Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

In the Arena of the Zu'ama - Reviewing Hizballah's Role in Lebanon

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

In the Arena of the Zu'ama - Reviewing Hizballah's Role in Lebanon

Article excerpt


A few months prior to the Lebanese parliamentary elections of 1992, Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal movement, was asked to describe his main accomplishment. He answered that his most significant achievement was the abolishment of the feudalism within the Shi'a community. In his answer, Berri referred to the weakening of the feudal families which had ruled the sect for many years.1 These families, called the zu'ama (singular za'im), were not unique to the Shi'a, but were, and still are, characteristic of Lebanese politics as a whole. Unlike families of other sects, the Shi'a families were pushed aside by the sect's clergy, especially by Musa al-Sadr who established the "Movement of the Deprived" and then the Amal movement, which resisted the zu'ama?s influence.2

Berri?s statement was only partially true. Indeed, the concentrated attempts of both al-Sadr and Berri to weaken the influence of the elite Shi'a families have resulted in a decline in their power. Nevertheless, these families have not been completely abolished, and they still possess some influence within the community. Moreover, although Berri proclaimed that he had undermined the activity of the feudal families, his own activity in Lebanese politics was no different from those he supposedly replaced, namely the zu'ama. It seems that Berri and the Amal movement became a "new zai?m" following the same patterns as the displaced feudal families.3

Thus, the politics of the zu'ama, which primarily involves arbitration between the government and the residents by creating patron-client relations, still persists within the Shi'a community. Since Hizballah is integral to and plays a leading role within the Shi'a community, is it possible that it has also been influenced by this form of politics? Although Hizballah tries to portray itself as a cleanhanded party, opposing the sectarian regime and zu'ama politics, does the fact that it operates within the same political arena mean that it, too, is acting in a similar manner? Namely, can Hizballah be defined as a "new za'im" walking the same path paved by the zu'ama and Amal of Nabih Berri?

At first glance, any connection between Hizballah and the zu'ama may seem unlikely. First, Hizballah is not a family, and leadership within the party is not inherited from father to son. Second, while parties in Lebanon usually depend on their leader or on a traditional family, both informal and less-efficient institutions, as a political party in the Lebanese arena, Hizballah offers more formal and efficient institutions.4 However, a close look at Hizballah's mode of operation reveals that Hizballah and the zu'ama share many more commonalities than are readily apparent. It seems that rather than creating new methods and measures for operating successfully in the Lebanese political arena, Hizballah has improved and elaborated on the traditional political tools used by the zu'ama. For that reason, Hizballah is not the revolutionary party it may seem to be but in actuality a traditional one, which follows the example of the zu'ama which it initially aimed to replace.

This article demonstrates that the activity of Hizballah, at least of its political-civilian wing, very closely parallels that of a "Lebanese za'im." The article begins with a discussion on the origins and the modus operandi of the zu'ama, followed by an exploration of the various aspects of Lebanese zu'ama that also typify Hizballah. These aspects include the provision of social services to the people through social welfare programs, and the use of surveillance measures in order to supervise and control its supporters. Based on these observations, it then proposes a new definition of Hizballah that encompasses its activity in Lebanon; a new interpretation that might be of assistance in understanding and effectively countering this Lebanese Party of God.


One of the oldest institutions in Lebanon is the za'im. …

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