High stakes in Lebanon's election
A win for Hezbollah and its allies Sunday would tip the region’s balance of power toward Iran.
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Here, Hezbollah reigns. Beneath a spiderweb of illegal electricity cables, thoroughfares are lined with solemn portraits of "martyrs" – resistance fighters killed in battle against Israeli troops in south Lebanon. Huge posters cover the sides of some apartment buildings, showing stern-faced Iranian clerical leaders or the beaming visage of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic and revered leader of Hezbollah.
If the polls go as many believe they could, the militant Shiite group may soon extend its dominance to Lebanon as a whole, shifting the balance of power in the Middle East toward Syria and Iran – and away from the West's allies.
It has been a remarkable journey for Hezbollah. From a small band of Iran-directed religious zealots, the group has morphed over the years. Though still backed by Iran, Hezbollah is today a sophisticated, multifaceted organization that offers a host of social services to its grass-roots constituents and fields possibly the most effective guerrilla army in the world.
Critics call it a state within a state. But on June 8, the Hezbollah-dominated opposition could find itself holding the reins of power in the Lebanese state. That would put the ruling March 14 coalition – a pro-West alliance of Sunni, Druze, and Christian parties – on the defensive.
"If March 14 wins, we will return to the current balance ... constitutional power in our hands and the power of weapons in their [Hezbollah's] hands," says a senior figure in the Future Movement, the leading Sunni political body, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If they win, then there will be a joint Syro-Iranian venture on the Mediterranean."
The political contours of the Middle East today are shaped by a new cold war pitting Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas against the so-called moderate camp, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States, and even Israel – all of whom worry about Tehran's rising influence. The fault line in this cold war runs through Lebanon, ensuring that the elections will reverberate far beyond Beirut.
Two-thirds the size of Connecticut and home to 4 million people, Lebanon plays a disproportionately influential role in Middle East affairs. Its history and politics have been held hostage by its geographical location, wedged between the Mediterranean and old enemies Israel and Syria, and by its pluralistic society, a patchwork of competing sects, tribes, and clans whose leaders often pursue external patronage to gain leverage against domestic rivals.
A deep cultural gulf
A microcosm of the Middle East, Lebanon has long played host to most woes plaguing the region: the Arab-Israeli conflict, Sunni-Shiite tensions, Al Qaeda-style militancy, extremist austerity, and democratic openness.
Two men – Hamzi, a fighter with Hezbollah, and Jean Fares, an engineering student and a Christian – stand on opposite sides of the Middle East fault line and typify the cultural gulf in Lebanon.