Over the years, Hizbullah's extensive and varied system of propaganda has scored many successes in its effort to depict the organization – to the Arab world and especially to the Lebanese – as a popular, national, and legitimate movement working to defend Lebanon against Israel. Recently, however, the need to burnish the organization's image has become more pressing, in light of the decline of its public and political status in Lebanon and of its popularity among the Lebanese public, even among its major Shi'ite support base. This decline is due primarily to its involvement in fighting for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and its decision to aim its weapons, which it always insisted were designated to fight Israel, against the rebels opposing Assad.
Even Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has shown that he is aware of this problem; in a December 20, 2013 address marking the 40th day after the killing of senior Hizbullah official Hassan Al-Laqis, he said, in a rare admission, that Hizbullah was "paying a price not only in [its fighters'] lives and in martyrs, but also in [damage to] the organization's status, popular confidence in it, and the morale of its public." He attributed this to "the bitter media war against it" because of the organization's military involvement in Syria.
This report focuses on two recent Hizbullah propaganda efforts aimed at rebuilding its damaged image and garnering public sympathy. The first is the dissemination of a video clip of the last statement of one of its fighters killed in battle in Syria, and the second is its use of an interview with Lebanese musician Ziyad Al-Rahbani, the son of renowned Lebanese singer Fairouz, in which he claimed that his mother supports Hizbullah.
The report will discuss these efforts and the reactions of Hizbullah supporters and opponents to them. It should be noted that the pro-Hizbullah Lebanese media, including the Al-Akhbar and Al-Safir daily newspapers and several Hizbullah-affiliated websites, has played a significant role in these Hizbullah propaganda efforts.
The Filmed Last Statement Of Young Hizbullah Fighter Mahdi Muhammad Yaghi
On October 2, 2013, Hizbullah released the filmed last statement of its young fighter Mahdi Muhammad Yaghi, from Baalbek, who several months earlier had been killed in battle in Syria. The clip, which was apparently shot in 2009 (before the start of the Syria war), has two parts: In the first part Mahdi reads verses from the Koran, and in the second he answers questions in an intimate, spontaneous manner, with a dash of humor. For example, he relates that he got engaged because he doesn't like to chase after girls, that he does not seek the Virgins of Paradise like the Al-Qaeda suicide bombers; that he plays the card game Uno with his friends; and that his father works hard to make a living.
In the video, Yaghi asks everybody to forgive him, and says he hopes his mother will remember him as a "good" and "tolerant" person and that his fiancée will honor what they had agreed upon. He also lightheartedly confesses his ignorance of Arabic grammar, and asks his mother not to use strong language if Hizbullah's Al-Manar channel films her following his death. He implores her not to say that he was a believer, but just a good and beloved son. Yaghi comes across as an ordinary, good-looking, fun-loving, and particularly charming young man.
Mahdi Yaghi (Image: YouTube.com/watch?v=QMxlqnZxhJU)
The video not only evoked vast empathy among Hizbullah supporters, but caused a commotion across Lebanon. Pro-Hizbullah Lebanese dailies published several articles about it, as part of the campaign to glorify the organization, arouse sympathy for it, and depict it as representing the common Lebanese people. In contrast, a few media voices, including the Al-Nahar daily, decried what they called Hizbullah's seeking of approval for its war in Syria, and noted that "Mahdi's handsome face and innocence cannot hide the ugly truth."
Pro-Hizbullah Media Rave About The Charming Dead Fighter
Article In Al-Akhbar: "Mahdi Is Neither The First Hizbullah Martyr Nor Will He Be The Last, but His Charm Captivated This Public"
Journalist Zaynab Hawi wrote in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar on October 5, 2013: "[The clip] created a tsunami and took the social media by storm... Poems were written in [Yaghi's] memory, many identified with him, and banners were designed in his honor. His healthy, appealing face became an icon for his fans; others imitated him and his spontaneity... His words were immediately quoted in the bloggers' updates to serve as an example, like statements by political or religious leaders whose words go down in history..."
Hawi also discussed the mass appeal of the fighter's good looks and spontaneity, noting that "Mahdi is neither the first Hizbullah martyr nor will he be the last, but his charm captivated this public... His beautiful and attractive face and his infinite spontaneity may have inspired people to imitate him, to the extent... that some expressed a desire to join him..."
