BEIRUT –Three years ago, regional opinion polls showed that the Middle East’s most popular leaders were Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. People at the time appreciated that they were standing up to Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, and pushing back against aggressive American policies in the region.
With the Arab Spring, regional public opinion has shifted toward prioritizing civil rights and democratic reform over foreign policy. Today, Assad is reviled, Ahmadinejad’s government is accused of violently suppressing its own pro-democracy protestors, and both Hezbollah and Iran are condemned for continuing to back Assad as he slaughters his own population.
As a result, Hezbollah is no longer the widely popular movement that it once was across the Arab and Muslim worlds, but it remains a highly effective and heavily armed force. And, in politics, as Machiavelli pointed out long ago, it is more important to be feared than loved.
To be sure, Hezbollah is still grudgingly respected for its ability to stand up to Israel. But it has lost its halo as a voice for the oppressed and downtrodden, and has exposed itself as a partisan and sectarian party that will side with Iran and its allies even at the expense of human rights and human lives in neighboring Syria.