In war's dust, a new Arab 'lion' emerges

Hizbullah's Nasrallah is hailed as a regional hero.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To most of the Arab public, the debate over who won the war between Israel and Lebanon's Hizbullah is already settled.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah is being feted through song in Syrian nightclubs and on Palestinian radio. In Egypt, his name is being given to babies. On Baghdad streets, posters celebrate his "victory." Islamist and secular groups are united in declaring Mr. Nasrallah the new "lion" of Arab causes.

The long-term political fallout of this euphoria over Hizbullah's ability to withstand Israel's superior firepower is still uncertain. In Lebanon, suffering brought by the war has seen support for Hizbullah split along sectarian lines. But there are signs that opponents of authoritarian regimes in the region have been emboldened by Hizbullah's actions, linking their struggles against their own states to the Lebanese guerrillas' fight with Israel.

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What's more, the perception of Nasrallah as the Arabs' new champion – replacing secular leaders of the past like Yasser Arafat – has accelerated the regional shift of support to Islamist leaders seen as less corrupt than their secular counterparts.

The biggest boost to Nasrallah's popularity appears to be among Palestinians and Syrians.

Alaa Abul Heijah, the leader of Firkat Ishaman, a band in the West Bank city of Jenin, says that he decided to write a tribute to Nasrallah after watching footage of Israel's attack on the village of Qana. The result was a song that dubs Nasrallah "the Hawk of Lebanon," and has quickly become one of the more popular war songs.

In Damascus, posters of Nasrallah with young children or of Nasrallah flanked by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, adorn shops and cars. Singers have even brought the "resistance" into popular nightclubs where alcohol flows and Syrians dance to popular songs found throughout the Arab world.

To be sure, Sunni Syrians and Palestinians aren't necessarily enamored of the hard-line Shiite alliance of Iran and Hizbullah. Some see them as outsiders who use the Palestinian cause to further their own interests. Abdel Majid Sweilem, a political-science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, says many Palestinians feel caught in the middle of the Iran-US standoff. "We don't want to be in the Iranian coalition, but we don't want to be involved in the American'" one either, says Mr. Sweilem.

But for most Palestinians, little seems to dampen their elation at what's perceived as a victory against Israel through mere survival. Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based political analyst, says Hizbullah's endurance is the closest thing Arabs have had to a victory against Israel in decades. Nasrallah "is an example of a leader who Palestinians are dreaming of," says Mr. Shaban.

That's a feeling shared by many Arabs. "He is the first leader to really defeat Israel. He does not live in palaces or drive a Mercedes. He lives with the fighters and the people," says Mahmoud Mahrouf, a high school teacher in Cairo. "Nasrallah is the only true Arab leader today."

While much of the visible support falls into the category of Arab kitsch, there are signs that Nasrallah's rise in the region will translate to a boost for opponents of the US and Israel.

According to a recent article by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, chairman of Cairo's Ibn Khaldun Center, a postwar poll by his think tank found that Nasrallah is ranked the most "important" regional leader by Egyptians. Rounding out the top five, in order, are: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, Khalid Mishal of Hamas, Osama bin Laden, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Mahdi Akef.

During the war, Mahdi Akef, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most popular opposition movement, made comments of almost unprecedented militancy for an organization that laid down its arms a generation ago.

Pressured by eager young followers, he said the Brotherhood was "ready" to send 10,000 members to fight alongside Hizbullah, and he followed that up with a thinly veiled attack on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, accusing "Arab leaders" of abandoning Lebanon to "Israeli aggression."

"If [the Arab leaders] weren't Muslims, we would have killed them, because they are a bigger threat to the nation than Israel itself," Mr. Akef said. His tough talk has been followed by a crackdown; 17 Brotherhood members were arrested last Friday.

Close US allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have taken heat from their citizens for not standing with Hizbullah during the war.

While praise remains near unanimous outside Lebanon, recent polling shows more mixed feelings about Nasrallah's militia. A poll released Monday by L'Orien Le Jour, conducted by Ipsos-stat, found that while 84 percent of Lebanese Shiites want Hizbullah to remain armed, 54 percent of Sunnis and 77 percent of Christians want the group disarmed.

With reporting by Joshua Mitnick in Jenin, West Bank, and Rhonda Roumani in Damascus, Syria.

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