Europe's Hezbollah Problem

In the wake of the Bulgarian bombing investigation, will the European Union finally designate Hezbollah a terrorist group?

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Since the Lebanese political movement Hezbollah's inception in 1982, the group's relations with the European Union have been characterized by a fragmented policy filled with complex diplomatic maneuvers. The latest move in this elaborate tango was Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov's announcement on Tuesday that two Hezbollah operatives murdered a Bulgarian national and five Israeli tourists on EU territory in July 2012.

To the shock of many observers and journalists in the presidential building in central Sofia, Tsvetanov declared, "We have established that the two were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah," adding for good measure that there is "data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects."

Prior to this announcement, there was high-intensity chatter on both sides of the Atlantic that the Bulgarian government would capitulate to French and German pressure and not designate Hezbollah as the agent behind the July bombing in the Black Sea resort of Burgas. Philipp Missfelder, a top German deputy in the Bundestag and foreign-policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, coyly told the New York Times on Monday that "some German officials dropped a few words" to persuade the Bulgarians.

The popular British conservative news and opinion website the Commentator published a report hours prior to Tsvetanov's statement noting that Sofia would probably decline "to name the terrorist group Hezbollah in its report on the 2012 bus bombing" and instead invoke suggested German-French phrasing along the lines of "all roads lead to Lebanon."

There was ample reason to believe Sofia would punt. While the U.S., Canadian, and Israeli governments for months have been urging the EU to clamp down on Hezbollah's activities -- including raising funds, recruiting, and procuring dual-use technologies -- within its 27-member union, the Europeans have consistently pushed back, and the issue has failed to gain traction.

The reaction of Catherine Ashton, the EU's top diplomat, typified Europe's divided approach toward the powerful Lebanese Shiite group. Responding to the Bulgarian investigation's results, Ashton said on Tuesday that there is now a "need for reflection" on the outcome of the investigation into Burgas. Notably lacking was the lack of any direct reference to Hezbollah.

Her American counterpart, newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry, was considerably more blunt. "We strongly urge other governments around the world -- and particularly our partners in Europe -- to take immediate action to crack down" on Hezbollah, said Kerry. "We need to send an unequivocal message to this terrorist group that it can no longer engage in despicable actions with impunity."

Although it doesn't consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization, Europe is aware of the group's lethal violence. The European Parliament issued a strongly worded, anti-Hezbollah non-binding resolution in 2005. After Hezbollah allegedly assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Brussels stated that "clear evidence exists of terrorist activities on the part of Hezbollah. The [EU] Council should take all necessary steps to curtail them."

Will Hezbollah's role in launching an attack on European soil produce a change in EU behavior? The EU remains sharply divided. The Netherlands, for example, is the only EU country that lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and openly seeks a full ban, which would involve the seizing of assets, freezing of funds, and dissolving of Hezbollah membership organizations. Britain has adopted a somewhat grayer position, labeling Hezbollah's "military wing" a terrorist organization in 2009. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague has ratcheted up pressure on the EU to replicate his country's style of designation, which attempts to distinguish between Hezbollah's terror apparatus and its social and political infrastructure. Critics view this distinction as absurd because Hezbollah itself rejects the split-designation policy.

Predictably, the Israelis do not mince words about what they see as Hezbollah's raison d'être. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Europe on Tuesday that "there is only one Hezbollah, it is one organization with one leadership." And Hezbollah's leadership doesn't disagree. The Lebanese group's deputy leader Naim Qassem told the Los Angeles Times in 2009 that "[t]he same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel."

The assertion that Hezbollah is two separate groups stems from Europe's attempts to keep the peace with the organization -- literally. French Ambassador to Israel Christophe Bigot told me in November that a blanket designation could put the hundreds of French troops in southern Lebanon (there for 34 years as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation to monitor the border between Israel and Lebanon) in Hezbollah's crosshairs. The French are acutely aware of Hezbollah's October 1983 Beirut terror attacks which killed 58 French paratroopers and 241 U.S. Marines. At the same time, France sees itself as uniquely capable of managing tension and the balance of power in Lebanon. A former colonial power in the Levant, France has traditionally carried great diplomatic weight in Lebanon's enormously complex set of political relations.

But perhaps it's Germany that best illustrates Europe's split-personality toward Hezbollah. Germany seems to tolerate Hezbollah's operations in its country. There are reportedly some 950 Hezbollah members and supporters on German soil. The group's organizational structure in Germany allows the group to raise funds and transfer them to Lebanon. Yet Germany, in a little-noticed 2008 Interior Ministry administrative order, banned Hezbollah's television station Al-Manar from broadcasting in private hotels and buying advertisements to promote its programming.

The EU is all over the map, but there appears to be mushrooming pressure to penalize Hezbollah. In August 2012, before the Bulgaria report, Missfelder said that it was "long overdue to place Hezbollah on the EU's list of terror organizations." Hezbollah's role in aiding the Syrian regime in its bloody crackdown on pro-reform Syrians has changed attitudes among center-left politicians. Germany's Green Party spokesman on security issues, Omid Nouripour, told the New York Times in early February that "[i]n the situation now, with Syria, I think it's now time to isolate Hezbollah."

Bloodshed in Syria is not the top concern of European politicians, however, most of whom are wary of overextending the EU's influence in a time of fiscal crisis and political instability. In fact, for some EU countries, even an attack on EU soil may not qualify as a predicate to act. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who seems to be against listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, tweeted that "[w]e need to reflect seriously on consequences of Bulgaria probe naming Hezbollah as behind terrorist attack."

