On Friday morning, as 800,000 demonstrators took a stand, beginning a weekend of protests in the streets of Beirut, professor Shibley Telhami stood at the podium of the Brookings Institution’s Falk Auditorium in Washington, D.C.
Telhami is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the Anwar Sadat Professor at the University of Maryland. He is round-faced and soft-spoken and, wondrously enough, he has just conducted an opinion poll in Lebanon. If you want to know what the Lebanese are thinking in this moment of crisis, Telhami’s slides come in handy. If you’re looking for good news, though, stay well clear. Studying them conjures the looming, inevitable defeat of the good guys.
Supporters of Hezbollah, the terror organization that is the most powerful military presence inside Lebanon, feel that they are winning, that they are on the march. The majority of the country also feels that they are winning. Hezbollah knows that everybody else knows that they feel that they are winning. And they have the determination and the necessary patience—and support from Iran and Syria. What does Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora have to offer? The support of the United States. Majorities of both the Sunni and the Shiite components of Lebanese society define their views of the United States as “very unfavorable.” Both Sunnis and Shiites say they have “no confidence” in the United States. Both Sunnis and Shiites believe that democracy “is not a real U.S. objective” in the region.
But it is the Shiites who have the most interesting answers in this poll—though they aren’t always the same answers as the rest of the population (that is, Sunnis, Christians, and Druze). Shiites are the only group that believes that “[i]f the US quickly withdrew its forces” from Iraq, “Iraqis will find a way to bridge their differences.” (Shiites are the majority in Iraq.) Shiites are the only group that insists that “[e]ven if the Israelis return all of the territories occupied in 1967 peacefully, the Arabs should continue to fight Israel no matter what the outcome” and the only group who perceive Israel as "[w]eaker than it looks/matter of time before defeated.” They are the only group whose views of Hezbollah have changed for the better since the summer war with Israel and the only group that considers Israel to be the big loser of the war—rather than the “Lebanese people” as the other groups believe.
In short, they are the only group that feels strengthened, confident, and on the march. These are the most dangerous feelings you can have in a region like the Middle East. If you’re humbled and realistic, you go for compromise. If you’re cocky and emboldened, you try to grab it all. Why not have the Americans pull out of Iraq if you think that your people will take over control of the country? Why stop fighting Israel if you believe you’re ultimately going to win?
The Shiites of Lebanon—those of them who support Hezbollah, at least—are in this perilous mood now, and you can see it in every report from the streets of Beirut. The silent majority is apprehensive, muted, worried. The Shiite demonstrators are as arrogant as you can get. “The fault lines are in the minds of the people. It’s much more than just the geography of Beirut,” Robert Saliba, a 56-year-old architect and urban planner, told the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid. “I think the mental geography is more important than what happens on the ground.”
I talked to several Lebanese acquaintances over the weekend, and they all started by describing the situation in the most technical of tones. “Hezbollah and its allies want to have a third of government ministers so they could block decisions. … Michel Aoun [Lebanon’s Christian opposition leader] just wants to become president. With Aoun’s and Amal’s ministers, Hezbollah will have their third.” But after a while, and only after they had made sure that all the political intricacies had been clarified, they turned to the real story: “We are very much in a civil war, only until now there has been no use of arms,” one of them told me. A couple of hours later, the first victim of the demonstrations was shot dead.
But, interestingly enough, the first victim was a Shiite protester who was killed in a Sunni district of Beirut. The Shiites haven’t used violent force so far—they don’t need to. They are the ones who speak softly and carry the bigger stick. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, intends to paralyze the country to prove that nothing can be done without his consent. He forced the Hezbollah-influenced Shiite ministers to resign from the government, and he will not let any new Shiite ministers be appointed. So, even if the government is still “constitutional,” it doesn’t represent the country, since there’s a whole community that is not represented.
Nasrallah’s ultimate goal for Hezbollah, many in Lebanon believe, is the Iran model. They know it cannot be implemented right now, but, in the long run, “if Christians keep leaving the country in big numbers, as they are doing now, well, it might happen,” one Lebanese gloomily told me. The Shiites have the fertility rate, the money, the support from the outside—but, most of all, they have “the confidence and the patience.”
And most of all, as they look around, they don’t see any other force that might stop them. The United States is determined, but it is exhausting itself in Iraq; Israel has tried and failed; and the other, more moderate, Arab countries will not pick a fight with Iran and Syria over this marginal cause. Some Lebanese are waiting, somewhat anxiously, for the Baker-Hamilton committee’s recommendations this Wednesday. They have zero confidence in the help they might get in the future from an American administration. “If the Syrians help Bush in Iraq, he could sell us out in a second,” one of them told me. “Exactly as his father sold out the Kurds to Saddam 15 years ago.”