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Dec 14, 2006

Cracking The Cedar: How Hezbollah Re-Envisioned The Democracy Movement (And The West Hardly Noticed)

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What a romantic picture the NYT led off with this past Monday on its front page.  And, how vague.

Here's the caption:

High above a rally that drew hundreds of thousands of Lebanese into Beirut, protesters atop a church next to a mosque demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government Sunday. Hezbollah and its allies have staged a series of similar protests in recent days.

So, we have participants, labeled simply as "protesters," high above a "rally" of hundreds of thousands of so-named "Lebanese."  It's only in the second line that the rally becomes a protest, and those "Lebanese," by inference, can be associated with Hezbollah. The accompanying article is just as nebulous, asserting in the most nonchalant tone how the President of Lebanon  is in a state of puzzlement over why all those demonstrators are encamped outside his office.

If anything, the issue of crisis in Lebanon has been just as amorphous this week in Washington, where the Administration's singular focus has been to look like it's doing something about Iraq.  As the Times photo reflects, neither the American press nor the White House seem to be paying much attention to Beirut, and the tenuous events on the ground.

If you've been similarly distracted by the Bush/Iraq soap opera (in tandem with the creeping narcotizing Yule Tide), the Lebanese Government and a Hezbollah/Syrian human tide have been engaged for almost two weeks now in a stand-off outside the government offices in Beirut.  At this point, neither side is willing to walk away without either retaining or wresting away ultimate control.

It's ironic the U.S. fails to see the government of Lebanon hanging in the balance right now.  If the Iraq Study Group achieved anything, it was the successful framing of the Iraq problem in larger regional terms. With so much discussion about Iran as a regional threat, and the potential for multiple war zones, however, how is it that the escalating stand-off in front of the Lebanese Government House just hasn't made it onto the radar screen?  Is it possible the U.S. is too distracted to notice whether Hezbollah, as a Syrian/Iranian proxy, assumed control in Lebanon?  Its been years since the "domino" metaphor was prominent in the American political lexicon, but it couldn't be more applicable than this minute.

The question of why the Lebanon situation remains neglected extends beyond the scope of this blog -- except in one respect.

What The BAG has been tracking lately is the public relations posturing employed by Hezbollah, and its effect in shaping, moderating and muting the media coverage.  On that score, Hezbollah has done a masterful job controlling the narrative and, particularly, toning down its militant profile.  With Karl Rove having so little to work with these days,  it seems the Hezbollah/Iranian perceptual apparatus is now in a class by itself.

As I've pointed out, the subtle photo caption above reflects the relative success Hezbollah has had in painting the Beirut stand off as a populist upheaval, with the tens of thousands on the scene representing "the Lebanese," and the intended overthrow of the government -- an entity Hezbollah happens to recognize and to serve in -- as a spontaneous rallying of the popular will.

If you study them, however, the stream of pictures coming out of Beirut these days are even more interesting and defining.



In terms of a PR strategy, what is impressive is how Hezbollah has managed to appropriate or co-opt the iconography of last year's Cedar Revolution.

Perhaps the signature image of the 2005 anti-Syrian uprising involved the waving of the Lebanese flag high above a crowd of pro-Democracy demonstrators.  As this image circulating on this week's newswire demonstrates, Hezbollah has taken possession of that imagery.  Notice, by the way, how the Mohammed al-Amin mosque, also the subject of the NYT image above, and a key icon in the current political backdrop, is almost perfectly centered in the background.



Although Hezbollah counter-demonstrators made use of the Lebanese flag last year, the state flag clearly became identified with the Christian/Druze/Secular  anti-Syrian faction.  Determined to neutralize that identification, if not flip it, the flag has become a high-density fixture in the Hezbollah stand off.  Among Nasrallah's followers, the icon has become ubiquitous and, in street-marketing style, is now prevalent as face paint on babies as well as body art (or war paint) on the young.



The idea of uniformly dressed mourners holding up signs of the deceased are more typically associated with religious marches or fundamentalists wielding posters of their leaders amidst martyr photos.  In a strange twist, however, the image of black-clad marching Hezbollah militants has not only disappeared, but this visual vocabulary also seems to have jumped the fence.

