BRITEL, LEBANON // There is a story that makes the rounds of the impoverished villages that surround the city of Baalbek in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley about the local Shiite cleric Sheikh Subhi Tufayli. A few years back, the story goes, somewhat incredulously, he was embroiled in a traffic dispute with a particularly belligerent taxi driver on the outskirts of town when the sheikh decided he'd had enough.
"Khalas!" he exploded, removing the tightly coiled white turban that identifies him as a religious scholar. "The turban is off, and for the next five minutes, I am not a sheikh," he is reported to have shouted before pummelling the offending driver with his fists. Whether the tale is true or not, it reflects a sentiment around the northern and eastern Beqaa Valley that, despite his role as a spiritual leader, Sheikh Tufayli is a tough man who does not take kindly to injustices.
The Lebanese authorities agree - they issued a warrant for his arrest in 1998 after the sheikh and his followers, drawn from the poor, rural Shiite tribes that populate Beqaa, declared a "Revolution of the Hungry" to protest the economic deprivation of the area. Fearing an erosion of their own support from a community that provides critical manpower to their operations, Hizbollah joined forces with the Lebanese Army to put the mini-revolution down and more than 30 people were killed.
Although the warrant remains active, the Lebanese authorities have consistently refused to arrest Sheikh Tufayli, for fear of sparking a repeat from his tens of thousands of supporters in Lebanon's most remote and lawless areas. A tense stalemate has endured. It's this dedication to his community of poor farmers who often turn to hashish cultivation and other criminal activities to survive, that has led some local residents to dub him the "Gangster Sheikh".
It probably would not be a good idea to call him that to his face, but it's clear from sitting in his office that he not only remains bitter towards the Lebanese government, but also towards Hizbollah, a group that he helped found and actually led for a few years in the late 1980s. After a power struggle with the Shiite Islamist movement's current chief, Hassan Nasrallah, over the role of Iran in the group's activities and the decision by its leadership to join Lebanon's political process, he was bitterly ousted in 1991.
Sheikh Tufayli considers the Lebanese government to be too venal and corrupt to reform from within, and insisted that Hizbollah would be ruined by its involvement. And he doesn't just blame the government for the misery of the rural poor, but claims that a ruling class of thieves has ruined the entire country. "The Lebanese people, in general, suffer from terrible government; it's not more in one town than another," he says of the situation. "It's just a coincidence that some towns are poorer than others."
The reason, he says, is that the rulers of Lebanon don't see themselves as protectors and leaders of a nation, but rather kings entitled to its wealth. "The past and present Lebanese governments are a bunch of thieves who consider the wealth of Lebanon theirs to steal," he says. "And you can't just say Lebanon, because this is the problem in the entire region. But in this country, without exaggeration, there is no government: the rulers are predators and the people they rule are the prey."
The sheikh's views are sometimes more in line with liberal democratic values than those of a theocracy. He describes the country's most important problem as a lack of free speech. "The country lacks a strong opposition to the system, which makes it an unhealthy one," he explains. "But there can be no justice without freedom of speech and freedom of the press. When you have an opposition with the ability to speak freely, then the rulers have to be more careful because they know the opposition is watching them."
"This is why you see countries like Egypt, where Mubarak wouldn't get a single per cent of a vote if there was freedom. Or Libya, where that madman of a leader they have has been in power as long as the pyramids themselves." Hizbollah could have provided this sort of principled opposition, says the sheikh, but its decision to join the political system in the early 1990s put the group squarely in the middle of the cycle of graft and patronage that keep Lebanon's hopefully reformers sidelined, according to the sheikh.
"In this country, where there is no real government, Hizbollah has everything it needs to control things," he said. "It has weapons, popularity and control of the streets. They had a big opportunity to help develop the country into something just, but that is not their agenda." The focus on resistance to Israel, an idea that the sheikh certainly endorses, doesn't require ignoring good governance, which he views as a weapon against injustice the group has refused to wield.
"The biggest mistake that Hizbollah ever made was to not demand that all major political figures - the prime minister, president, parliament - be limited to honest men," he said. "Their second-biggest mistake was pursuing a sectarian agenda in their political conflict with the Sunnis. Now all Sunnis are scared of them, they can't reform anything. "To have a strong country, you can't have one armed political party turning its guns on another unarmed party," he explained. "The sectarianism isn't originally part of Hizbollah's ideology but is the result on their leaders in Iran forcing it on them for regional reasons. But while it says it opposes corruption, Hizbollah never bothered to stand against this corrupt system. They've only made it stronger."