From guns to governance: the Hezbollah-Hamas challenge

Par Rami Khouri


The Arab world's two leading self-styled "Islamic resistance movements" - Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine - seem to be moving in different directions, but there are lessons to be learned from both. The main one is that armed resistance is primarily a means for these groups. Their ultimate goal is a national order that reflects their society's valid concerns on political legitimacy, sovereignty, ideology and social values. Their success reflects their ability to respond to the needs of their constituents, rather than to promote any sort of ideal
Islamic society or espouse revolutionary rhetoric and wage perpetual war.
As Hezbollah holds its own in Lebanon and the region, it also finds itself preoccupied with the challenges of shifting its centre of gravity - or at least its international image - from guns to governance. After achieving the striking feats of driving the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon in 2000 and fighting it to a draw in 2006, it has no room left for military endeavours, and nothing more to prove on the battlefield.
It asserted itself in recent years by defying five parties: a weak Lebanese central government, other Lebanese political groups, Israel, the United States, and the dominant regimes in the Arab world. In return, these forces have now physically and politically hemmed it in: The Israeli army will destroy all of Lebanon after the next provocation; the Lebanese government has moved 15,000 soldiers to the south; the United Nations Security Council is sending another 15,000 peacekeepers; and Lebanese and Arab leaders are calling on Hezbollah to fully integrate into the national governance and security system.
History suggests that fighting resistance wars to liberate one's occupied land is much more straightforward than making a subsequent transition to political responsibility. Hezbollah's most important test is just starting: It must erase the haze of its own inscrutability, remove the ambiguity of its relations with Iran and Syria, and slay the demons of mistrust that plague its relations with many key players, especially in Lebanon.
The parallel lessons from Palestine are instructive and sobering. The Palestinian resistance movement against Zionism and Western powers since the 1930s has passed through erratic stages of success and failure. The Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization pulled off some political achievements regionally and globally in the 1970s and '80s, only to sink into a sad cycle of complacency, corruption and incompetence after 1990. This ultimately led to its own marginalization, and the political and physical destruction of many aspects of Palestinian society.
The responses to this institutional mediocrity and political failure were the rise of Hamas and smaller Islamist groups, the waging of two popular intifadas against Israeli occupation, and the fragmentation of society into local political-military wards, militias and gangs. Hamas's success in resisting Israel militarily ultimately helped drive Israel out of Gaza; it achieved parallel political success in winning local and national elections in 2005 and 2006.
Its overall trajectory, however, has been more difficult than Hezbollah's. This is mainly because it has simultaneously faced a brutal Israeli military and political assault, Fatah, and other Arab governments that fear it, and those Western powers that have tried to break it. Yet, Hamas has also performed poorly in many cases, unable to build on the credibility and legitimacy it has achieved since its founding less than two decades ago.
A respected member of Hamas in Gaza has now publicly admonished his fellow ruling Islamists and other Palestinians for their failures, charging that "Gaza is suffering under the yoke of anarchy and the swords of thugs" and that, since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza a year ago, life has become "a nightmare and an intolerable burden."
Ghazi Hamad, a former Hamas newspaper editor and the spokesman for the current Hamas government, urged Palestinians to examine their own performance and not blame Israel for all their problems and failures. His most important point was his insistence on "self-criticism and self-evaluation," instead of the habit of "blaming our mistakes on others."
In light of the lessons of Hezbollah's performance in Lebanon, Hamas must now adjust quickly or risk the same doomed, but self-inflicted, fate as Fatah and the PLO. As Mr. Hamad aptly challenged it and Palestinian society to do, it needs to examine its own ways in order to achieve success by being more accountable to its constituents, rather than faithful to fiery or emotional slogans. The performance of Hezbollah and Hamas in the months ahead are worth monitoring, for they will greatly affect political trends throughout the Arab world.
Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star.

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