Thursday, July 20, 2006

Hasan Nasrallah's Long Interview on Al-Jazeera: An Assessment. So Ghassan Bin Jiddu, who has been working for years on a long documentary on Hasan Nasrallah's life, got an interview with Hasan Nasrallah. Bin Jiddu said that it was conducted "somewhere, sometime." He said that security arrangements were rather more strict than usual to the point that he did not even know where he was. In meeting with Nasrallah, you always think of "security." I was thinking in the last few days when I saw those buildings, in which I interviewed Nasrallah, that I never have interviewed him without me being nervous--worrying that Israreli jets may strike at any time. I would lie if I did not admit that. I wrote in previous times (years) about certain meetings with Nasrallah. And there were people who did not like some critical things I wrote. But in fairness, he was always willing to meet with me (including 3 weeks ago in a year when I said and wrote critical things of Hizbullah), and answer my questions. Of course, he has his own agenda, and he is first and foremost a politician in Lebanon. And as leftists, we have to strike an independent and detached position in evaluating Hizbullah. Leftists should never compromise their ideological agenda--I strongly believe--and I don't like how some leftists in the Arab world just gave up, and basically offer unconditional praise and support for Hamas and Hizbullah. They just believe in leaving "the struggle" so to say in the hands of the popular religious parties. I don't believe that just because the Soviet Union collapsed, and just becuase Arab communists squandered great opportunities, and just because House of Saud funded religious fundamentalism and fanaticism--and Hamas benefited from Saudi money just as Hizbullah benefited from Iranian money--that we as leftists should abandon our agenda that is based on social justice, secularism, feminism, and the kind of democracy that Karl Marx described in the Communist Manifesto, without having to agree with other elements of Karl Marx thought of course. And just because we in the Arab left watch the dramatic ascendancy of religious political movements (like Hamas, Hizbulalh, Muslim Brotherhood) does not mean that we should abandon our critical attitude toward ideologies with which we fundamentally are in disagreement. Having said that: and as Lebanon is subjected to Israeli aggression, we should also not lose sight of the basic reality, that Lebanon--all of Lebanon and not Hizbullah's idoelogy--is being subjected to Israeli aggression, and that Israel is the party that has consistently refused to accept a cease-fire, and that Israel responded to an attack on its military with an attack on the civilian population of Lebanon. Ghassan Bin Jiddi is one of the most critical and competent journalists: just yesterday, this Lebanese guest, Rula Taj, said inexplicably that only Qatar is capable of mediating in the current conflict. Bin Jiddu stopped her right there and said that he did not want that statement to sound like propaganda for Qatar, and that other countries are also capable of fulfilling that role. And in the Lebanese context, Bin Jiddu comes from a diverse background: Sunni and Maronite, and is related to Shi`ites by marriage. He was bureau chief in Iran, but he was almost—he would never confirm that—asked to leave. Nasrallah’s performance was better—and I am analyzing from his own political perspective and not from mine of course—than his last speech that was taped. Many disagreed with me when I said that the last speech did not work as he may have liked. He did not add new points or gain political advantages, although there are indications that it worked as I had predicted at the Arab level—Sudanese fundamentalist leader Hasan Turabi even claimed that Arab public support for Hizbullah has eliminated the Sunni-Shi`ite divide—a wild exaggeration in my opinion. In talking about the military situation, I noticed that Nasrallah is very aware of and sensitive to Arab public opinion. To reach his position in the party, you have to have political skills, much more than you need religious training. He would speak about his rather very favorable evaluation of the military situation, and then would say that he is not being triumphalist and bombastic, that he is talking based on "realities." He would say that he is not “exaggerating” or engaging in “psychological” operations. He knows full well that the Arab public has been bitten before: has been promised and fed victories against Israel that never materialized. If anything, victories turned out to be abysmal failures and stunning defeats. That is the record of Arab governments: from Nasser, to the Ba`th, to the Jordanian regime, and to `Arafat, who was the master of bombast and exaggeration. He spoke of the military situation, and spoke of training and preparation. Yet, he did not—as has been his habit—underestimate the power of Israel. He always makes a point to speak about the power of the enemy, again being aware of the Arab official tendency to underestimate Israeli military power (or to over exaggerate its political consequences to justify surrender), only to make the defeat at the hands of Israel doubly—if not triply—painful. He did not budge on the subject of the prisoners’ exchange, and made a revelation: he said that not only does the cabinet’s statement speak of the status of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, but that he told fellow participants at the national dialogue committee of the party’s intention to capture Israeli soldiers. That is going to be embarrassing for the government of Pierre Laval (Fu’ad Sanyurah). He addressed the sectarian mobilization that Hariri Inc and Jumblat have been engaged in the last week, at the behest of House of Saud. He said that in sectarian terms, Shi`ite villages and towns were the first to suffer, and that they suffered the most, but added that others have suffered. He said that to remind the Lebanese audience that his basis of support were carried the brunt of the cost of the this war, but of course, all Lebanese have been adversely affected. It was not sensitive on his part to say that there “are some areas” that have not been hit—that carries a sectarian tone when spoken in Lebanon. I say that because all Lebanese have suffered even those who live in areas that have not been hit, or not been hit yet, by Israeli bombing raids, although the brunt of Israeli aggression has been