Hezbollah's Role In Lebanon's New Government

Two months ago, Lebanon was on the brink of civil war as rival Lebanese factions fought deadly clashes in the streets of Beirut.

The mood could not have been more different last week, when a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Shiite militant organization Hezbollah prompted celebrations that lasted for days.

It was a moment of triumph for Hezbollah, which promoted the event as a "Victory from God," as well as a victory for Lebanon and the wider Arab world.

At the gates to Beirut last Thursday, flag-waving crowds played music and cheered, as a convoy of trucks rolled into the city, loaded with flag-wrapped coffins containing the bodies of nearly 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters. They were handed over by Israel in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers who were captured by Hezbollah during a cross border raid in July 2006.

Hezbollah militants in uniform escorted the motorcade, while plainclothed Hezbollah security officers with walkie-talkies kept a close eye on the parade from the side of the highway.

'Precisely What Hezbollah Needs'

"I'm so proud today," said 25-year-old Rasha Ashraf. The Egyptian-Lebanese teacher stood cheering in the crowd, wearing a yellow Hezbollah flag wrapped around her body. "Hezbollah made me feel there's hope!" she added.

"This prisoner exchange is precisely what Hezbollah needs," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, the author of Hezbollah: Politics and Religion.

She says the Shiite movement was promoting the prisoner exchange to bolster its image as a resistance movement focused on fighting Israel, after Hezbollah guerrillas battled and defeated Lebanese Sunnis in the streets of Beirut last May.

"In dragging itself into these sectarian clashes," Saad-Ghorayeb says, "Hezbollah obviously fell out of favor more then it had ever done in the past with the Lebanese Sunnis and with other groups in Lebanon, who perceived it as having turned its arms against fellow Lebanese — when it had always promised that its arms would never be turned inwardly."

After the fighting erupted on May 7, it took just 48 hours for Hezbollah to rout the supporters of rival Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri in West Beirut.

"[Hezbollah] showed that it is the strongest player in Lebanon, and that it can impose its will when it wants to," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Salem says Hezbollah's military victory brought an end to an 18-month political stalemate between the Western-backed Lebanese government and a Hezbollah-led opposition supported by Syria and Iran.

"Had Hezbollah not succeeded in taking over practically all of Lebanon in days, the breakthrough would not have occurred," said Saad-Ghorayeb. "What was needed was one side to be stronger than the other and push it into a corner, and force concessions out of it — and that's exactly what the May clashes achieved."

A New National Unity Government

In the aftermath of the fighting, both factions finally agreed on appointing former Lebanese army chief Michel Suleiman as president. The post had been vacant since December of last year.

Then after five days of talks hosted by Qatar in Doha, the rival Lebanese factions agreed to form a new "national unity government." Hezbollah and its allies won new seats in the cabinet, as well as veto power over future decisions.

"Definitely, it was a military coup d'etat," said Nayla Maouad, a parliament member with the Western-backed "March 14th" coalition.

As part of the Doha Agreement, Maouad lost her job as a minister in the Lebanese government. She said she was disappointed that her movement's patrons, the U.S., France and Saudi Arabia, had not done more to support "March 14th" when the fighting broke out.

"Lebanon really has a new status quo, in which the large confrontation between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran and Syria on the other no longer really applies," said Salem, of the Carnegie Middle East Center. "March 14 couldn't sustain it. They cannot fight the big fight, and hence the pressure from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to do so has lessened and this has brought calm to Lebanon. Very welcome calm."

"We got out of the crisis by the eye of the needle," said Ali Hamdan, senior adviser to Nabi Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament. Berri is the highest ranking Shiite Muslim official in the Lebanese government, and an ally of Hezbollah.

"We now have a new president and a new government," Hamdan said. "It means the economy will start to move again, and the Lebanese, I believe, they are more then ready to grab such moment and to move on and to leave behind all the negative and bad memories."

'Seething Anger' In Parts Of Beirut

But in Beirut's Tariq Jdideh quarter, there is seething anger at Hezbollah and its allies.

This overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim neighborhood was one of the main battlegrounds during the fighting last May.

"I'm pissed off to hell, I hate Hezbollah," said one young Sunni man, when asked whether he would participate in the celebrations over the Hezbollah-Israeli prisoner exchange.

On Friday night, Ibrahim Jamil Kurdi, 33, tried to console his crying daughter, who was frightened by celebratory fireworks echoing off of nearby Beirut's high rise apartment buildings.

"Two months ago it sounded the same, except they were bullets instead of bottle rockets," Kurdi explained.

Kurdi's family was traumatized by the fighting last May. In one of the battles, Kurdi's twin brother, Zahir, lost his leg after being hit by a grenade thrown by a Shiite militant.

"Something has broken between the Shiite and Sunni," Kurdi said, "it cannot be repaired."

Kurdi's father, Jamil, had harsher words for his Shiite countrymen.

"If I see the person who did this to my son, I will cut him to pieces," the white-haired man said. "I want to hear his mother cry out in pain the way my wife did when he was in the hospital for a month."

Jamil Kurdi says ever since his son was injured, he has refused to drive his minibus taxi into Shiite neighborhoods of Beirut.

When Hezbollah declared the Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner exchange for all of Lebanon, the angry Sunni residents of Tariq Jdideh boycotted the celebrations.

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