History of Hezbollah, Part 1
[From the July 29 archives of L'Orient-Le Jour].
Whatever the outcome of the current conflict impacting the nation, a grand debate will doubtlessly ensue on the political future of Hezbollah and on the nature of its future relationship with the other elements inthe Lebanese social fabric. Certain questions are on everyone’s mind. Are Hezbollah’s political decisions, yes or no, in some respect owing to orders from Iran? Is Hezbollah motivated strictly by community interests, which go beyond Lebanon and are defined in a larger context? How is the rapid rise in power of the Shi’ite movement explained? In a series of three articles, Michel Hajji Georgiou and Michel Touma analyze the different historical, sociological, doctrinal and political factors that comprise the structure and foundations of Hezbollah. The first article discusses the long historical and sociological processes which paved the way to the birth of the party at the beginning of the 1980’s.
All three ariticle are drawn from a study published in Issue 77 of Travaux et jours printed by the University of Saint-Joseph (Beirut).
The arrival of Hezbollah upon the Lebanese political scene at the beginning of the 80s is somewhat of a coronation of the long evolution affirming the presence and the identity of the Shi’ites as a sociopolitical community on the regional chessboard. In order to understand the objective conditions that paved the way for the rapid establishment of Hezbollah in the Lebanon, a quick overview of the unenviable status of this community in contemporary Lebanese history is in order.
Under the Ottoman Empire, the rights of Shi’ites were not recognized as demonstrated by the formation in the 1800’s, in compliance with an edict of Shekib Effendi, of an advisory council of each of the caïmacamat (districts) created in Mount Lebanon at the middle of the century. With the outbreak of the 1845 confessional troubles in the mountains, the great powers of the period initiated talks with the Ottoman authorities to end the conflict. Because of these international démarches, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shekib Effendi, decided to create within the two mountain caïmacamats a mixed council bringing together -one representative per community– magistrates representing the Maronites, the Greek Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Sunnis and the Druze. The Sunni magistrate was to represent the Shi’ites as well.1
This discrimination persisted until the fall of the Ottoman Empire and one would have to wait until 1926 before the existence of the Shi’ite community as a social entity, was officially recognized2. This recognition was, to a certain extent, one of the consequences of the proclamation of Greater Lebanon in 1920. But parallel to this political outcome, the annexation of peripheral regions of Lesser Lebanon would have considerable effects upon the socioeconomic fabric of the new entity of Greater Lebanon.
Because of the considerable autonomy it enjoyed under the Ottoman Empire, Lesser Lebanon experienced substantial development in both its basic infrastructure and in culture and education. The proliferation of private schools founded by foreign missions as well as by Western universities (The University of St. Joseph and the American University) functioned as a general outlet of Western culture and made Lesser Lebanon into a distinguished regional educational and cultural beacon.
At the same time, basic infrastructures were appreciably developed not only in Mount Lebanon but in Beirut, which slowly imposed itself as the capital of the restricted Lebanese entity. Lesser Lebanon, together with Beirut, received a system of roads, a port, a railroad connecting the coast to Damascus through the mountains, not to mention an expanding hospital and healthcare system, a thriving transport system, and, above all, the creation of a large number of commercial and industrial enterprises, especially in Beirut3. The annexation in 1920 of the cities of Tripoli and Saïda, the south, the Bekaa Valley and the north to Lesser Lebanon gave birth to an entity characterized by profound cleavage – on the levels of cultural life, education, and socioeconomics – between the “center” (Beirut and the mountains, as Lesser Lebanon) and the periphery (the newly annexed regions, which had depended directly on the Ottoman hinterland and which had not benefited from the growth registered in Mount-Lebanon4.
This socioeconomic disparity persisted long after Lebanon’s independence in 1943. It constituted the seeds of a less than desirable social situation which the Shi’ite community, representing the majority of the population, faced in the disadvantaged peripheral areas annexed by Lesser Lebanon. The essential Maronite-Sunni character of the National Pact of 1943 and the power-sharing arrangement following independence contributed a political aspect to the socioeconomic marginalization of the Shi’ites. Moreover, their elite remained the traditional feudal leaders who had existed during the post-Independence period. They were in fact shown to be largely disconnected from the popular realities of their community. So much so that the central government had no scruples in leaving the majority-Shi’ite peripheral areas out of overall development policy in various domains.
The status of the Shi’ite population was further degraded at the end of the 1960s and at the beginning of the 70s with the establishment of armed Palestinian factions in southern Lebanon, the escalation in Fedayeen operations against Israel from their base in Arkoub and Israeli reprisals targeting the heavily Shi’ite southern region.
