x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Thirty years later, Hizbollah is just another corrupt party

Many former supporters are discovering that the "Party of God" no longer represents them or their aims.

In the Shia Islamic tradition, initiating a greeting by saying "Assalamu Alaykom" yields 69 blessings. Uttering "wa Alaykom Assalam" in response begets only one. Your net balance of blessings (awarded for all good deeds, subtracted for sins) will decide your fate on the Day of Reckoning.

In my early teens Ali, a cousin of my cousin, always insisted on saying the first part of this salutation even if we beat him to it. So adamant was he about collecting all the blessings that we nicknamed him Ali Assalamu Alaykom. So pious was he that during our football games, he would concede fouls without his opponents calling them.

Ali's father Ibrahim Al Sayyed, a religious man, was the man who announced the founding of Hizbollah in Baalbek, eastern Lebanon, in September 1982, and in Beirut three years later. For at least the first decade after Hizbollah's founding, its supporters were disciplined, and so observant of religious teachings that one season the party's football team, Al Ahed, did not receive even one yellow or red card.

Over the next few years I lost contact with Ali. His father was elected to parliament on Hizbollah's ticket in the 1990s, but later fell from grace with the leadership - or maybe with its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus - and was made the chair of the party's politburo, a role that seems marginal.

Since then, a new generation has taken over Hizbollah. Piety seems to have fallen out of fashion, which is odd for a party that claims a divine role.

On Twitter, I often comment on the speeches by Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, which are usually transmitted from his hideout and broadcast on a giant screen.

Perhaps it is Mr Nasrallah's disconnection from the world that has made him seemingly delusional. Or maybe the changing world around him, with the advent of the Arab Spring, has caught him unprepared to defend his alliance with the region's tyrannies in Iran and Syria.

Mr Nasrallah looks nervous. And he has referred to his party's missile arsenal in each of his last three speeches, in a clear show of force, promising to kill tens of thousands of Israelis.

In my tweets, I highlighted what seemed to be his inconsistencies. My points, retweeted by many, came to the attention of Hizbollah members who unleashed a barrage of offensive comments and swear words against me. I tried to reason with many of them, urging them to keep the discussion civil, but to no avail. None of Hizbollah's younger generation seemed interested in the heavenly blessings that Ali was so keen on collecting more than 25 years ago. Times have changed, and the "Party of God" looks godly no more.

Instead of old-fashioned kindness, members of Hizbollah now reiterate Mr Nasrallah's rhetoric by threatening their opponents with "surprises" and punishment of "apocalyptic proportions". They warn everyone not to test their patience and advise against disagreeing with them, or with the tyrants of Iran and Syria.

Swear words and threats are only part of the story. Hizbollah now suffers from rampant corruption. Since Iran richly compensated the party for the losses Hizbollah supporters suffered during the war with Israel in 2006, bags of cash have encouraged decadence and fraud.

In September 2009, a Hizbollah old-timer, Salah Ezzidine, was arrested after running a Ponzi scheme that caused financial losses within the group. Soon thereafter, a pro-Hizbollah columnist in Beirut wrote that Mr Nasrallah had expressed outrage about the wives of Hizbollah officials aggressively driving big new SUVs, bullying other drivers. Mr Nasrallah reportedly urged his lieutenants to go back to the old ways, piety and thrift.

To add insult to injury, Hizbollah members and their allies have been implicated in various mafia-style murders and cases of domestic sabotage. In 2011, a UN-sponsored tribunal charged four Hizbollah leaders with the assassination six years earlier of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

In another incident this year, a group of men were caught trying to plant a bomb in the lift of the building of Boutros Harb, an anti-Hizbollah Christian lawmaker. Two black SUVs rushed to the scene carrying men, pretending to be police, who snatched the would-be assassins out of the hands of the building's security and passers-by. The men are still at large - and under the protection of Hizbollah.

Last month, former Lebanese minister and lawmaker Michel Samaha - a close ally of Syria's Assad regime - was caught in a police sting and accused of planning to detonate bombs across north Lebanon to sow discord, perhaps civil war.

Proven links to attacks and assassination attempts, along with corruption, threats and simple incivility have turned Hizbollah into the opposite of its founding principles.

Reflecting on all this made me wonder where Ali is these days. Our common cousin, also called Ali and a supporter of Hizbollah during our boyhood, still sends me his regards. "Does he still like Hizbollah?" I recently asked my mother, who had run into him. "Quite the opposite," she said. I asked why and my mother quoted Ali as saying: "I did not sign up for this."

Many Lebanese Shiites did not, either.

 

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai

On Twitter: @hahussain