Monday, August 06, 2007

Interview with Frederick Deknatel

Daily News Egypt - Full Article: "Hezbollah author Augustus Norton: “Egypt is far from being able to enjoy truly competitive elections”

By Frederick Deknatel
First Published: August 2, 2007

CAIRO: No shortage of commentary followed last summer’s war between Hezbollah and Israel, and the image of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, on kiosks around Cairo, as in other cities throughout the mainly Sunni Arab world, seemed a quick explanation for the war’s regional impact.

And yet opinion on Hezbollah since has often been confined to extremes, seeing it either as a purely terrorist organization or a group garnering admiration for their standoff with Israel.

A new book by an American university professor who was a UN military observer in southern Lebanon in the early 1980s, 'Hezbollah: A Short History,' offers what The New York Review of Books summed up as an “admirably concise and balanced primer” on the Shia political party and paramilitary group.

Augustus Richard Norton, professor of international relations at Boston University,
engaged in an email exchange with Daily News Egypt on his new book and developments in the region, a year after the July war.

In your book you describe Hezbollah as 'Janus-faced.' What do you mean?

On the one hand, Hezbollah is a fully institutionalized political party that has fostered pride, political engagement and individual empowerment. On the other hand, it is a militia that has incited a war, challenged a legitimate government and at various points in its history engaged in what should aptly be described as terrorism.

For many of its followers, there is no contradiction between Hezbollah as militia and Hezbollah as a representative political party. They see themselves faced with a severe security problem, and they have direct experience of Israel's attacks on Lebanon and its prior occupation of southern Lebanon. In their view, they have a security problem; not one caused by Hezbollah, as much as one addressed by Hezbollah.

In my recent visits to southern Lebanon I have been impressed by the fact that Hezbollah actually gained support after the August 2006, and its rationale for defending Lebanon had grown in acceptance. Frankly, I predicted that this would happen. I noted a year ago that as the war went on, time would not necessarily play in Israel's favor, and it did not because Hezbollah gained support in its core Shia constituency.

Have we seen the full fallout of last summer's war, a year later?
In the immediate aftermath of the war there was a lot of exultation of Hezbollah and particularly its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. After all, they went toe to toe with Israel and did not lose. I write about this in the book ("Hezbollah: A Short History"). I remained in the Middle East until May, and my impression is that the enthusiasm has faded in places like Egypt and in the Gulf. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that Hezbollah is still admired and its leader continues to fascinate many people in the region.

In Lebanon, the war's impact is still being felt. The war was like a bomb thrown into the Lebanese political system. Following the war, Hezbollah tried to exploit the solidarity it was enjoying in the Shia community, as well as its alliance with other opposition elements, especially the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun. The party misjudged its power, however, and the country is now locked in a stalemate. I worry that if the stalemate is not broken by the election of a president to replace Emile Lahoud, whose term expires in November, that the situation will grow more dangerous.

The emergence of groups like Fatah Al-Islam should be a wake-up call for all concerned. Extremist Salafi groups of this sort will prosper in a fractured, unstable Lebanon.

What do you see as Egypt's role in the Hamas-run Gaza strip?
Egypt has no interest in seeing Hamas succeed in ruling Gaza, and Egyptian policies reflect that orientation.

What is behind recent American strategies to arm different factional groups in the region, whether Fatah in the months leading up to Hamas' takeover of Gaza or Sunni insurgent groups in Lebanon, as alleged by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh this spring?

I have not seen corroboration of Hersh's claims [regarding Lebanon].

The US approaches groups like Hamas with a very black and white perspective: Hamas is a terrorist group, plain and simple. Clearly, Washington was intent to see Hamas fail as the governing party, and it backed pro-Fatah groups and people such as Muhammad Dahlan to achieve that end — the failure of Hamas. Of course, it was precisely the groups that the US funded and encouraged that Hamas recently defeated. We will see if the current good guy-bad guy approach to Palestine succeeds. I am doubtful. In the meantime, Gaza sinks into deeper despair.

Will Hamas be blamed for the impoverishment?

I doubt it.

Does solidarity or admiration for Hezbollah among Egyptians and across class lines, as you note in your book, suggest support for other Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brothers, or is it confined to opinions about Lebanon and Israel?

I find that Egyptians often reveal nuanced perspectives on the Brothers. There is a mixture of admiration for their principles, but there is often also doubt that the Brothers might actually successfully govern Egypt. I am convinced that in a truly competitive election, in which the Egyptian people had real choices, rather than a ruling clique [that] treats elections as a ruse to maintain power, the Brothers would win a respectable vote but far short of a robust majority. Of course, in the present environment there is little free political space in Egypt, and Egypt is far from being able to actually enjoy truly competitive elections. The political legacy of the Mubarak era is precisely a constriction of political space and an absence of viable political parties.

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