Last night I heard Anderson Cooper, go on and on about how Hizbullah provides social services and charity for people in Lebanon, something repeated quite a bit. That is a shallow observation that misses a major point. Hizbullah, besides being an international terrorist group and paramilitary force in Lebanon, is a Lebanese political party.
Samuel Huntington, before his latino-phobia and civilization clash rhetoric, had some very interesting things to say about political parties, in his classic study Political Order In Changing Societies. He stresses the importance of modern political parties, which reflect popular participation, in developing societies and/or countries in transition. The relevant passage concerns countries where there is little political stability:
Where traditional political institutions collapse or are nonexistent, the role of the party is entirely different from what it is in those polities with institutional continuity. In such situations strong party organization is the only long-run alternative to the instability of a corrupt or praetorian or mass society. The party is not just a supplementary organization; it is instead the source of legitimacy and authority. In the absence of traditional sources of legitimacy, legitimacy is sought in ideology, charisma, popular soveirgnity. To be lasting, each of these principles of legitimacy must be embodied in a party. Instead of the party reflecting the state, the state becomes the creation of the party and the instrument of the party. The actions of government are legitimate to the extent that they reflect the will of the party. The party is the source of legitimacy because it is the institutional embodiment of national sovereignty, the popular will, or the dictatorship of the proletariat.
While Huntington was criticized for what appears to be at least a soft-endorsemenet of totatitarian parties, this part of his analysis seems to fit Hizbullah like a glove. Lebanon was a cluster of different factions, its politics was based on tribal affiliation and it was pretty corrupt. The Shia for a long time were excluded.
Hizbullah stepped into the void with its roots in the Shia population of Southern Lebanon, appealed to disenfrachised voters, based on its version of the Shiite religion, the personality of its leader, as well as its no holds barred fight against Israel. The fact that many Shiite's have voted for it in previous Lebanese elections shows that it is viewed as the legitimate representatives for many people.
More than a charity arm in many parts of Lebanon they are the state. And if the state was not in an area they created it. In a village they are the mayors, city council, school board, parish mullah, public health board, hospital administration, police department, and garbage collectors. They provide patronage and charity like a Chicago ward boss of old, except they do it with the efficiency of a United Way, backed with the resources of modern corporations, and the control of a strict religious sect. And much like a big city boss, they know they can count on people in their localities to vote for them, as well as help them when the time comes.
This ultimately is the problem with fighting what by any means looks to be an extremely well-organized political party, with a solid base, backed around a common religion. Maybe they can be expelled from their southern base, and their military wing can be defeated, but they will not go away. To some extent they are also an extra-territorial organization with supporters around the world.
While many religious leaders are also party officials, there is a significant secular leadership at the local and national level. So an individual who is a doctor or teacher, might also be the equivalent of a precint captain in a local village. That kind of secular, civilian leadership is almost impossible to eliminate. And even in situations where large parts of the population are forcibly resettled or flee, those networks are fairly easy to recreate. In an extreme case, they can go underground even under occupation, and rebuild their networks in total silence.
Helena Cobban from The Christian Science Monitor has this great article, in the Boston Review Hizbullah’s New Face, In search of a Muslim democracy