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How the Arab Spring Killed Hezbollah

Hassan Nasrallah has always been more sophisticated than the caricatured nightmare featured in the breathless propaganda of Hezbollah’s many enemies. Even at his most noxious he usually managed to present himself as a man of principle. That’s why it was almost sad to see Nasrallah this week pandering like an old-time Arab despot to public anger over the misbegotten Prophet Mohammed YouTube clip.

“America, which uses the pretext of freedom of expression needs to understand that putting out the whole film will have very grave consequences around the world,” Nasrallah said at a Hezbollah rally on September 17, one of the exceedingly rare occasions on which he appeared in public since he went into hiding during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. Though the message sounds militant, it was actually just a flailing attempt to catch up to developments elsewhere in the region. Hezbollah, which used to set the Arab world’s trends, now finds itself forced to opportunistically jump on the latest global Islamist bandwagon.

In fact, Hezbollah’s embrace of the controversy over the video marks a final stage of its speedy evolution from revolutionary militant resistance movement to Machiavellian establishment power center. Lebanon’s Party of God once literally threw bombs at those who stood in the way of its ideology, attacking powerful enemies like America and Israel as well as smaller rivals at home. Today, Hezbollah represents the very sort of power it used to oppose. It dominates Lebanese politics as the majority party, choosing the prime minister; it commands a formidable standing army; its complicity in domestic political assassinations no longer is credibly debated; and it remains comfortable with its deep, compromised embrace of Bashar Al-Assad’s criminal regime in Syria.

There’s no mystery here: Hezbollah has become essentially conservative, fearful of the status of its political interests and financial and military networks. The very fact that Nasrallah felt compelled to risk emerging from his underground safe haven suggests that he fears very seriously for his organization’s future. It’s a remarkable change for a movement that was once confident in its ideological rigor and in its ability to earn unparalleled popular support in the region.

IN THE FIRST two decades of Nasrallah’s stewardship, Lebanon’s Party of God transformed itself from a potent but small militant group, best known for spectacular terrorist attacks, into the driver of the Axis of Resistance, crafting a widely appealing message of nationalism and fearless self-reliance built on an uncompromising opposition to Israel and the United States. Just two years ago, Nasrallah was still crowing about an open war with Israel and was still reaping the political benefit of being seen as the sole Arab leader to stand up to the U.S. and Israel.

Today, of course, his critical patron in Syria is teetering, threatening to vastly curtail Hezbollah’s military power, and his source of money and weapons in Iran is distracted by sanctions, a feeble economy and its nuclear showdown with the West. More importantly, the Arab world is awash in genuine retail politics. Indeed, what ultimately broke Hezbollah’s monopoly on popular legitimacy—what ultimately put the Axis of Resistance to rest as a meaningful political or ideological bloc in the Middle East—were the Arab revolts.

Like any establishment power with too much to lose, Hezbollah has kept a distance from uprisings that empower competitors. Still, there is no denying that those rivals have risen throughout the region; fire-breathers and populists have taken position all along the political spectrum from the Islamist right to the secular-anarchist left.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood embraces many similar views to Hezbollah, without the call to violence and regional war. There are Salafi extremists running political parties, and there are secular nationalists who sound every bit as uncompromising as Hezbollah when it comes to Israel. To round out the picture, there are voices that oppose violence and endorse diplomacy and pluralistic electoral politics, again along all parts of the spectrum (although sadly, they form a minority). Even Hamas, one of the four pillars of the Axis, has quietly quit its alliance with Syria (and its reliance on Iranian money), gambling that a dignified and principled stand against Bashar Al-Assad will pay handsome long-term dividends in popularity and legitimacy.

Hezbollah, however, calculated that it had no such option. The Assad regime has long allowed Syria to serve as Hezbollah’s rear staging area. Weapons transit through the Damascus airport to Hezbollah training camps and depots. In times of war, trucks can ferry all manner of material into Lebanon from safe havens in Syria. Without Syria, Hezbollah could find itself isolated in the tiny confines of Lebanon, where about half the population detests Hezbollah and its project. For now, Hezbollah’s hard power is undiminished, but the future doesn’t look so secure for the Party of God.

And so, backed into a corner, Hezbollah has responded to the radical transformation of Arab politics much like American policy makers, improvising on an ad hoc basis. Hezbollah has doubled down on its anti-Israel and anti-American credentials, but has abandoned the more inclusive nationalistic part of its resistance credo that arguably propelled its meteoric rise and sustained power. Nasrallah used to unabashedly endorse any populist Arab movement that opposed dictatorship at home or Western ambitions abroad. Now, Hezbollah seems to pick and choose the occasions when justice matters: Yes for the Shia of Bahrain, less so for the citizens of Egypt, and not so much for the Sunnis of Syria. When Israel was occupying southern Lebanon or bombing its villages, and U.S.-backed tyrants were oppressing much of the region, the sense of a powerful, monolithic enemy united support behind Hezbollah. The new reality is patently more complex, with none of the old bugbears solely to blame for the Arab world’s woes. Without a villain, Hezbollah’s fundamental recipe for power and legitimacy loses its yeast.

Of course, Hezbollah has never become explicitly or exclusively sectarian. It has managed to maintain a tight, six-year alliance with Lebanon’s largest Christian party, Michael Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. But this has never been an especially durable strategy. The contradictions are profound and irreconcilable. To some, Hezbollah is a pan-Arab guerilla front against Israel. To some it is a dogmatic Shia religious movement that sincerely embraces Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic theology. And to some, it is a shrewd and pragmatic political actor that knows how to make the trains run on time. Yet, it cannot be all of these things at once.

Hezbollah has never been free of such tensions and Nasrallah has always managed to masterfully hold the movement together despite them. As the disconnect has grown wider, however, the false narrative that Hezbollah uses to bridge the gap has grown ever more tenuous. It’s getting harder for even Hezbollah’s most committed supported to believe that Syria’s uprising is a foreign, American-backed plot to massacre innocents, create sectarian strife, and impose Israeli hegemony over the Levant. As the civil war next door spills ever more toxically across the border into Lebanon, claiming lives in Hezbollah’s neighborhoods, it has become impossible to maintain the charade of denial. As the nature of the Syrian regime’s brutality (and the cynicism with which Nasrallah has blessed it) begins to sink in, Hezbollah risks ending up looking more and more like a Shia sectarian movement, just another player in a polarized regional struggle.

If history is any guide, of course, Hezbollah will be nimble and adaptive, and use any circumstances possible to turn a bleak outlook to its advantage. Some holes, however, are too deep to climb out of. The fall of the House of Assad might be one of them. And, judging from his flailing, Nasrallah himself seems to know it.

Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation and author of A Privilege to Die. He is writing a book about efforts to create a new Egyptian order after Mubarak.