During her visit to the Middle East last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that the chances of brokering a successful peace deal in the region are better than at any time since President George W. Bush took office. But Hizbullah—which the Bush administration has called "the A-Team of terrorists"—appears to be as strong as ever. The Islamist political party-cum-militia claims the support of most of Lebanon's Shiites as well as the country's largest Christian faction; it also enjoys crucial backing from Iran and Syria. Since December, it has maintained a mostly peaceful occupation of downtown Beirut, bringing the Lebanese government to a standstill and spurring analysts' warnings of civil war. Mean-while, the situation in southern Lebanon—the nexus of Hizbullah's military activities until the withdrawal of Israeli troops in 2000—has become increasingly tense despite the presence of U.N. forces. Ali Fayyad, Hizbullah's top policy strategist, recently spoke about the deteriorating situation with journalist Daniel Kurtz-Phelan. Excerpts:
Kurtz-Phelan: Hizbullah was founded as an anti-Israel armed movement, but now you are talking about governing Lebanon.
Fayyad: Bush always brands us as terrorists. He says we don't like freedom. But he is completely misguided. I teach Islamic political thought at a university, and I always tell my students that they must respect plurality and democracy. We must figure out how to have a democracy that relates to our customs and traditions and that is not dominated by corruption. We need to come up with some far-reaching reforms to the political system to make it more democratic.
Do you see any way to end the current standoff in the near future?
The path to a political solution is still closed, because all past initiatives have failed. Each side thinks that it is strong enough not to go back on its demands. But we know that Hizbullah is the strongest party in Lebanon. It is very popular. It has a strategic raison d'être as a resistance movement against Israeli violations of our sovereignty. It is involved with the community socially and politically. And it is very well-organized. We have the ability to move a vast number of people. If the other side denies this, they will only take the country toward more turmoil.
So is there a risk of civil war?
There is an unannounced, unwritten gentlemen's understanding between the parties to limit the use of the streets.
But hasn't Hizbullah also defended its right to have weapons in Beirut?
Hizbullah will never use its arms on its fellow Lebanese. There are sectarian tensions—you can't get away from that fact—but sectarian hatred here in Lebanon is a crisis that will pass.
At the end of the Israel-Lebanon war last summer, some people thought Hizbullah had been fundamentally weakened.
As far as our strategy is concerned, I don't believe anything has changed. America's view that the balance of forces in Lebanon changed is not at all true. America's view that the Lebanese stand vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli war would change also was not true. The factors that caused the war in July are present under the surface. The issue of Lebanese prisoners has not been resolved. The issue of Shebaa farms has not been resolved. And Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty have not stopped. All the explosive elements remain.
So are you saying that Hizbullah will not disarm in adherence to U.N. Resolution 1701?
We previously announced that we would abide by 1701, but that resolution issues challenges not only to us but also to the Israelis, and until now the Israelis have failed to keep their end. Despite 1701, Hizbullah is still the most powerful Lebanese party, and it still has its weapons. In the end, the American-Israeli war to get rid of Hizbullah last July was not successful.
What do you think of U.S. efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East?
Bush is remaking the region through war, not through the democratic process. But as far as Lebanon is concerned, American policy has been a complete failure. I would even say that America has a crisis of strategy. They talked about the democratic process, but let us look at what the democratic process has meant. In Palestine, it enabled Hamas to reach power, and here in Lebanon it enabled Hizbullah to become stronger. In Iraq, it helped the allies of Iran reach power. So it seems that America has returned to its previous alliances with dictators in the region.
Do you see any prospect for a change in the relationship between the United States and Hizbullah?
Hizbullah is part of the reality-based school of politics, unlike the Bush administration. Our problem with America is not with its existence, [as it is] with Israel. Our problem with America is specifically with the American imperialist project. It gives Israel weapons and then Israel uses those weapons to kill our people. It is a problem of American policy in the Arab world, a policy of double standards and hypocrisy. It's very simple. But then the Americans always ask, "Why do they hate us?" Ha!