Analysis: Hizbullah's 'political Jujutsu': Using its leverage in Lebanon

Monday's deal prohibits any Muslim group from attacking fellow Muslims.

Nasrallah 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Nasrallah 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The accord that Lebanon's Shi'ite Hizbullah group signed this week with some local Sunni factions to defuse sectarian tension is a strategic political move intended to signal its leverage and its ability to build bridges with even the most unlikely of allies, experts say. "This shows how good Hizbullah is at capitalizing on the politics of the moment, to show how responsible it is, how effective it can be... what leverage it has in stretching across the Shi'ite-Sunni divide, and particularly amongst the groups that have been most problematic for Lebanon's stability," said Magnus Ranstorp, a Hizbullah expert at the Swedish National Defense College. Monday's agreement prohibits any Muslim group from attacking fellow Muslims. It was signed by the Iranian-backed Hizbullah and some Salafist groups, followers of a radical form of Sunni Islam. Many Salafists consider Shi'ites to be heretics. Hizbullah are the masters of "political Jujutsu"; absorbing their attackers' energy and using it against them rather than directly opposing it, Ranstorp said. They roll and weave deeper into the political, social and military fabric of Lebanese society, he said. In addition to allying itself with Salafists, Hizbullah, has allied itself with the prominent Christian lawmaker Michel Aoun and has reached out to Sunnis and other non-Shi'ites in its fight against Israel. With the recent accord, "They are signaling, 'you leave us in charge and we'll sort things out for you,'" Ranstorp said. "Leave the resistance to us." The memorandum of understanding is consistent with Hizbullah's policy of expanding its resistance or jihadist network to include members of the Sunni community in order to give the impression that it's a pan-Islamic movement, says Bilal Saab, a research analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institute. "This is consistent with its old policy and that of Iran, making it clear the resistance is much bigger than a Shi'ite one," Saab said. Even if the accord is merely a symbolic move, "it still tells us that Hizbullah is really interested in reaching out to these communities that have their own grievances against it." The memorandum, however, excludes one of the most relevant Salafist figures in the country, Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Chahhal, the founder of the Salafist Movement in Lebanon. Al-Chahhal, who believes the Shi'ites are infidels, has said the accord does not represent the Salafist community and is devoid of any content. Some Salafist groups have signed the accord perhaps because it allows them to side with the political winner, Hizbullah, and because they have more flexible ideological convictions than other Salafists, Saab said. Although they are small in number, there are reportedly some 50 different Salafist groups in Lebanon. "They can work with (Hizbullah) against the common enemy, which is the US and Israel," he said. "The others can't let go of that ideological conviction. They really see them [Hizbullah] as infidels." By allying itself with Salafists who have influence in the north, the memorandum also allows Hizbullah to gain strategic military and political influence in case of a second round of fighting with Israel, Saab said. Some contend that Sunni radicals are a growing political force in Lebanon that Hizbullah and other political players cannot afford to ignore. "Until recently, Islamist arguments did not resonate with the majority of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims," wrote Omayma Abdel-Latif of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center in a January report on the issue. "However, turbulent events and an incoming tide of public opinion following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, a rising tide of sectarianism across the region and the Israeli war against Hizbullah and Lebanon in July 2006 have all given Islamists a framework for advancing their agenda among Lebanon's Sunna. They are no longer an irrelevant political force." This year has seen Lebanon's worst sectarian violence since the 1975-90 civil war, with street battles in Beirut, its suburbs, the central mountains and the northern city of Tripoli that have killed more than 100 people. AP contributed to this report.