The Middle East Channel

Ignoring Yemen at our peril

Seven years ago this month, al Qaeda in Yemen was on its last legs, worn down by years of U.S. and Yemeni strikes. The group's original leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was dead, the target of a November 2002 strike by an unmanned CIA drone.

His replacement, an amputee named Muhammad Hamdi al-Ahdal, fared little better. One year after the death of his boss, the veteran of the fighting in Bosnia and Chechnya was presiding over an organization in disarray. Like a general without an army, al-Ahdal was out of options. In November 2003, he was tracked down to a safe house on the outskirts of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. A last-minute mediator from the president's office prevented a shootout in the residential neighborhood, convincing al-Ahdal to surrender. Just like that, the threat had been eliminated. Al Qaeda in Yemen was defeated.

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The Middle East Channel

Hezbollah's mobilization of the multitudes

On Wednesday, two male STL investigators -- an Australian and a Frenchman -- visited the office of gynecologist Iman Sharara in Southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, after making an appointment with the purpose of examining the records of at least 14 people who had visited her clinic since 2003. The investigators, accompanied by a female translator, were subsequently mobbed by 150 women who surrounded them, violently attacked them, and snatched a briefcase that one of them was carrying which contained a laptop and official STL documents.

The Western media have largely not picked up on the latest episode in Hezbollah's campaign against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, driven by the Tribunal's rumored potential indictments of Hezbollah members. But the episode marks the introduction of a new, "bottom-up" variable in Hezbollah's political strategy that is aimed at discrediting the STL and those who cooperate with its investigations. This variable has been used to escalate the campaign with potentially serious consequences for the Lebanese government's relationship with Hezbollah.

Hezbollah's handling of this incident is notable for using women as a "soft" weapon to impede the investigation. Hezbollah, through its al-Manar TV station, framed the clinic episode as a legitimate and "firm" reaction by the women to a "moral scandal." In a speech by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah the following day, he presented the event as a development tarnishing "our honor and dignity and requiring a different stance" from Hezbollah. He went on to question, "who would accept someone looking at the gynecological files of a mother or a sister or a daughter?" By invoking the issue of women's honor, Nasrallah is appealing to a traditional set of values that makes the event dogmatically unacceptable. The STL's investigators provided the perfect pretext for this framework, not only by physically entering a Hezbollah stronghold where they are certainly unwelcome, but also by sending men to a gynecological clinic.

The episode is actually the second time that "ordinary people" have been mobilized by Hezbollah to take violent action against local developments that the party opposes. The first such episode took place in July last year, when 100 villagers in Southern Lebanon surrounded and hailed rocks at a United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) unit trying to investigate the site of an explosion, after weapons stored in a warehouse in the village of Khirbet Silim detonated. Fourteen UNIFIL troops were injured. And then there were the vast throngs of Hezbollah supporters who rallied to greet Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Lebanon earlier this month -- not to mention the thousands who regularly gather in stadiums to listen to Nasrallah speeches and commemorate Hezbollah events.

These episodes suggest that the power of the multitude is becoming a key element in Hezbollah's current strategy. The power of the multitude lies in its creation of a sense of legitimacy for one's actions (violent or not), and of spontaneous, genuine, and popular grass roots support. It is an image that exports well. The Lebanese An-Nahar newspaper in its Saturday edition commented on the latest parliamentary elections in Bahrain by arguing that the style of the election rallies by Bahrain's Shiites resembled those organized by Hezbollah in Southern Beirut, and citing the prominence of photos of Nasrallah in Shiite areas in Manama and its suburbs.

Of course, March 14 had also relied on the power of the multitude during the Cedar Revolution of 2005. The difference between the March 14 crowds of 2005 and Hezbollah's today is that the latter blur the line between popular protest and directed, violent mass action.

Lebanese Deputy House Speaker Farid Makari commented on Wednesday that the increasing use of "civilians" in violent attacks is a "Hezbollah trademark" and a sign of the "total war" launched by Hezbollah and its allies against the STL. Hezbollah had successfully used the power of the multitude in its total war against the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s; the clinic incident is the latest in a series of steps by Hezbollah to equate the STL with Israel. In his speech, Nasrallah made that quite blatant: "any cooperation with the investigators is a contribution to assault on the resistance," a statement that harks back to the rhetoric used by Hezbollah about cooperating with Israel's agents. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea was quick to subsequently comment on the weight of this statement, saying that through it, Nasrallah is actually threatening the Lebanese state, since it is state institutions and the cabinet that are interacting with the investigators. Geagea's reaction was followed by the pro-March 14 media's commenting on Nasrallah's statement as "facing the Lebanese government with an exceedingly critical fait accompli that can lead to grave choices regarding its commitment to the STL and its relationship with Hezbollah."

The multitude has been used to escalate the fight and the escalation is not surprising. It has been anticipated since the war against the STL is a necessary war of survival for Hezbollah. And it is enabled by Hezbollah's rising power. Hezbollah's relative power to that of its political challengers in Lebanon has grown. History has taught us that when the power of political entities grows, it not only enables them to do what they like, but also drives them to upgrade and expand their war strategies and to seek more ambitious goals.

An incident in a clinic may not have been deemed newsworthy by the Western media, but it is one of the most serious developments on the Lebanese front today, giving a glimpse into what lies ahead. We had better take notice of what the multitude might do next. The multitude may be the one tasked with sealing the deal on the STL.

Lina Khatib is a program manager at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

 

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