Article In Al-Safir: Yaghi's Statement Shows That Hizbullah Is A Popular Lebanese Organization; Yaghi Smashed The Stereotype Of The Resistance Fighters
In an October 2, 2013 article in the Al-Safir daily, Hassan Nassour wrote: "[Mahdi Yaghi] obtained [public] sympathy with a few words. Mahdi's unique and simple vocabulary... prompts us to ask about the nature of the young people fighting in the ranks of the resistance. An answer to a simple question can peel back the thick coating of the stereotypical image of the Hizbullah fighter that is so common in the media.
"Within a few short minutes, Mahdi removes himself and his friends from the clichés of religious radicalism, totalitarianism and ideology. He speaks of playing a [simple] card game, of his father's struggle to make a living; he chides his mother not to curse too much if the Al-Manar network [comes to] film her [following his death]. He talks of his ignorance concerning the rules of Arabic grammar; he says he became engaged because he doesn't want to chase girls on the streets. He commands his betrothed to uphold their agreement, and, more than once, asks for forgiveness from all those who know him.
"Mahdi's answers [to the interviewer's questions] are simple, transparent and realistic, and completely unique. They aren't about politics; they aren't argumentative; they are not suffused with TV-speak to justify Hizbullah's participation in the Syrian war...
"We know many [young men] like Mahdi; they are ordinary people [living] in our midst, who have not read a great number of weighty tomes... who of course do not want to die... Mahdi addresses his mother... his neighbor, and his fiancée. The clip is suffused with deep sorrow, compelling the viewer to... shed a tear."
Al-Akhbar: Mahdi's Last Statement Reveals That Hizbullah Is A Lebanese Organization – Not An Iranian One
Alla Al-Mulla, a leftist Lebanese activist, wrote in the Al-Akhbar daily on October 11, 2013: "[The clip] reveals that 'the Islamic resistance fighter' [i.e. Hizbullah fighter] is a common man, a product of his environment, as natural as his family members – and that the [only] thing that sets him apart from them is his decision to join the resistance... Mahdi's last statement is concrete and decisive evidence that Hizbullah is a Lebanese [organization]... Its fighters are not mono[lithic] but multi-[faceted], diverse, and different [from one another], because they are not 'manufactured' by the factory of the Iranian jurisprudent..."
Also, an article on Southlebanon.org, which is also close to Hizbullah, stated: "Mahdi is not a legend, but he is one of thousands whom [the deceased Hizbullah commander] 'Imad Mughniyah left behind him."
Anti-Hizbullah Daily Al-Nahar: Hizbullah Is Seeking Approval For Its Involvement In Syria; "Mahdi's Handsome Face And Innocence Cannot Hide The Ugly Truth"
One of the few voices in Lebanon critical of the release of the video was that of the daily Al-Nahar, which supports the March 14 Forces and opposes Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria. On October 7, 2013, the paper argued that Hizbullah was using the clip to try to obtain public approval for its involvement in Syria, attempting to evoke a sense of identification with the slain fighter. It stated: "We don't know the true objective behind the release of the last statement of young Mahdi Yaghi who was killed in Syria. [But] it is reasonable to assume that it was primarily for propaganda purposes, because Hizbullah does not usually release the last statements of fighters killed in Syria – unlike what it did during the war against Israel..."
"[Hizbullah] seeks to make the viewer forget for a moment that Yaghi was killed in a clash with young [Syrian] fighters, many of whom were the same as he, with their simple and spontaneous lives. [These] young men were different from him only in their [Sunni] faith and in their dream of removing [Assad's] tyrannical regime, which cruelly defends its [hold on] power by using the most lethal weaponry against its own people, indiscriminately killing children, women and the elderly. Is Mahdi's innocence, so apparent in the clip, in line with this regime's actions against civilians?...
"Mahdi's handsome face and innocence cannot hide the ugly truth, and the hopelessness of wars outside [Lebanon's] borders in which young Lebanese are involved..."
The paper also noted that Hizbullah was trying to cultivate the myth of martyrdom for its fighters in Syria: "...In reacting to this video, it is important to observe [how] the myth of the 'martyr' fighting for the Assad regime [affects] the general public. It causes only great political and cultural fissures in Lebanese society..."
