Kidnap king falls out with Lebanese hosts

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The Independent Online
Nobody talked about The Split. Indeed, the Hizbollah in Beirut had carefully refrained from any comment on Sheikh Sobhi Tofaili's "Revolution of the Hungry" in Baalbek. Nothing was said about Tofaili's decision to dress the Baalbek town hall - the entire Ottoman-built serail - in a black funeral shroud, the material carefully labelled with the words "The Coffin of Lebanese Authority."

Not a word was passed about the young men dancing through the crowd and waving flat Arabic bread on wooden poles. Not a mutter about Sheikh Tofaili's call for civil disobedience, a tax strike by the poor of the Bekaa Valley against the "bloodsucking" Lebanese government.

For it would not do to have Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of the Hizbollah, criticising Sheikh Sobhi Tofaili, the former secretary general of the Hizbollah and one of the founders of the "Party of God". But The Split was what the people of Baalbek were talking about yesterday, along with some very voluble support for Sheikh Tofaili's campaign against poverty. One local businessman, attired in a white galibiya robe against the sun which burned down upon the Roman temples behind him, put it quite bluntly: "Tofaili wants to make his name again. It's a long time since he was a really important guy."

Long indeed; but not forgotten. For Sheikh Sobhi, bespectacled, turbaned and sporting some unexpected grey hairs these days, represents the unreformed version of the Hizbollah - before the pro-Iranian party moved into democratic politics, became media-friendly and adopted the habits of Tehran's moderates. Back in the bad old days - or the good old days as Sheikh Sobhi would remember them - things were simpler. The Hizbollah was against America, France, Israel, the West, all manner of smaller Satans and, especially, Westerners rash enough to go on living in Lebanon. Terry Anderson, the longest-held American hostage, spent a small portion of his almost seven years' captivity locked up in Sheikh Sobhi's Beirut office.

If only Terry could have been with us in Baalbek yesterday. For there was the grand old man of Kidnapping Inc, playing the role of Mahatma Gandhi, promising a day of civil disobedience, appealing for God's curses to be heaped upon the Lebanese government, insisting his people's "march of hunger" would be unstoppable, that it would breach even "the gates of Beirut." Given the fact that scarcely 4,000 demonstrators turned up to support Sheikh Sobhi this seemed over-ambitious. True, the people of the northern Bekaa have been ignored by the money-making administration in Beirut; in an effort to preempt the good Sheikh, the government last week promised a pounds 60m development plan for the region - and true, the local hospitals and infrastructure have been allowed to rot since the civil war ended in 1990. But to hear Sheikh Sobhi demanding financial assistance for the land-owners who have been forced to give up hashish-farming was a bit much. Already they are growing potatoes, and heavily subsidised ones to boot.

But the yellow Hizbollah banners - the shape of a Kalashnikov rifle helping to spell the word Allah (God) - fluttered above the crowd in front of the black-shrouded Baalbek town hall, along with two tatty and slightly faded Iranian flags. And that, in a sense, said it all. For Sheikh Sobhi Tofaili was the ally of Hojatolislam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the Iranian founding father of the Hizbollah, former Iranian ambassador to Damascus, former interior minister in Tehran. But Tofaili is now as much in the cold as Mohtashemi is in Iran; the leadership of President Rafsanjani - and president-elect Khatemi - has transformed the Hizbollah in Lebanon, its younger leadership concentrating on politics and resistance to Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. Relevant though Sheikh Sobhi's words may have been to the poor of Baalbek, he remains a man of the past.

But if this is a split, it is not one in which the Hizbollah's enemies can take much comfort. The one thing which both Tofaili and Nasrallah in Beirut have in common is their determination to destroy Israel's occupation army in southern Lebanon, and the Hizbollah is increasing its assaults on the occupiers with ever more effective roadside bombs, rocket and mortar attacks. Why, yesterday - along with demands for free hospitals, free education and dam construction - Sheikh Sobhi Tofaili was asking for Hizbollah guerrillas, along with their wounded, to be treated as if they were members of the Lebanese army. He wanted pensions for them. The Hizbollah as Dad's Army. It was quite a thought.

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