Christopher Anzalone writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Hezbollah’s Double Standards: Tunisia, Iran, & Popular Protest
Hezbollah just issued a statement via its media relations office expressing strong support for “the people’s uprising” (the Arabic term intifada is used) in Tunisia. This, only days after it and its allies withdrew their ministers from the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri leading to its collapse, The mass popular protests that led to the unexpected flight of Tunisia’s longtime autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali are heralded by Lebanon’s largest Shi’ite political party as “historic developments.” Hezbollah’s enthusiastic support and attempted cooption of the potentially groundbreaking events last week in the North African country stand in stark contrast to the party’s reserved, at best, public response to mass popular protests that followed the controversial Iranian presidential elections in the summer of 2009. While this discrepancy is hardly surprising it is a clear illustration of the Hezbollah leadership’s double standards as well as a fairly blatant example of their attempt to spin events in Tunisia to fit the party’s ideological framing.
The party’s statement says that it “cannot but express respect for the popular will [of the Tunisian people] that astonished the world its unity, solidarity, and quick reaction…Hezbollah believes it is the Tunisian people’s right to choose their representatives and elect who they find appropriate to rule their country.” The Tunisian protestor’s “self-reliance,” rather than “seeking foreign help,” is also praised. Comparisons are made to the Muhammad Reza Pahlavi’s and Ben Ali’s quick and unexpected flights from their home countries in the midst of mass popular protests against their despotism.
In contrast to the party’s excited endorsement of the popular protests in Tunisia, the public statements by Hezbollah’s two most senior leaders, its secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah and deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem, were muted following successive popular protests in Iran following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested reelection as the country’s president. In response to questions about the party’s position on events inside Iran, Qassem said “Hezbollah has nothing to do with Iran’s internal affairs. We don’t side with anyone. This is an internal Iranian issue. What is happening has nothing to do with our situation.” Nasrallah labeled the protests an “internal [Iranian] matter” that he would “not touch.”
Hezbollah’s quick public support of popular protests in Tunisia rests on the usefulness of the events of the last several days to the party’s platform and ideological framing. As its statement makes clear, the flight of Ben Ali, seen as backed by the U.S. and France, is a clear sign of the changing times in the Middle East and North Africa. The party “calls upon [Arab] leaders to learn from what has happened in Tunisia, and the first lesson is to end their relations with the arrogant countries.” Hezbollah’s silence when mass protests were routinely taking place in Iran was understandable given the fact that the party is closely aligned with the Iranian governing system headed by Ali Khamenei. Unlike the Tunisian protests Hezbollah had nothing clear to gain from taking a strong public position on the Iranian protests and certainly nothing from criticizing Khamenei or Ahmadinejad, both of whom have been great supporters of the Shi’ite party. However, Hezbollah has clearly shown that for all its claims to represent the “downtrodden and oppressed of the world,” its concern for political and social freedoms, like those of the nation-states it criticizes, is selective and determined by self-interest rather than a belief in universal justice.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual culture.