Hizbullah Responds: Al-Nahar Is Racist And Seeks To Exploit The Dead
Unsurprisingly, Hizbullah's propaganda machine went into high gear in response to the Al-Nahar article. On its website Moqawama.org and on Southlebanon.org it accused the daily of racism and provocation, and of inciting against Hizbullah, seeking to profit from the dead and speaking ill of them, and waging a media campaign aimed at distorting the image of the resistance in Lebanon (i.e. Hizbullah).
Other articles claimed that Hizbullah fighters "aimed not to fight against young people like themselves who seek freedom" but against "the eaters of [human] hearts," and that they do so out of the loftiest of moral sentiment.
In Interview With Hizbullah Website, Renowned Lebanese Singer Fairouz's Son Claims: My Mother "Dearly Loves Mr. Hassan [Nasrallah]"
In another propaganda effort, the Hizbullah-affiliated website Alahednews.com.lb interviewed Lebanese musician Ziyad Al-Rahbani, son of the renowned Lebanese singer and actress Fairouz; in the interview, he claimed that his mother supports Hizbullah. It should be noted that Fairouz is considered one of the greatest singers not only in Lebanon but in the entire Arab world, and her status as a national figure transcends Lebanon's political and sectarian divides.
In the December 17, 2013 interview, Al-Rahbani praised Hizbullah and its fighting in Syria for the Assad regime, and added, "Fairouz dearly loves Mr. Hassan [Nasrallah]." He said that he memorizes Nasrallah's speeches, described Hizbullah's current situation as "excellent," and said that, were he in Assad's place, he would have acted the same towards the rebels.
Also in the interview, he attacked the March 14 Forces leaders, beginning with Lebanese Forces Party leader Samir Geagea, whom he called "sectarian, racist, and retarded" as well as "takfiri." He also claimed that the Al-Mustaqbal stream, which heads the March 14 Forces, was, like Saudi Arabia, financing the takfiri groups.
Asked about what he thought of Mahdi Yaghi's last statement, Al-Rahbani said: "How genuine this young man is! We are not accustomed to hearing words like this from the martyrs. [It's] wonderful."
Fairouz and son Al-Rahbani (Image: Alarabiya.net, December 20, 2013)
In another interview two days later, with the Al-Mayadeen network, which is identified with the Hizbullah-led March 8 Forces, Al-Rahbani said in response to criticism of his statements in the first interview that he supported Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria and that "whoever attacks Fairouz and Nasrallah [is in fact] defending Israel." He said,"Fairouz prefers to remain silent" and added that he was speaking on her behalf.
Rimah Al-Rahbani Reacts: My Brother Has No Right To Speak On My Mother's Behalf
A few days after Al-Rahbani's second interview, Fairouz's daughter, Rimah Al-Rahbani, wrote on her Facebook page that her mother had undertaken to remain silent no matter what, and that no one, including her son, was entitled to speak on her behalf. She added, "All Al-Rahbani's past political and non-political statements concerning his mother are strictly his speculation at Fairouz's expense."
Hizbullah's Use Of Ziyad Al-Rahbani's Statements On His Mother's Behalf
Ziyad Al-Rahbani's claim that his mother supported Hizbullah created an uproar in Lebanon, sparking arguments on social networks between Hizbullah supporters and opponents. According to some Lebanese media reports about the social network debate, many were disappointed in Fairouz; meanwhile, whether or not her son's claims about her were true became secondary, as Hizbullah's propaganda efforts played up Al-Rahbani's statements and used them to lionize Nasrallah as a leading national figure, to justify Hizbullah's involvement in Syria, and to smear Hizbullah's opponents. Hizbullah compared Nasrallah to Fairouz, and drew a sharp line between the absolute good of Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria and the absolute evil of the rebels in Syria, and Saudi Arabia that is backing them, which it depicted as illegitimate, demonic terrorists and takfiris.
Al-Akhbar Columnist: Nasrallah And Fairouz – Two Lebanese National Heroes
In the Al-Akhbar daily, columnist Nahed Hattar attempted to leverage Al-Rahbani's claims about his mother's support for Hizbullah to promote the organization. He wrote: "It is inconceivable that there would be no spiritual bond between the two most sublime individuals produced by Lebanese society [i.e. Nasrallah and Fairouz, or between] two myths replete with spiritual wealth, the secrets of existence, creativity, charisma, and humility."
