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Hizbollah plays game of political patience

Although a government is yet to materialise in Lebanon, the Shiite opposition seems to give preference to dialogue over violence.

Beirut // When the Sunni-led "March 14" political alliance won Lebanon's tightly-contested parliamentary elections in June, many politicians and pundits warned that a failure by the incoming prime minister, Saad Hariri, to quickly broker a compromise with the Hizbollah-led opposition could return Lebanon to the sectarian violence that almost sent the country back to civil war in 2008.

Although a government has yet to materialise after more than three months of often bitter debates, there has been no violence, as both Mr Hariri and the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, have avoided troublesome rhetoric even as their talks have repeatedly failed to broker an agreement. As perhaps the single most powerful person in Lebanon, Mr Nasrallah has far more tools for pressuring the majority into concessions, ranging from a military power that far exceeds even the Lebanese army, to the ability to send hundreds of thousands of devoted supporters to the streets in protest within a few hours. But instead, Mr Nasrallah appears to be content to let the talks progress, while using conciliatory language towards his political enemies.

Even with Mr Hariri's resignation two weeks ago after failing to deliver a government because of a dispute with Hizbollah's only major Christian ally, Michel Aoun, over control of the critical telecommunications ministry, Mr Nasrallah dampened expectations that a return to the violence of 2006 to 2008 was imminent. "It is not worth taking the country to a political, sectarian and security tension," Mr Nasrallah told his followers last Friday.

"Let us stay calm in order to reach a solution ? Reaching a deal over a cabinet, even if it takes some time, is better than dragging the country into chaos," he told supporters. This approach, in marked contrast to past speeches and positions in which he would warn his political opponents that a failure to agree could internally threaten the safety and security of the nation, appears to be an effort to remake the region's perception of the militant group, which is more famous for its military prowess than its ability to compromise with its enemies.

"He has not been using threats or intimidation anymore," said Timur Goksel, a former UN official with decades of experience dealing with Hizbollah. "This appears to be an attempt to soften the image of Hizbollah domestically and regionally. But it is also the only real course available to them at this point." Mr Goksel said that Hizbollah can afford to be patient, in large part because they feel that a government favourable to their positions will eventually be formed, and as long as they are not faced with a threat to their security, they have no reason to be impatient.

"It might take a little time, but they will get what they want," he said of the group. "But things are calming down. Their strength is beyond question." Elias Muhanna, a political affairs expert, thinks it became clear during the wrangling over Mr Hariri's refusal to appoint Mr Aoun's son-in-law as minister of telecommunications that Hizbollah cared little about the fight, but were happy to support their critical ally as long as Mr Aoun kept the conflict limited to patronage positions.

"My feeling is that Hizbollah would like a government to be formed yesterday," Mr Muhanna said in an e-mail. "It's better for them if Lebanon's dysfunctions are off the front page. That said, I don't think that they're going to turn the screw on Aoun, for the same reason that they never try to pressure Berri. They're happy to let their allies play politics as long as their red lines are very clear. Pressuring Aoun is just not worth [sacrificing] their own political capital."

With Lebanon's long history of sectarian warfare between just about every confessional group at one time or another, Mr Nasrallah appears concerned about turning the dispute into a Sunni-Shiite battle, a problem that Mr Aoun, as a Christian, does not face or care much about. "Nasrallah is playing the good cop to Aoun's bad cop, because he knows that as a Sunni-Shiite contest, this has sectarian potential," said Paul Salem of the Carnegie Institute.

"I don't think they [Hizbollah] care about Aoun's son-in law but they certainly care about the telecommunications ministry. They are ratcheting down sectarian tensions, [and] they do not want their people tense or riled up. So his [Nasrallah's] position seems to be to keep sectarianism calm and cool, while actually letting a sectarian thing play out." However, Mr Goksel disagrees, describing the contest as strictly political in light of each side's expectations, which could even be described as cynicism.

"This is a political fight, not a sectarian one," he said. "This being Lebanon, people will say 'sectarian' for just about anything. This country is not going to change. Neither side has any dreamy illusions of changing the confessional system, the voting laws or the economic mafia controls. They are just working their way around finding a way for both sides to peacefully coexist. They can do it, it's just going to take a little while longer."