A progressive but sustained exodus of the these populations toward the suburbs of the capital resulted. The exiled southerners swelled the ranks of the Shi’ite sub-proletariat that formed a “misery belt” around the capital. It is within this potentially explosive context that a number of Shi’ite ulemas debarked in Beirut from Qom and Najaf during the 1960s. Three of them, Imam Mussa Sadr, Sheikh Mohammad Mehdi Shamseddeen, and Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, rapidly distinguished themselves by their religious jurisprudence, their vast religious learning and the clear vision of the path that would lead the Shi’ites out of their status as a disinherited population. At first, adopting a low profile, they multiplied their lectures, conferences and debates at clubs, places of worship and community associations, all located in a densely populated Shi’ite area.
Within a very brief span of time, Imam Mussa Sadr distinguished himself as the most political of the ulemas. With his learned manipulation of singular religious jurisprudence, he toured the country from top to bottom and multiplied his conferences. Toward the end of the 1960s, he had already imposed himself as a political-communitarian pole of influence whose star was ascending uninterrupted. In 1967, he extracted from the central government the Senior Shi’ite Council, granting the community an institution that was meant to state the identity and the socioeconomic situation of Shi’ites. Poorly regarded by traditional politicians, who saw in him a serious threat, the SSC saw its role reduced to a simple assembly of notables and leaders who strived to attune their violins with political and national debates of the day. Mussa Sadr then created a popular movement, the Movement of the Disinherited, of which the mission was to respond to the political and social needs of the community, especially on the plane of struggle against socioeconomic underdevelopment in Shi’ite Southern Lebanon, in the Bekaa Valley and in the suburbs of Beirut.5
The underlying objectives of this movement were to remove popular Shi’ite quarters from the increasing influence of Leftist and Arab nationalist parties and armed Palestinian factions as well as to substitute the feudal Shi’ite leaders who held the community in a state of chronic lethargy. Defining the guiding principles behind his activism, Mussa Sadr gave a speech on 18 February 1974 which is considered the act that gave birth to Lebanese Shi’ism and its first political expression: Our name is not metwali [submission]. Our name is rafezun (refusal), vengeance, and revolt against tyranny. Though we may have to pay in blood and with our lives…we do not want rhetoric, but action. We are fed up with words, sentiments and talk. I have given more speeches than anyone. And I am the one who has called for calm, more than anyone else. I have called for calm long enough. From today forward, I will not be silent. You may wish to do nothing, but I do not…6
The Movement of the Disinherited thus constituted the first sociopolitical structure made available to the Shi’ites since the Ottoman Empire. Witnessing the implantation of armed Palestinian organization in the Arkoub and under the effect of the military escalation that followed, Imam Sadr secretly created, at the beginning of the 1970s, the armed Amal militia, that was then supervised and trained by Fatah. The existence of this militia – the new façade of the Movement of the Disinherited – was spectacularly revealed in 1974 following a murderous explosion during a military training exercise in the Bekaa Valley. The appearance of Amal fostered by Mussa Sadr created a current within the subproletarian Shi’ite community that, in the absence of such a structure, would have attracted them to secular movements or the Left, such as the Communist Party, the Lebanese Communist Action Organization (OACL) or the Ba’ath Party and absorbed them.
The political and military actions of Imam Sadr, as well as the disastrous overall politico-socio-economic situation in which Lebanon’s Shi’ites had been thrust for years --of which the roots go back to the 1920s-- created fertile soil for the emergence and the rapid strenghening of Hezbollah in the Eighties. For some analysts, the political culture of Mussa Sadr contributed to the rooting of the Shi’ite values upon which he drew and well as the communitarian awakening that would open the way to the creation of Hezbollah7
Michel HAJJI GEORGIOU and Michel TOUMA
1. Edmond RABBATH, The Historical Formation of Political and Constitutional Lebanon, Publications de l’Université libanaise, Beirut 1973.
2. Theodor HANF, Lebanon, Coexistence in the Time of War, From the Collapse of the State to the Blossoming of the Nation, European-Arab Center for Studies, Paris, 1993, translated from German.
3. Theodor HANF, Lebanon, Coexistence in the Time of War, From the Collapse of the State to the Blossoming of the Nation, op.cit.
5. Naïm KASSEM, Hezbollah, Orientation, Experience and Future, éditions Dar al-Hadi, Beirut.
6. Walid CHARARA and Frédéric DOMONT, Hezbollah, an Islamo-Nationalist Movement, Fayard, Paris, 2004.