Hattar then compared Hizbullah's fighting for Assad and against the rebels in Syria with the well-known Lebanese national play "Jibal Al-Sawwan," in which Fairouz had starred. The play is about the village of Jibal Al-Sawwan, which is conquered by a cruel foreign tyrant who kills the village leader after he refuses to surrender. In the story, the daughter of the village leader, played by Fairouz, leads a rebellion against the tyrant, killing him and expelling the villagers who supported him. Hattar explained that the tyrannical ruler was similar to the Syrian rebels, and particularly to their backer Saudi Arabia, and that the heroine played by Fairouz was like Nasrallah, the national hero who was saving Syria and the Syrian and Lebanese peoples from their hands. He continued: "All the national and human valor embodied by Fairouz in her stage appearances was embodied by Nasrallah on the stage of reality, with Fairouz as a cultural and human spotlight... and Nasrallah as a political leader."
In conclusion, Hattar claimed that Saudi Arabia is behind the bombings against Hizbullah and its members in Lebanon, and that it is plotting to step up the bombings. He added that Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan was seeking to take revenge on Syria, Lebanon and the Shi'ites because he had been humiliated by his failure to achieve his designs in Syria.
Al-Akhbar Chairman: Anyone Attacking Fairouz Is A Radical Islamist
In a December 20, 2013 article in Al-Akhbar, Ibrahim Al-Amin, who is chairman of Al-Akhbar's editorial board, called anyone who objected to Fairouz's love for Hassan Nasrallah, as described by Al-Rahbani, a takfiri, and added: "How can anyone who rejects the other [just because his] ideological consciousness is different from his own be described as anything but takfiri? How can anyone rejecting the sentiments of public figures be described as anything but takfiri?...
"If we had a [proper] state, then this state would have... arrested anyone souring the public atmosphere with inflamed sectarian hatred and enmity, or [hatred and enmity] due to a psychological complex [that developed] because [his] ideological and political path had failed...
"Ziyad Al-Rahbani grew up as the son of a woman who planted in us only kindness... Ziyad and [his mother] Fairouz are not people [like the takfiris] who are led astray by... a [warped] idea or by hateful elements..."
Lebanese Poet: Al-Rahbani Is Nothing But A Media Mouthpiece
Adding to the debate, Lebanese poet and literary critic Paul Shaoul, who is known to be anti-Hizbullah, wrote in the daily Al-Mustaqbal: "Ziyad Al-Rahbani has become nothing but a media mouthpiece... Everything he said [in all the interviews]... I'd already heard many times from March 8 Forces journalists, and read in their newspapers. Nothing [original was said] by the man named Ziyad Al-Rahbani, and [in the interview] there was no artist by the name of Ziyad Al-Rahbani – he evaporated..."
*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI
 On the damage to Hizbullah's standing within Lebanon, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis no.861, " Decline In Hizbullah's Status In Lebanon," July 25, 2012; MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis no.891, "Lebanese President Michel Suleiman Comes Out Against Hizbullah And Its Weapons," October 22, 2012.
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 21, 2012.
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 5, 2013.
 Al-Safir (Lebanon), October 2, 2013.
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 11, 2013.
 Southlebanon.org, October 30, 2013.
 Al-Nahar (Lebanon), October 7, 2013.
 Al-Nahar (Lebanon), October 7, 2013
 A reference to a video that presumably captured a rebel eating the inner organs of a slain enemy.
 Southlebanon.org, October 10, 2013, October 30, 2013; Moqawama.org, October 8, 2013.
 A practitioner of takfir, i.e., accusing someone else of heresy, which means that anyone can kill the accused person.
 It should be noted that during the interview, Al-Rahbani says he believes that his mother will get angry with him for his statements and is already mad with him for revealing details about her, which has caused her to sever relations with him. Alahednews.com.lb, December 17, 2013.
 Alahednews.com.lb, December 17, 2013.
 Almayadeen.net December 19, 2013.
 Elaph.com, December 24, 2013.
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 18, 2013.
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 20, 2013.
 Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), December 22, 2013.