BINT JBAIL, Lebanon, (AP) – Reem Haidar was so impressed by Hassan Nasrallah that she begged for one of the Hezbollah leader’s robes as a keepsake. Last week, her dream came true; his aides delivered one to her home in Beirut.
Nasrallah’s popularity among Lebanese Shiites has exploded into something approaching cult status — expanding well beyond the following he had prior to Hezbollah’s 34-day war with Israel.
That could bolster Nasrallah’s position within Lebanese politics and make it difficult for international peacekeepers to control his guerrillas if they try to reassert their position along the Israeli border.
But the adulation is also driving tensions between Hezbollah and rival political groups that see his group as a threat. These critics say Hezbollah is seeking to divert attention from Nasrallah’s decision to order the abduction of two Israeli soldiers, the catalyst for a war that left nearly 1,000 people dead and much of south Lebanon in ruins.
“The majority of the Lebanese people do not feel victory,” Christian leader Samir Geagea told tens of thousands of his followers at a rally on Sunday. “Rather, they feel that a major catastrophe had befallen them and made their present and future uncertain.”
The gathering in the town of Harissa, about 15 miles north of Beirut, was their answer to a Hezbollah rally two days earlier that attracted hundreds of thousands.
Druse leader Walid Jumblatt said the blind loyalty showed to Nasrallah by his supporters reflects the group’s “authoritarian” climate.
“Those who live inside an authoritarian regime lose the ability to think for themselves,” Jumblatt said in a recent television interview.
Nasrallah, a fiery orator who can whip audiences into a frenzy or move them to tears, has long been among the most popular Lebanese politicians. His appeal transcends both his Shiite community and Lebanon itself.
And by fighting the Israeli army last summer, Nasrallah won a following throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. In Egypt, for example, the biggest and most succulent dates, widely sold during the holy month of Ramadan that began this week, have been nicknamed “Nasrallahs.”
“His enemies want to take away the respect he commands by talking about idolizing him,” chief Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Rahal said recently. “The love of the sayyed (an Arabic honorific) won the hearts of the people, so what can we do?”
But in Lebanon, many dispute Nasrallah’s claim to victory and are unhappy about the personality cult being built around him.
“This campaign to idolize Nasrallah and glorify his party is too much,” added Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the leftist Beirut daily As-Safir, who is a Shiite Muslim. “People are disappointed and some are disgusted. Many have told Nasrallah to stop it.”
Nasrallah’s crowd skills were on display Friday when he made his first public appearance since the war broke out July 12, addressing hundreds of thousands at Beirut’s bombed-out southern suburbs. He had no prepared notes and spoke in impeccable classical Arabic, breaking into the Lebanese vernacular only to deliver a jibe or make a point.
He electrified the crowd with a brief account of how he and his aides debated until the last moment whether he should appear in person, given Israel’s past attempts to kill him.
“My heart, soul and mind would not allow me to speak to you from afar or from a screen,” he said to thunderous applause.
There is perhaps no place in Lebanon where Nasrallah’s personality cult is stronger than in southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold that was hit the hardest by Israel during the war.
Across the region’s villages and towns, Nasrallah, who has led Hezbollah since 1992, stares down from thousands of portrait posters on light poles, store fronts, cars and homes.
Some of the posters cast Nasrallah as a leader who monopolizes decisions, a charge often made by his critics but denied by Nasrallah. “We wait for your signal,” declares one poster bearing an image of Nasrallah imposed on a rocket.
South Lebanon’s mainly Shiite residents rarely criticize Nasrallah or Hezbollah in public and even the region’s scattered communities of Christians, Druse and Sunni Muslims are reluctant to do so.
“We are caught between Hezbollah and the Israelis,” sad a farmer from the Sunni border village of Yarin who refused to give his name.
“No one is saying that Nasrallah is infallible,” said Hassan Fardous, a 38-year-old car mechanic from the Shiite village of Bint Jbail. “But he does so many good things that we can easily forgive him.”