Hezbollah has entered territory uncharted in its 24-year history as armed militia, social welfare group and nascent political party, effectively seeking an unprecedented, decisive say in Lebanese politics to protect what it sees as its interests from foes at home and abroad.
The month-long political crisis that has roiled Lebanon, hurtling it dangerously close to the precipice of civil war, marks a revealing shift for the Shiite Muslim movement that for years, at least rhetorically, tried to stay above politics, entering the cabinet for the first time in 2005.
Now, by mobilizing its rank and file and pouring them into downtown Beirut to topple the government, the movement has framed that pursuit for political power in the same martial language of this summer's war with Israel.
The imagery is often blunt: "Just as I promised you victory in the past, I promise you victory once again," goes a recording by Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah played over and over, igniting cheers each time. Banners on tents, housing thousands of supporters camped out in front of the government headquarters, display the slogan: "As with victory, change is coming, coming, coming."
"Everything is at stake for Hezbollah," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an analyst on Hezbollah and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center in Beirut. "There is no way that Hezbollah would back down."
"They're putting this political struggle on a par with the military struggle to show how significant it is strategically," she added. "It's basically an existential struggle for Hezbollah. It's an extension of its war with Israel."
Crisis has myriad dimensions
The protests that began last week continued Tuesday, part carnival, part show of force. The crisis has myriad dimensions: notably a contest over ideology toward Israel and a battle over whose patrons — the United States and France on the government's side, Syria and Iran on Hezbollah's — will have a greater say here.
And the protests are rife with irony. In pursuit of its political aims, Hezbollah has employed tactics praised by the Bush administration when mass demonstrations took place after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005 helped end Syria's 29-year military presence in the country.
In the street today is a somewhat unlikely coalition of Shiites loyal to Hezbollah and to the allied Amal movement, and Christian supporters of Michel Aoun, an influential former general. The protests themselves represent an unprecedented attempt at popular pressure by Islamic movements that often act, or are forced to act, clandestinely in the Middle East.
But there remains a relentless logic to today's demonstrations: an attempt by Hezbollah to resolve in its favor the political uncertainty that has reigned since the Syrian withdrawal from a country in which two camps contest nearly every aspect of Lebanese political life. At stake, almost everyone agrees, is the direction of the state.
"This is not about one more cabinet minister or one less for either them or us. It is a battle equally important for them and for us," said Samir Geagea, veteran of a civil war militia who supports Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government.
Nayla Moawad, the minister of social affairs, was more direct. "This is a coup d'etat," she said.
"A balance of power within the government will be a guarantee for both sides," countered Amin Sherri, a Hezbollah member of parliament. "Before they were giving us a choice between bad and worse. We don't want to go on like this."
"We don't want to be merely witnesses to decision-making on important issues," he added.
Once unasked questions are up for grabs
Since Hezbollah's creation with Iranian patronage in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion, the group has often operated in different environments. During the civil war that ended in 1990, there were no rules. Afterward, Syria, long the kingmaker here, protected Hezbollah's interests, as well as determined the country's foreign policy. After the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah's popularity swelled, its militia credited with what most in Lebanon considered a victory.
But in the tumult and uncertainty of Lebanese politics today, once unasked questions are up for grabs: whether Hezbollah can keep its arms; its ties to Syria and Iran; the country's posture toward Israel and the United States; and the balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites and divided Christians. Underlying them is another question, sharpened by the contention of Hezbollah's foes that it started the latest war with Israel: Who has the right to make war and peace in Lebanon?
"The state, before the assassination of Hariri, was used to protect and embrace Hezbollah. The whole state served to protect it. And now this state has ended. So Hezbollah is looking for an internal role, to enter the political equation, and its entry into politics represents a huge upheaval," said Hazem al-Amin, an analyst of Shiite politics and writer for al-Hayat newspaper.
"Hezbollah wants to try its political training on us," he added.
Hezbollah's transformation over the years marks one of the most striking transformations of any Islamic organization in the Middle East. In its early years, it was notorious for imposing draconian restrictions in southern Lebanon — banning mixed sunbathing and women's swimsuits at beaches, closing coffee shops, and prohibiting parties and dancing. Since then, it has evolved from a shadowy organization blamed for two attacks on the U.S. Embassy and the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks here, killing 241 soldiers, into a sprawling movement that fields a crack militia, serves in parliament and delivers welfare — from education to compensation for war damages — for its Shiite constituency, Lebanon's largest community.
Protests mark new, uncertain tactic
Through that evolution, the movement has adapted itself at turning points in Lebanon's history. It took part in parliamentary elections in 1992 after the civil war. After the Syrian withdrawal, it entered the cabinet for the first time. As pressure built for its disarmament, as called for by U.N. Resolution 1559, it struck its alliance with Aoun a year ago. Each turn can be read as defensive: protecting its weapons, preventing Lebanon from growing too close to the United States, and promoting the ambitions of the Shiite community, long disenfranchised and still sometimes perceived as second class.
But the protests underway mark a far less certain tactic for Hezbollah than past decisions to participate in parliament or the cabinet. The stakes are higher — bringing down the government — and the outcome for a group that prides itself on deliberation, caution and prudence is by no means certain. The implications for its Shiite constituency are similarly ambiguous. A debate remains in Lebanon over what precisely Hezbollah wants and how much the rest of Lebanon is willing to give.
"They sort of painted themselves in a corner, and it's very difficult to back out now," said Timur Goksel, a former spokesman and adviser to the U.N. peacekeeping force here. That strategy entailed risk in Lebanon's notoriously mercurial, even cynical politics, he said. "At the moment, they are spending a lot of the capital they made out of this summer's war. Getting involved in local politics can erode the party's popularity very quickly."
In some ways, he added, "fighting Israel is much easier."
In the protests themselves, canvas tents sprawling across downtown during the day, engulfed by crowds at night, Hezbollah has played down any sectarian ambitions. Rather, it has promoted the protests as a campaign for "national unity." "One, united," banners read at the protest and on the movement's television station, al-Manar. On a recent night, a Hezbollah guard discouraged a couple from bringing a Hezbollah banner to the stage. "Please, only Lebanese flags tonight," he said.
Another dominant theme is resistance to American influence in Lebanon. That message appeals to its constituency, bitter over U.S. support for Israel in this summer's war, and underlines the almost existential threat that Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, perceives in a government too closely allied with the United States and its ambitions in the region.
"Hezbollah was extremely anxious where the country was heading. It seemed to be heading straight into the U.S. orbit. It was turning into a satellite state," said Saad-Ghorayeb, the analyst. "If they back down now, they will have effectively given up on Lebanon. That would mean Lebanon falls to their enemy, the United States and Israel."
Banners condemn Jeffrey D. Feltman, the U.S. ambassador in Lebanon, who is often a target of Nasrallah's speeches. "The government of Feltman," one slogan reads, "We'll bring it down." A homemade billboard was set up near Hussein Ismail, a 15-year-old protester from the southern town of Kafra. Under a picture of Siniora and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, it read, "Congratulations to the bride and groom." Another pictured the two shaking hands. "Peace with the enemies," it read.
"This is a struggle with a government that is not Lebanese but rather American," he said. "We want a Lebanese government that doesn't take its decisions from the Americans and the Zionists."
Behind Ismail was another poster of Nasrallah. "He promised a victory, and a victory is coming, just like he said."
Special correspondents Alia Ibrahim and Lynn Maalouf contributed to this report.