If you were looking for pro-Government crowd shots this week, most prominent in the coverage were images of primarly black-clad Lebanese women in head scarves holding pictures of slain former Premier Rafik Hariri outside the Government House.  Similarly, there were photos like this one (above, from Tuesday) at a ceremony north of Beirut.  The mourners hold photos of journalist Gebran Tueini commemorating his assassination a year ago.

Lebanon-Women-Then-1  Lebanon-Women-Now

Perhaps the more obvious visual attribute of the Cedar Revolution, however, was its sexualization.

Seemingly mindful of the benefits, a lot more attractive young females are showing up in front of the cameras in support of the anti-government forces -- just as (in the face painting shot above, for example), we see a modest "babe-ification" trend in the juxtaposition of attractive young Islamic activists visually married to the mosque.  (If you follow the captions, however, you'll notice the more overt "girls of the Islamic revolution" shots are coming not from the front lines, so much as from outposts of Hezbollah partners or supporters, such as student groups at Beirut's American University.)

Along these lines, Hezbollah is making tremendous use of its recent alliance with Christian General Michel Aoun.  (Aoun was part of the anti-Syrian, pro-Government coalition last year, and has since switched sides.)  Through this alliance, Hezbollah and Nasrallah have been able to paint their movement/uprising as both a multicultural and a multi-denominational one.  From a symbolic standpoint, the visual mileage derived has been enormous.  This connection not only allows for the exploitation of more secular imagery, but also the appropriation of, and blurring of the lines between Muslim and Christian symbolism.

And exactly how might one capitalize at this time of year???



These two shots immediately above are more of a "back door view" into Hezbollah's exploitation of Christmas.

In the first shot, a demonstrator -- in front of the tents said to serve as the encampment and staging ground for Hezbollah's occupation army -- can be seen in front of a giant sign showing Condi Rice hugging Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.  According to captions I've read (this banner, as just one more backdrop, was all over the newswire last week), the text, in English, of course, reads: "Thanks, Condi!" and is said to show dead children near the bottom.

Surveying the current crop of news photos, the encamped Hezbollah activists have turned downtown Beirut into a virtual Santa-fest.  In the second shot, above, another "resident" is actually trimming a Christmas tree.

Lebanese-Girl-Nasrallah-Chr  Minaret-Christmas-Tree-1

And the media result of this priming and primping?

In general, what the MSM is lapping up and spreading around right now are romantic shots like these, in which Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah are equated not just with holiday cheer but with sweet, cross-cultural symbolism suggesting that a Hezbollah-led government in Beirut might be a unity government, pledged to peace on earth, goodwill toward (all but Sunni) men.

(image 1: Matt Dunham/Associated Press.  Beirut. December 11, 2006.  image 2: (image: Hussein Mall/AP.  Beirut.  March 2005. The Los Angeles Times.  image 3: unattributed.  Beirut, Lebanon.  December 10, 2006.  Via YahooNews.  image 4 & 5: Petros Giannakouris/A.P.  Beirut.  December 8, 2006.  Via YahooNews. image 6: unattributed. March 5, 2005.  image 7: Joseph Barrak/A.P.  December 12, 2006.  Mkalles, Lebanon.  Via YahooNews. image 8: The Economist.  March 5, 2005.  image 9: unattributed.  Beirut, Lebanon.  December 10, 2006.  Via YahooNews.  image 10: Jamal Saidi/Reuters. December 12, 2006. Beirut.  Via YahooNews.  image 11: Hussein Malla/A.P.  December 6, 2006.  Beirut.  Via YahooNews.  image 12: unattributed.  Beirut. December 10, 2006. Via YahooNews.  image 13. Petros Giannakouris/A.P.  Beirut.  December 8, 2006.  Via YahooNews.)


Well done! It is a perfectly made campaign, disguising the deadly threat first to the Lebanese society. A Hisbollah-rule in Lebanonwill imediately form the country into an Iranian outpost and an additional threat to the existance of Israel - this time supported by a powerful Iran, openly deemanding the extinction of Israel - see this disgusting conference about the "Holocaust-myth" in Teheran, were Islamists, Fascists, KuKluxKlan and 3 crazy Jews shook hands - simply disgusting and a horrible scenario!
And the other point is to be remembered: If you go for war, keep a close eye to the overall environmeent in in particular on possible threats from aside. And old miilitary rule, disregarded by the Bush-administration.

