The ‘Obama effect’ and Hezbollah’s election tactics

Newsflash: It is possible that people can make up their minds without help from Barack Obama. Especially in the Middle East. So it’s particularly odd that after Lebanon went to the polls and reelected the ruling March 14 coalition, analysts in the UK and US are heaping praise on the American president for seeing off the Hezbollah-led opposition, March 8.

Fair enough, Obama did direct his crucial speech in Cairo last week to the Muslim world, but don’t be fooled into thinking that anything he said in the Maghreb was powerful enough to convince Lebanese voters to choose one politician over another. In fact, in the entire 50-minute speech Obama made just one reference to Lebanon – fearing accusations of interference – and that was to illustrate it’s religious diversity and emphasis the role of the Maronite minority. And of the Beirutis that I’ve spoken to, their most memorable part of the speech was when the President mispronounced hijab as hajib.

Despite this, however, the western press pack were quick to play up the President’s role. The worse offender in the UK was Simon Tisdall of The Guardian. Tisdall, in his piece Lebanon feels the Obama effect, wrote:

"the Beirut turnabout is the first, circumstantial evidence of a tangible "Obama effect" in the Middle East."

Since the voters holding the deciding votes in this election were the Christians, it’s more likely that they took note of the warnings made by Maronite Patriarch Boutros Sfeir that a M8 win would be "a threat to the Lebanese entity and its Arab identity".

It’s possible, though, that undecided Christian voters made their minds up when Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, gave a speech on the one-year anniversary of his forces storming Beirut. In a televised appearance, Nasrallah said that events in March 2008 had been ‘a glorious day for the Resistance in Lebanon’. Glorious? Despite Hezbollah vowing never to turn their arms on their own people, these battles across Beirut left 100 dead. As Qifa Nabki suggested at the time, the Hezbollah leader looked to have overstepped the mark with his victorious tone.

But it’s hard to believe that someone as calculated as Nasrallah could make such a pivotal error in the run up to elections, so it’s tempting to side with the conspiracy theorists: perhaps the comments were designed to push undecided Christians towards M14. After all, if elected, a government formed by the Hezbollah-led coalition would surely have faced boycotts from the international community and calls for the Shi’ite group to lay down its arm and back the Lebanese Armed Forces. As it stands, the current status quo allows Hezbollah to keep hold of its weapons, despite outside pressure, and keep its strength at the bargaining table.

And the speech given by Nasrallah on Monday, following the release of official results confirming a M14 victory, supports this theory. After declaring that group’s arms were not up for discussion, the remainder of his speech could almost have been written by the same person who penned Obama’s lines for Cairo. Take this line, for instance:

“Let us build the republic based on truth, clarity and transparency, and not on fears, threats and lies. Let us defend, build and develop our country together."

Yesterday, a spokesman for the Shi’ite party continued with the same reconciliatory rhetoric and told Reuters that the opposition will ‘behave in a highly positive manner and cooperate with the other side’. Whether Hezbollah mean this or not, it certainly puts M14 in a tough position when it comes to forming a government.