
 After the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 Nassrallah personally promised to release Samir Quntar by capturing Israeli soldiers. Quntar is a Lebanese Druze, not a Shi’a, who is imprisoned in Israel for killing civilians in a terrorist attack in 1979. The October 2000 abduction ended with the exchange of prisoners in January 2004, in which Nasrallah gained the release of 435 Arab prisoners (400 of whom are Palestinians and some Lebanese), as well as 59 bodies of Lebanese. See Haaretz, January 25, 2004.
 See note 15 earlier.
 Nasrallah was quoted in a press conference on May 8, 2008: “Our response was not a military revolution. Yes, we hit the streets, protested, cut off roads and blocked the airport. This is civil disobedience as it occurs in any country. We did not occupy Beirut, as some people are chanting, nor do we want to attack anyone.” See http://yalibnan.com/site/archives/2008/05/nasrallah_vows.php
Photo credit: Church and mosque in Beirut Lebanon © Lebnen18, via Wikimedia