A ban on Hezbollah could cripple it. Hezbollah‘s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged this reality several years ago, noting that an EU terror listing "would dry up the sources of finance, end moral, political and material support, stifle voices, whether they are the voices of the resistance or the voices which support the resistance, pressure states which protect the resistance in one way and another, and pressure the Lebanese state, Iran and Iraq, but especially the Lebanese state, in order to classify it as a state which supports terrorism."

The Bulgarian investigation, however, is unlikely to result in such sweeping sanction. The consensus solution would likely be an EU terror listing of Hezbollah's military wing. This designation could curtail Hezbollah's ability to operate in the EU, or further embolden it to carry out attacks on European soil.

Whatever the outcome, Burgas is almost certainly not the last tango for Hezbollah in Europe.



A Murder in Tunis

The assassination of a leftist politician has thrown the poster child for the Arab Spring into chaos.

TUNIS -- On the night of Feb. 5, prominent leftist politician Shoukri Belaid went on a popular Tunisian television station to denounce the political violence that had targeted him, his party, and other opposition groups. He gave at least one specific example where Islamists, allegedly associated with both the ultraconservative Salafi movement and the governing al-Nahda Party, recently attacked a meeting of his United Democratic Nationalist party in the interior town of El Kef. He said that security forces watched the attack take place but did nothing.

The following morning, Belaid was shot in the head and the chest as he was leaving his home. In the hours that followed, Tunisians took to the streets around the country to protest the escalating political violence and the slow pace of reform. Protesters gathered in front of the cordoned-off Interior Ministry in the capital, demanding a new revolution. There were widespread reports of clashes between police and protesters -- including in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Sidi Bouzid, where protests first began in Tunisia. Al-Nahda Party headquarters in towns in the interior of the country were attacked, despite the fact that leaders from the party strongly condemned the assassination.

The political repercussions of the assassination were immediate. In a national televised address, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced that the current government will be dissolved and replaced by a temporary cabinet made up of technocrats. He offered few other details, and it is unclear whether his promise will placate critics.

Belaid was a leader in the leftist community -- especially, as a member of the biggest student union, among the youth. A lawyer by training, Belaid defended key opposition figures during the regime of deposed autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In one high-profile case, he defended a group of students who went on hunger strike in 2009 after they were arrested for their criticism of the education system. More recently, he was an important figure in the establishment of a coalition of leftist groups opposed to the government.

So far, it remains unclear who was behind Belaid's killing. What is perfectly clear, however, is that political violence in Tunisia is getting worse: The country that was once the poster child for the Arab Spring has been the scene of increasing street clashes as citizens express their frustration with the unfulfilled promises of the revolution. In this chaotic environment, it's not unusual to hear Tunisians retreat to conspiracy theories to explain the lack of order, and accusations against Islamists or ex-regime figures -- depending on the source's political views -- are common.

Belaid's murder was far from the first headline-grabbing act of violence in Tunisia. On Sept. 14, the U.S. Embassy in Tunis was attacked shortly after the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Since then, Tunisian politicians of all stripes have been subjected to attacks. Abdelfattah Mourou, a vice president of al-Nahda who is generally considered a moderate Islamist, was assaulted by ultraconservative Muslims on at least two occasions. Members of the country's biggest trade union, the UGTT, have been attacked by al-Nahda supporters belonging to a group called the "Committee to Protect the Revolution." There have also been numerous attacks on artists and journalists, allegedly by violent Islamists. At the same time, dozens of historic shrines across the country have been torched, with some alleging that the attacks were carried out by Salafis (although one Salafi leader, Abou Ayadh Al-Tounsi, recently denied Salafi involvement in either the Sufi shrine burnings or the U.S. Embassy attack).

These incidents, capped by the killing of Belaid, all call into question the Tunisian government's ability to maintain security. A large part of the problem is that Tunisia's security forces, which once served as an integral part of Ben Ali's police state, have not been reformed. At a recent conference on police reform organized by civil society groups, many complained that the state's security responsibilities have been deferred to "Committees to Protect the Revolution," and other pseudo-militia groups -- an allegation similar to that made by Belaid in his final TV appearance.

Meanwhile, it is unclear how much control the government actually has over the security forces. Interior Minister Ali Laareyedh, an al-Nahda member who himself was imprisoned and tortured in the building where he now works, has seemingly not been able or willing to clean house. It's one of the main grievances against the new government: It is no accident that Tunisians chose to vent their rage at Belaid's death by protesting in front of the Interior Ministry as well as police stations around the country.

The angry protests also highlight a broader discontent among Tunisians. Unemployment is still higher than it was prior to the revolution, hovering around 20 percent. The families of those who were killed during the protests that led to Ben Ali's overthrow still demand justice for those responsible. The Constituent Assembly, elected in October 2011 and tasked with writing a new constitution, regularly holds sessions with less than half of its relatively well-paid members in attendance. Given the widespread frustration, Belaid's death may well be a tipping point for Tunisia. 

In the aftermath of Belaid's death, whoever emerges in the driver's seat in Tunis will find themselves under more pressure to meet Tunisians' demands. Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda's leader, felt obliged to deny his party's involvement in the killing, telling Reuters, "Is it possible that the ruling party could carry out this assassination when it would disrupt investment and tourism?"

While many will expect the powers that be in Tunis to investigate this crime and punish those responsible for Belaid's death, the anger on the street is clearly about much more than just one political assassination. The credibility of the revolution itself is on the line.