25 May 2008

*Hezbollah's image still positive

Hezbollah's offensive against mostly Sunni political rivals in Lebanon has sullied its image in the Arab world as an armed force engaged in a righteous struggle against Israel.

But interviews with analysts and Arab media accounts suggest that the Shiite group still came out ahead. It won major concessions from the Lebanese government after its assault while largely retaining its popularity despite turning its weapons against fellow Muslims.

In May, Hezbollah fighters briefly took over Sunni-dominated West Beirut in what they described as a legitimate protection of their military might against a Lebanese government targeting the movement's key telecommunications and intelligence assets.

Satellite television channels broadcast images of Shiite militiamen armed with rocket launchers and assault rifles. Western-leaning TV stations spoke of a Hezbollah "occupation" of Beirut streets and described the events as an "armed coup orchestrated by Iran", playing on the growing rift between Sunnis who dominate the region and Shiites who control Iran.

Hezbollah had broken a promise, they said, by using its formidable arsenal against domestic rivals.

"For many Arabs, Hezbollah lost much of its glow as a pure resistance group fighting against Israel," said Mishari Thaydi, a Saudi columnist for the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat. "By laying siege to the residence of lawmaker Sa'ad Hariri, a symbol of Sunni leadership in Lebanon, and attacking other Sunni figures, Hezbollah projected an irreparable image as a sectarian militia."

US officials have voiced optimism that the offensive would dampen Arab enthusiasm for the Iranian- and Syrian-backed movement.

"Hezbollah lost something very important, which is any argument that it is somehow a resistance movement on behalf of the Lebanese people," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters recently in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But the swiftness of Hezbollah's operation and the political compromise that followed last Wednesday, giving the movement veto power over major government decisions while bolstering its US-backed rivals' election prospects, might have helped the group retain its popularity and calm sectarian tensions that work against its influence, analysts said.

Aiding Hezbollah's cause is the deep hostility in the Arab streets towards the US and its allies, which often extends to the Lebanese government.

"If the clashes had remained a week or two longer, that would have fuelled a strong sectarian cause," said Amal Sa'ad-Ghorayeb, an independent Lebanese researcher and author. "But if the turning point will produce a final settlement, most of the people are going to say at least we had this conflict over with."


The Lebanese violence coincided with the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding, an event widely viewed by Arabs as the Nakba or catastrophe. Whatever flaws Hezbollah might have, to many Arabs it remains the group that fought Israel to a standstill in Lebanon during a summer 2006 war. "Hezbollah might be seen as representing Iranian interests, but the Lebanese government on the other hand failed to draw sympathy to its cause by associating itself to US projects and vision in the region," said Mohammad Masri, a political scientist at the University of Jordan in Amman. "Hezbollah's actions were perceived as a measure of self-defence."

During the recent violence, media, politicians and clerics throughout the Sunni Arab world refrained from depicting Hezbollah's push as a Shiite or Iranian coup d'etat, as it was described by pro-government Lebanese politicians and television channels. The widely watched Qatar-based Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera described the unrest as a political conflict rather than a sectarian clash.

Many Sunni Arabs voiced support for Hezbollah leader Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah, not for the Sunni-led government.

"Arab unity is built on the resistance to the occupation in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and throughout the Arab land," a number of Jordanian activists wrote in a letter addressed to Hezbollah and published in the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Hayat. "The fate of the Arab nation and its future are all decided now in the battles between the resistance forces and the occupation forces."

In Egypt, despite some religious leaders' warnings of the danger of "Iranian-sponsored expansion of Shiism in the country", many voiced support for Hezbollah, which regularly describes Lebanon's government as a dupe of Israel and Washington neoconservatives.

Still, sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have been rising in Lebanon since the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, an eminent Sunni politician and tycoon. The killing was widely blamed on Hezbollah-backer Syria.

The recent violence, which left dozens dead, exacerbated the tensions, though the most ferocious battles were between Druze and Shiites southeast of the capital and between Sunnis and secular pro-Syrian factions in the north.

Hezbollah appears to have recognised the danger of Sunni anger. It has launched a media campaign to reduce the impact of its military action.

The Hezbollah-run television station Al Manar gave voice to Sunni families who support the Shiite resistance group, casting the takeover of the capital by its fighters as an "upheaval of Beirut families" against pro-government thugs. It also has aired live Oprah-style talk shows in which Sunnis and Shiites discuss their anger and hopes.

"Hezbollah will have to exercise serious damage control," said Sa'ad-Ghorayeb. "It's going to have to reach out to Sunnis more than it ever has before."


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.