POLITICAL frustration and economic despair have continued to splinter and radicalize the Shiite Muslims of Lebanon. Amal, the populist reform movement that promised in the early '80s to become the dominant organizational voice for the Shiites, has faced a steady erosion in its following. Ineffective and sometimes incompetent leadership, as well as petty corruption, has undermined its support, especially in the suburbs of Beirut.
Hizbullah (Party of God), the Iranian-funded alternative to Amal, has emerged as a competent, dedicated, and well-led challenger. The fighting in May in the Beirut suburbs, which saw Hizbullah triumph over Amal, underlined Hizbullah's steady success in enlisting the Shiites; many are former Amal members.
It is symptomatic of Amal's decline in the suburbs that a number of local Amal defenders simply deserted their posts, allowing them to be easily conquered by Hizbullah.
Hizbullah has enjoyed much less success in south Lebanon, where about one-third of the 1 million Shiites live. Animosity against the Palestine Liberation Organization runs deep in the south, and Amal's opposition to the restoration of an armed PLO presence in that area accurately reflects popular sentiment.
In contrast, and much to its detriment, Hizbullah has closely cooperated with the PLO. Amal forcefully demonstrated its supremacy, in April, when it eliminated Hizbullah as an organized military presence in the south. But neither Hizbullah nor Amal speaks with a single voice, even in the south. Both organizations are riven internally by local animosities and turf jealousies.
Moreover, the political loyalties of the Shiites span wide organizational and ideological spectrums. Not only are there a multitude of trends within Amal and Hizbullah, but many Shiites support neither Amal nor Hizbullah. The Lebanese Communist Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist party, though small in comparison with both Amal and Hizbullah, continue to count many Shiites as members. Numerous Shiites, of course, have avoided any organizational affiliation.
There is also a considerable range of opinion among Shiites toward the external powers that play a role in Lebanon. Anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment is stronger among the Shiites than in any other group in Lebanon, particularly because of the continuing occupation of a major portion of the south by United States-supported Israel.
Among the Hizbullah, however, there is considerable anti-Syrian sentiment, and Amal members are prone to single out the PLO as the actor most responsible for preventing an end to the turmoil. Incidentally, the pro-Moscow Lebanese Communist Party is arguably the most dogmatically anti-American party.
It is well known that the preponderance of Shiites believe that the seizing of Western hostages is not only morally wrong, but has been tremendously damaging to Western perceptions of them.
This view is borne out in a recent survey of 400 Shiite college students in Beirut by Prof. Hilal Kashan of the American University of Beirut. He found that more than 90 percent of the Shiite respondents expressed strong disapproval of hostage taking and believed the hostages should be released immediately, without conditions.
Despite the significant recent successes of Hizbullah in Beirut's suburbs, Iran has not succeeded in convincing a majority of the Lebanese Shiites that Iranian answers are appropriate for Lebanon. In fact, the growth of Hizbullah seems to have had more to do with the failings of Amal than with the allure of Iran.
Since 1982, Iran has plowed impressive sums into Lebanon - some estimate as much as $30 million a month this year - to promote Iranian influence and spread the Islamic revolution. Yet most Shiites, including several senior and influential Shiite religious leaders, remain convinced that the Iranian model is inappropriate for culturally diverse Lebanon.
Many Shiites resent Iran's campaign. Some have loudly voiced their resentment in recent weeks. Although Hizbullah has often functioned as an Iranian proxy, the organization seems to be drawing away from Iran, rather than closer to it. Iran's failure in the Gulf war may accelerate this trend, as the dynamic appeal of the Islamic revolution further fades.
None of this is to argue that the Shiites are on the verge of casting down their arms, or that the contending loyalties of the Shiites to Islam, Arab nationalism, and Lebanese nationalism will miraculously coalesce into a unified stance. Moderation remains in eclipse in Lebanon, and an end to the fighting seems a remote prospect.
But, contrary to the expectations of some observers, few Shiites seek to be enfolded by Israel, Syria, or even Iran. Most important, there are at least some good signs that the Shiites, though divided, may have more to contribute to a dialogue aimed at finding a way out of the present mess than is often assumed.
Augustus Richard Norton is permanent associate professor of comparative politics at the United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., and the author of ``Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon,'' University of Texas Press, 1987. Adapted from an article appearing this month in Middle East Insight.