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    The Shia Elite – Talking to Ziad Majed

    Ziad Majed is a writer, political researcher and professor of Middle East Studies at the American University of Paris. He is the author of a research paper entitled “Hezbollah & the Shia Community: From Political Confessionalization to Confessional Specialization” in which he explores past and present dynamics within the Shia community, focusing on Hezbollah. It was commissioned under the US-Lebanon Dialogue Program that is jointly run by the Aspen Institute and the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation.

    NOW Lebanon spoke to Majed about the evolution of Shia political elites within the Lebanese confessional system and the circumstances that established Hezbollah as the most popular political force in the Shia community.

    You write that Shia political elites have experienced the most radical transformation over the past few decades. What were the main characteristics of Lebanon’s Shia elites, say, before the rise of Hezbollah?

    Ziad Majed: Shia political elites before the civil war were descendants of feudal families of the Bekaa and the South. They were called “traditional zuama,” and were – like most zuamas from other communities – responsible for the political and economic favors for the masses they were supposed to [represent]. They were also consociational in their political behavior and very much concerned with the stability of the system that was allowing their political continuity.

    Consociationalism is a model of government, developed as a “prescription” for plural and divided societies, giving primacy in political representation to collectivities rather than individual citizens. It aims at guaranteeing the participation of all groups or communities in state institutions, and it is often referred to as a power-sharing model.

    Shia leadership was segmented, since it had territorial boundaries, and it was believed that they were less influential within the political institutions than their Maronite and Sunni counterparts. They were also less influential within the emerging economic and financial circles based mainly in Beirut in the 1960s and 1970s, which reduced their clientelist power. This created frustrations among Shia masses migrating to cities, and added to what was considered a political marginalization an economic one.

    How did Moussa Sadr’s influence help organize and activate the Shia community?

    Majed: When Moussa Sadr appeared on the Shia scene, he was among those called in political sciences “the counter-elites.” He expressed some of the frustrations and desires of the masses, and offered an appealing alternative to the disengaged traditional Shia representatives. He had, however, to compete with another alternative: the Left that was attracting young generations and was on the rise in the South, and in other areas. He was also a sayyed, a religious leader, and by establishing the Shia Higher Council in 1969, he contributed to the institutionalization of the Shia community and to its political consfessionalization.

    Later, his foundation of the Amal Movement and his positions in the early years of the civil war paved the way, especially after his “disappearance” in Libya in 1978, to a strong alliance between his successors in the movement and the Syrian regime.

    How did Iran’s efforts to create an Islamic revolutionary party in Lebanon come to fruition?

    Majed: Iran’s efforts to export its Islamic Revolution intensified in 1981, two years after Imam Khomeini seized power in February 1979. Iran was at the time confronting an international embargo and engaged in a ferocious war with Iraq.

    In 1982, and following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrived in the Bekaa Valley to contribute to the creation of an Islamic revolutionary party in Lebanon. The initial membership of this new party was drawn from a split in the Amal Movement, and was consolidated by sheikhs close to the Iraqi Daawa Party who studied in Najaf. The party’s membership numbers were further increased by the inclusion of young men and women on a quest for a new political identity.

    Hezbollah was officially born in 1983, and raised in its early years the slogan of the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon.

    You write that, through Iran’s influence, Hezbollah built networks of institutions and spread new practices in various Lebanese Shia regions. What were some of those new practices?

    Majed: Between 1985 and 2005, Hezbollah was not just busy with fighting Israel. It was also building a mini “state” comprised of a network of different institutions that provided a wide range of services to the Shia constituency. The network included schools, hospitals and dispensaries; consumer, housing and construction cooperatives; sports and cultural clubs; and youth, women’s and scouting groups. This network was of course added to the structures of the party itself, including the military, political, security and media branches.

    The party also built mosques and Hussayniyyah, which welcomed figures of the sociopolitical or cultural-ideological fields close to the party or associated with it. Through this broad-based network, Hezbollah established itself over the years as the first “services provider” for the Lebanese Shia community, after the Lebanese government. The primary source of funding for these projects was Iran. Other sources of funding include donations, religious “khoms,” and different businesses of party supporters in Lebanon and abroad.

    In addition, Hezbollah spread new religious practices in various Lebanese Shia regions. Members of Hezbollah were influenced by concepts and habits of Iranian origin that were not familiar before the 1980s, or were practiced in very restrained circles.

    Hezbollah’s weapons are a big source of tension. What can be done to soothe these tensions, as it’s doubtful Hezbollah will throw down its arms any time soon?

    Majed: No one can deny today that large portions of the Lebanese population sees Hezbollah’s weapons as the major source of threat to the country’s stability, because the party has already used them internally (in clashes with its foes), and because the decision to use them against Israel is not made by the Lebanese state, 10 years after the liberation of the South. Those who defend the weapons consider them a dissuasive force against Israel and see them as a strong tool to be used to block any final Middle Eastern settlement threatening Lebanon. Reaching a compromise, or at least common grounds, on the weapons issue has proven impossible after several attempts in the last five years.

    Solutions seem to be regional, related to (1) a US-Iranian accord that would deal with Iran’s regional role and nuclear ambitions, in exchange for Iran calling (among other things such as involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine) on Hezbollah to agree with the Lebanese State on delivering weapons to the Lebanese army; and (2) serious progress in the peace process on the Palestinian track, bringing Syria on board at a later stage, and putting an end to the Israeli occupation of the Shebaa Farms.

    Knowing that these two scenarios are unlikely to happen (at least in the near future), it is not possible to reach an agreement on the weapons issue. Hezbollah rejects any dialogue leading to its disarmament, and its foes do not have any power capable of forcing it to disarm.

    You suggest some reforms that can be made to strengthen the Lebanese state. Can you touch on one or two?

    Majed: The “urgent” reforms are motivated by the need to (1) weaken monopolies in the representation of confessions/communities to avoid continuous vertical clashes in the society (2) weaken confessionalism itself (3) calm fears from demographic changes and (4) support local socio-economic development in Lebanese regions to counter the impact of clientelism in the political sphere and to allow local initiatives to develop.

    Such reforms could be drafting a new nationality law, designing a new electoral system, working on an administrative decentralization law in Lebanon and creating a civil personal status code.

    Paige KOLLOCK
    NOW Lebanon
    30.01.2011

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