A fascinating analysis, thank you. The pictures that knocked my socks off were the then/now pair with "the iconography of the cedar revolution": Same imagery, different sides.

I was also struck by the first picture: the Minarets,, though golden, look like missles to my eye, the concrete structure in the foreground suggests a tank, and the place is swarming with men. It feels very militaristic, threatening. You describe it as romantic. At first glance, yes, but then, to my eye, it becomes rather sterile. But, of course, I'm picking up an atmosphere of threat.

GeorgeF: "If you go for war, keep a close eye to the overall environmeent in in particular on possible threats from aside. And old miilitary rule, disregarded by the Bush-administration."

I agree and would add that, imho, Bushco's sin was that they justified immoral behavior-war--because they knew that war would destabilize the middle east, AND they regarded destablization as a good thing. Democracy on the march!! They rationalized that democracy was an irresistible form of government, that destablization would inevitably produce democracies and that all democracies would be our buddies. They never considered that the US might not be popular with the People after invading, occupying, killing and maiming. So their sin resulted from hubris coupled with delusion (fixed, unshakable false beliefs) as well as hubris coupled with incompetence (lack of skill, knowledge and ability).

I said once, and I say it again. Israel war on Lebanon was stupid, and now we see that it backfired. Question is, how far is Hezbollah willing to go (and what the future holds for the tank-top wearing babe in a Hezbollah run state?)

Afraid I find this analysis just another piece of propoganda, designed to obscure the reality that the crisis in Lebanon is a genuine national crisis of governmental legitimacy. For some Lebanese analysis, from a non-Hezbollah source, see this. For some amazing images that convey how very mixed the opposition to the present government is, see here. Why are we required to believe that what is close to a majority of Lebanese (perhaps an actual majority) must be dupes of Iran or Islamists?

you've all probably seen this, but Juan Cole and EW have both done yeoman's work in the last few days, discussing the strategic shifts among all the parties in the middle east. Juan is calling it the new middle east cold war.

Emptywheel has a timeline up of the posturing and meetings over the last few months, culminating in the Saudi ambassador to the US being called home. She suggests that this might signal more conflict between Cheney and the rest of 41's crowd from the ISG, and that the Saudis aren't happy with any of the options that either party seems to be suggesting. Of course, what the Saudis would really like is for us to continue to police Iraq, and please keep those wacky Iranians busy for 10 or 15 years while they figure out what to do next.

The question I have is- if we wanted to provoke Shiite - Sunni civil war throughout the middle east, couldn't we have found a way to do it without landing 150,000 americans in their godforsaken desert?

oh jeebus. I just read this at Kos:

Now, you may remember that the 9/11 families filed a massive lawsuit against the Saudis, alleging their involvement in the attacks. Earlier this year, Newsweek ran an article that discussed the Saudi’s legal team and legal defense strategy. As part of this, a passing mention was made of the Housotn based law firm that was defending Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi defense minister. That firm (a huge international law firm) is named Baker Botts. And guess who is one of their senior partners – one James A. Baker III.

sigh. Read the rest of it here. Just another reminder- there is a story here, behind the story you read in the papers. That story-behind-the-story is about the Bush family and the House of Saud deciding how to run the world together.

I said once, and I say it again. Israel war on Lebanon was stupid, and now we see that it backfired. Question is, how far is Hezbollah willing to go (and what the future holds for the tank-top wearing babe in a Hezbollah run state?)

The idea that the Lebanese opposition is comprised of Hezbollah and islamist fanatics is ridiculous. I received a picture from the recent demonstrations of a "babe" carrying the hezbollah flag. IT it wasn't for the flag, I don't think anyone would be able to tell which side she is on. Can anyone tell me how, if possible at all, that I can upload this picture?

As for George's insane remarks. A Hezbollah-led government in Lebanono is not a threat to the existence of Israel .. it is a threat to Israel's and the US expansionist dreams in the middle east.

I guess an apology is in order. I let my mouth run before my brain. As Janinsanfran links showed, not everything is what it appears to be. If anyone has more info, please pass it along.

