When Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah organization, addressed the hundreds of thousands of party faithful who gathered in the largest rally in Lebanon’s modern history last week, his usual theme of liberating Jerusalem went unmentioned.
Instead, Nasrallah, a 44-year-old bearded cleric, focused, uncharacteristically, on the future of Lebanon.
The speech last Tuesday was also remarkable for its venue – central Beirut – and the absence of the trademark Hezbollah backdrop, its green and yellow banner with a fist brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle.
Manar Television, the organization’s satellite channel, ended its reporting with a tight shot of Nasrallah standing on the balcony of a white sandstone building in front of a Lebanese flag.
“Today Sayyid Nasrallah has become a national leader,” the announcer intoned.
With the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, on Feb. 14, Lebanon lost a rare man who appealed to some extent across the patchwork of often murderous sects who compete for the spoils in this tiny country.
The question is whether anyone can fill his shoes as a kind of national arbitrator. The march on Tuesday served as Nasrallah’s opening bid for the job.
“This is the first time that Nasrallah played the role of statesman; we have never seen him as a Lebanese leader,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the American University in Lebanon and author of a book on Hezbollah’s politics and religion. “Hezbollah might emerge as the new power broker in Lebanon outside Syria.”
Nasrallah’s bid is a major gamble. To some extent, he has stayed above the endless fray of Lebanese politics. He gained national stature by directing Hezbollah’s firepower and thousands of armed men against the Israeli Army, winning admiration across the Arab world for ending the 22-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
Once he plunges fully into the political fray, however, he will become less of a pan-Arab, pan-Islamic figure and may be considered just one more Lebanese local boss, albeit representing the largest Shiite bloc.
It is also questionable how his support for Syria will play in a country where many are sick of what they see as its exploitative neighbor.
But becoming “more Lebanese” could well prove necessary. With the anticipated departure of Hezbollah’s Syrian protectors, it will be harder for the group to pursue its emphasis on maintaining Lebanon as a battlefield for the Palestinian cause.
It is only by flexing the muscles of the Shiite community that Nasrallah can ensure that Hezbollah retains a voice in a political system where religious identification remains all-important. (Under Lebanon’s rigid divisions, the highest political post a Shiite Muslim can aspire to is speaker of Parliament.)
In some ways the struggle over post-Hariri Lebanon resurrected the long fight over how the Lebanese see themselves. Hariri was a Sunni Muslim who believed in Arab causes, but he also spoke to the many Lebanese, particularly Christians, who consider themselves misplaced Europeans.
He was a billionaire real estate developer. He wore good suits, smoked expensive cigars, spoke three languages fluently and lunched with friends like the president of France, Jacques Chirac.
He was also rebuilding central Beirut to make it the financial and tourism Mecca it had been before the civil war.
Many Lebanese took note Tuesday that Nasrallah, in his black turban, spoke from a balcony right above the trendy Buddha Bar and just a few buildings away from Bank Street, lined with the country’s premier financial institutions.
It is not turf frequented by most of the working-class Shiite Muslims from the capital’s southern suburbs who form Hezbollah’s backbone. Indeed, it was the group’s emergence during the civil war that gave that underclass its first substantial voice.
The march underscored that the downtrodden were not going to cede ground to the more secular, Westernized coalition of Christians, Sunni Muslims and Druse who have been marching weekly since Hariri died.
“He staged the march in central Beirut, in Hariri’s Beirut,” said Saad-Ghorayeb, the professor. “For them it symbolized that they too belong to Beirut.”