carried as usual by the people of South Lebanon (Shi`ites, Christians, and Sunnis). He also reminded the audiences that the houses of all Hizbullah leaders have been directly hit, and that their families suffered as a result. He then added an interesting bit of information which is yet to be verified: that Western embassies have sent polling teams to the areas where displaced people are located to survey them about their attitude to Hizbullah. And he said that among the (Shi`ite) displaced people there is strong support for Hizbullah, and Lebanese media seem to confirm that. On Arab governments, he spoke bluntly but generally—he still does not want to break with Arab governments. Hizbullah, by the way, enjoyed relatively good relations with some Arab governments, and many Arab leaders wanted to meet with Nasrallah. In fact, King `Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was quoted last month as saying that Hasan Nasrallah is “our son.” And he said that to House of Saud’s client Walid Jumblat. But he did not seem intent now to get into score settling with those regimes, but said that a cease-fire would have been achieved earlier if it was not--he implied--for the support that the Arab regimes have extended to Israeli aggression. He said that he does not want any support from Arab regimes. “I don’t want your swords, and I don’t want your hearts,” he said in that context. But then added: I only ask them, “to leave use alone,”—here he used a colloquial Lebanese Arabic expression (fikku `anna). He also added, in a reference to his trust in Arab public opinion, that the hearts of the wives and sons and daughters of Arab leaders are “with us.” Nasrallah indirectly replied to some of Walid Jumblat’s criticisms of Nasrallah, and Jumblat is the most vocal critic of Nasrallah in Lebanon today. He said that during the era of Syrian domination, Hizbullah did not receive from Syria except that which was of benefit to Lebanon. I did not think that that sentence was effective because he was general—he did not indicate what was of benefit to Lebanon. But he then added something that will be effective in Lebanese public opinion. He said that they did not gain palaces or bank accounts from their relationship with Syria. The references to palaces was significant because it refers specifically to Walid Jumblat who used his connection during the era of Syrian domination to “buy” a new grand house in Beirut, and to expand the Mukhtarah palace—partly with Hariri money. But other clients of Syria—and Jumblat and Hariri were chief clients—also constructed palaces, like Nabih Birri, As`ad Hardan (of the SSNP), Ghazi `Aridi, `Abdur-Rahim Murad, etc. Here, Nasrallah reminds the audience of a factor that has been a major selling element for Hizbullah among Lebanese public opinion: the reputation for incorruptibility in a country renowned for corruption and embezzlement. This is important because people often assume that the popularity of Hizbullah must mean popularity for the ideology of the party which includes. Not true. I think that as Hizbullah became more popular, it moved away from its adherence to its original ideology of an Islamic state. Or it is the other way round: the more the party moved away from its ideology, the more popular it became. This is a sinful country, fortunately; no puritanical or religious ideology can take root there. And Hizbullah discovered that. Last year, Hizbullah started talking, merely talking, about establishing a “committee for advancing virtue, and denouncing vice”, and there was an uproar. Within days after As-Safir wisely wrote something critical about that, the party had to deny the story altogether. Nasrallah then apologized to the Palestinian family who lost two members near Nazareth yesterday. That was the weakest part, I felt. Of course, I don’t know what he could have said: nothing will return dead ones to life. But the apology just did not come across as either useful or sufficient or convincing, and I am analyzing from his own political perspective. Furthermore, you get the impression that the party was prepared for this assault, although it is not likely that Hizbullah expected his scale of aggression. But the party can’t go very far with that argument: that the party was prepared for this massively violent eventuality will lead many displaced Lebanese to ask why they too were not prepared, or made to be prepared, for this eventuality. I felt that this interview was meant more for the Lebanese public opinion, and in that, it was more effective for Nasrallah than the last one. Nasrallah becomes more casual and more relaxed when he speaks to Lebanese issues, because he becomes more sarcastic and humorous—more on that at the end. He wanted to reply to many of the criticisms—some muted and some vocal among Hariri Inc—leveled against the party in recent weeks. He was rather very serious and tough when he responded to those who have argued that there should be “accountability” for the party when the dust settles. He said that the party will do accountability of its own to see who played what role during this crisis. He then added rather ominously: "we may be forgiving and we may not be forgiving". So many of the things he said were in reply to Jumblat’s rhetoric, which tells you—as Ghassan Bin Jiddu observed to him—that he has been following TV coverage. He said that it is not true that he said that his group is fighting for the Ummah (nation); he said that he meant to say that the conflict itself will affect the ummah either way. He also related the conflict in Lebanon to the conflict in Palestine, saying that if his group gets defeated, a bad settlement will be imposed on the Palestinian people. He made it clear that the relationship with Nabih Birri—the speaker of parliament—is very good, and that he is empowered to negotiate on his behalf. At the end, Bin Jiddu (who seems to be wearing Indonesian shirts as of late) asked him about his personal situation. He said that he is not too comfortable and not too uncomfortable. He said that in the last speech, Israeli analysts talked about him looking tired, and that his beard was long. He said that he clipped his beard for the interview, but that they will now say that he is comfortable. He praised the Lebanese Army, and said that it has been a good Army. He also spoke about surprises in terms of Hizbullah's fight against Israel. But that made me wonder: if you talk about surprises, they are no more surprises, no?