Angry Arab is the place for information about what's going on in Lebanon. I don't agree with all his opinions - he's very anti-all religions - but he knows a lot of people there and gets a lot of news that we wouldn't hear otherwise. (By the way, the BAG links to an article by Walid Phares. According to Angry Arab, he's a right-wing Zionist whio used to be a commander of the Christian militia, which was allied with the Israeli army. I wouldn't put much stock in his opinions.)

Al-Jazeera English is also informative, but of course that's mostly not available in the U.S. (that land of free speech). You can watch live at their website, though.

That "al-Amin" mosque is also called "Hariri" mosque; it was built by Rafik Hariri and just recently completed. It reminds me of the mosques in Istanbul, where one sultan tried to outdo his predecessor by building a bigger and better mosque.

The Western media was very impressed with the March 14 demonstrations because they were the "beautiful people"; how many pretty women showing their midriffs did we see? Hezbollah supporters don't really appeal to them.

The BAG: "As I've pointed out, the subtle photo caption above reflects the relative success Hezbollah has had in painting the Beirut stand off as a populist upheaval, with the tens of thousands on the scene representing 'the Lebanese,' and the intended overthrow of the government -- an entity Hezbollah happens to recognize and to serve in -- as a spontaneous rallying of the popular will."

There have been HUNDREDS of thousands, haven't there? Out of a population of about 4 million, that's pretty significant. And didn't all the Hezbollah and other Shia ministers resign from the government recently?

Sorry anon, I'm not insane. Hezbollah is financed completely by the Iranian Mullahs. They have all the money to spill it around. And the war on Hezbollah by Israel was not stupit, but badly performed - Israel believed in air-power, a futile way to fight gerrillas. An there is no doubt about the aim of Hezbollah, to destroy Israel. Nasrallah had declared it again and again. And there is no doubt about the understanding of "democracy" by Hezbollah - it is the Shiite rule, islamistic, partisan, aggressive. There is no doubt about the reason for Hezbollahs rearmament in South Lebanon: war on Israel - or could you name another reason, why Hezbollah is stockpiling missiles in South-Lebanon again? If Hezbollah would believe in Democracy, why did they sharply reject the Lebanese agreement of the civil-war factions, to put down arms? Why do they need arms - to perform democracy?
This is the reality behind those lovely chicks, put in front of the demonstrations against the Siniora-government.

revolutionary movements have been bringing in men by their natural inclinations toward women already in the group for a long, long time.

after all, it makes sense. or, as my roommate just said looking at this foto, "hezbuh-la-la-la!"

revolutionary/resistance movements

George, there's no doubt that Hezbollah gets financing from Iran, but it's not "financed completely by the Iranian Mullahs". For one thing, even the money that comes from Iran isn't just from a few mullahs; there's widespread popular support, and I would assume that much of the money comes from donations from people other than mullahs. And much of it also comes from Shias outside Iran - and probably from some Sunnis too, especially after the credibility earned by Hezbollah during the summer conflict with Israel.

Not that the average American politician - including those with roles in "intelligence" - can even identify whether Hezbollah (or Al-Qaeda) is Sunni or Shia!

smiley--thank you for the very useful tips.

Reading the comments here, I am again reminded of what an incredible mess the ME is. It seems that all that colonial meddling--patching together hostile groups to form Iraq, the imposition of Israel, the addiction to oil, the US occupation of Iraq--is bearing bitter fruit. It all keeps coming back to Israel. A significant percentage of the ME has never, ever accepted Israel, and given the trends, may never accept Israel.

janinsanfran's link didn't convince me that the Siniora government's crisis of legitimacy is independent of Hezbollah's desire to increase its own power: Since opposition to Israel is a rallying point among the people of the ME, of course, anti-zionist groups such as Hezbollah will have popular support. And governments that tolerate Israel will encounter resistence.

Addressing janinsanfran's comment, ("Why are we required to believe that what is close to a majority of Lebanese (perhaps an actual majority) must be dupes of Iran or Islamists?")... the rise of Republican right-wing conservatism in the US nicely illustrates that people can embrace a movement because of a popular policy while remaining remarkably stupid about the broader agenda and funding sources of the movement leaders: In the mideast, the anti-Israel policies, and in the US, anti-abortion/smaller government & tax cut policies.

It is interesting to read the images again, while asking what these images suggest for the future. As a number of other commenters have posted, when the hot babes start supporting anti-Israeli forces, the prospects for Israel look dismal. It would be interesting to know if that is a general rule--that the future can be forecast by observing what the beautiful people favor.

In any case, our individual attitudes towards Israel will color whether we regard Hezbollah as a heroic people's movement or a terrorist organization.

You have to watch the color-coding in these pictures, particularly the color orange, which is associated with Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement - the people who were demonstrating on March 14, and who are demonstrating now. Note eg the orange santa-hat on the kid with the nasrallah poster. I hadn't realized before that the protest babe waving the flag in the "before" flag-waving picture is in all likelihood out there for the marches during "after" (assuming she hasn't gotten married, or moved to the Gulf to look for work, or whatever in the meantime). (Orange headband).

Very good analysis, BAG.

To Raphael's comment: What would a Hezbollah government look like? I would surmise it would look much like the type of society set up by the mullahs in Iran after the Iranian revolution. Public beheadings, gender relations resembling those of the Dark Ages, and stoning recommended for any woman who dares to fall in love and act on it.

In other words, not too pretty. When people on the left starting supporting Hezbollah, I was slightly puzzled. I know that at the time, I was similarly impressed by the guerilla group's ability to singlehandedly thwart the Israeli war machine. Not an easy task mind you, and of course Lebanon was still devestated (its coast is still covered in oil, thanks to an Israeli accidentally-on-purpose missile). But this still doesn't excuse the fact that they are fanatical in their religious orthodoxy, and that they aren't exactly anti-US hegemony for altruistic reasons.

I can see how Hezbollah is helping to destabilize the government in Lebanon. And lets say we admit that all these protests are being funded solely by Iran/Syria factions. But...does anyone here even know who was fomenting the so-called Cedar Revolution? My mind is a bit fuzzy, but I believe the US needed Syria out of Lebanon - in preperation for Israel's "retaliatory" war - and of course the current government wouldn't do it. The US seems to be using this tactic more and more - instead of fomenting "low-conflict" wars in the world that is not the West, they are realizing that you don't need to send in the CIA in a covert and violent capacity anymore. All you need to do is employ companies like Penn, Schoen & Berland to "market research" how best to overthrow the government which 'we' don't like - all the while emphasizing, blaring, and maniacally promoting the notion that Democracy is on the march. For some interesting info on how this has worked recently - for instance, in Serbia about a decade ago, and in Ukraine during its mind-numbingly comforting Orange revolution - this is an interesting article:

On a slight tangent, I just read this on Angry Arab:

""We will request funding to support the security reform [of Abbas's forces] and I think we will get support," said Rice in an interview with Reuters, adding that the aid would be in the range of tens of millions of dollars.""

I guess this is the kind of Democracy we like - thousands upon thousands of civilian workers go do their jobs with little to no pay for over a year because we didn't like the results of their democratic election. And yet Condi can openly brag about sending in millions of dollars to fund its client in the Occupied Territories for the cozy and comforting notion of "security-reform." Orwellian double-speak brought to a whole new level.

YAY for democracy.

Frankly, I don't know enough about the current (or past) situation in Lebanon to comment intelligently. But something about photos #8 and #9 caught my attention.

The first shows the exuberance of youth celebrating a victory. She's a worker, a participant and her apparent joy comes from the struggle won. The second photo is different, more hard-edged, commercial, westernized. A lot of skin showing for a Muslim country, so she must be one of the Christians. Something about her expression and her pose and the fists arrayed above her reminds me of those republican 'paid' protesters in Florida in 2000.

Tom Scudder's comment about the orange was interesting because the first girl is wearing a band around her neck and the second tied to her wrist. But, it is difficult to tell whether they are red or orange.

Also the title of the earlier photo seems disingenuous in that it comes from 'The Economist" a right-wing publication. I dare say that democracy has been to Lebanon many times, but it has been repeatedly buffeted by outside forces every time things settle down. At least since the 1970's......But that's just my impression.

I realized that my analogy here with the US' action's suggests moral relativism. Just because this is the type of thing the US practically invented does not mean Hezbollah's actions should be excused.

Frankly, I'm afraid they *are* going to be successful, and if my analysis is correct, that would be fairly devestating for the ME.

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