The perfect image: Nasrallah family’s legacy in service of ‘resistance’

Since the death of Hadi in 1997, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has conscientiously cultivated the more compassionate facets of his persona. This strategic endeavor proves increasingly indispensable amidst the current backdrop of war.

The perfect image: Nasrallah family’s legacy in service of ‘resistance’

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah holds his newborn grandson (left, photo from X). His son Mohammad Mahdi in his first video on Instagram (right, screenshot).

A singular influencer has emerged as a formidable presence on the digital landscape. In early March, Mohammad Mahdi Nasrallah, the son of Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, made a notable debut on Instagram, sharing succinct video content centered on religious and political subjects.

Coincidentally, a photograph surfaced across social media platforms around the same period, capturing Nasrallah adorned with a beaming smile as he cradled his newborn grandson, Mortada, in his embrace. This intimate portrayal, the third of its kind since 2018, quickly made the rounds on channels associated with or sympathetic to the party.

These developments may appear unexpected, given Hezbollah’s reputation for maintaining a veil of secrecy around the personal lives of its leadership and key figures.

Traditionally, the party’s secretaries-general have been shrouded in an aura of mystique, but Nasrallah stands as a notable departure from this norm.

Unlike his predecessors, Nasrallah’s public persona exhibits a degree of openness, with his familial ties occasionally brought to the forefront by the party’s communications apparatus, presumably to broaden its outreach.

This strategic shift takes on heightened significance against the backdrop of Hezbollah’s prolonged engagement in a protracted war with Israel, now spanning over five months.

The toll of this sustained confrontation weighs heavily on the party’s grassroots support, underscoring the importance of connecting with the populace.

This approach, however, predates the current hostilities, reflecting a deliberate long-term communication strategy.

In 1997, tragedy struck the Nasrallah family when Hadi Nasrallah, eldest son of the Hezbollah leader, fell victim to an ambush orchestrated by the party targeting a group of Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon.

At the tender age of 18, Hadi Nasrallah became a “martyr,” his identity unknown to the public until that fateful moment.

His father addressed the somber reality with poignant clarity in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

“We, the leaders of Hezbollah, do not shield our children from the risks inherent in our cause,” he declared in a speech delivered mere hours following the incident.

Nasrallah, renowned for his portrayal as a steadfast warrior committed to the greater cause, eventually revealed another facet of his character in the following months.

In a candid moment during a televised interview with journalist Zahi Wehbe, he acknowledged the private anguish he experienced in mourning the loss of his eldest son.

“This is not the persona one wishes to project to the adversary,” Nasrallah said.

“However, anyone who didn’t shed tears would simply not be human,” he said. “Ultimately, I am a father who has endured the heartbreak of losing his son,” he added, his voice quavering slightly, unveiling, for the first time, a more vulnerable facet of the near-mythical warlord.

This revelation presents an image to which the general populace can readily relate, particularly in a region plagued by the turmoil of Israeli occupation.

Dual image

This strategic narrative approach has evolved and expanded over the years, gradually encompassing other members of the Nasrallah family.

Commemorating the 23rd anniversary of Hadi’s death in 2020, the pro-Iranian media outlet al-Mayadeen aired an interview featuring his siblings, Jawad and Zeinab.

Their dialogue unfolded akin to a reverent narrative, resembling a hagiography.

“He asked me not to wish for his return from the battlefield... He knew what was to come,” recounted Jawad Nasrallah, reflecting on his brother’s death.

While Jawad Nasrallah has notably embraced social media platforms, utilizing them to disseminate political discourse often characterized by its provocative nature, Zeinab frequently engages in televised interviews.

“My family feels almost inadequate, as our sacrifice pales in comparison,” she said to the cameras of al-Manar, Hezbollah’s media arm.

The emblematic figure of “Hadi” continues to hold profound significance 27 years on within the machinery of the party in its efforts to exalt martyrdom in the pursuit of “Islamic resistance.”

“Even now, when our communities mourn the loss of individuals to Israeli airstrikes, his name frequently resurfaces during funerary rites, meticulously orchestrated and overseen by Hezbollah,” said a detractor of the party hailing from southern Lebanon, who wished to remain anonymous.

The Hezbollah leader appears to employ his family as a potent instrument of soft power, facilitating the cultivation of an approachable persona.

“In general, the Hezbollah leader embodies an image of unassailable, almost saintly leadership,” said Mona Fayad, a prominent psychology professor known for opposing the party.

While this aura of invincibility proves advantageous in dealings with adversaries such as Israel or Lebanon’s opposing political factions, it may fall short of resonating with the broader populace.

“Consequently, the party endeavors to humanize Hassan Nasrallah to broaden its appeal,” Fayad said.

According to Fayad, this strategy proves particularly advantageous during periods of crisis or widespread discontent.

This is especially pertinent in the current context.

Since Hezbollah transformed southern Lebanon into a frontline for supporting Hamas against Israel, the predominantly Shiite residents of the border area have borne the brunt of the repercussions.

Over time, a palpable weariness has permeated the area, exacerbated by a delicate balancing act for the party.

Hezbollah cannot afford to retreat without risking further erosion of its prestige and deterrent capabilities. However, escalating attacks against an increasingly aggressive adversary could precipitate a devastating war.

Mindful of this reality, Nasrallah has endeavored to uplift the populace’s spirits in his addresses since Oct. 8, accentuating the significance of their sacrifices.

Mohammad Mahdi Nasrallah endeavors to assuage public concerns through his Instagram videos, which emphasize the virtue of patience and urge online users to donate to Gaza and southern Lebanon.

“Mohammad Mahdi’s Instagram platform provides us with a means to engage with the public, particularly the youth,” said a source with ties to Hezbollah on condition of anonymity, though declining to specify whether the account was established at the party’s behest or originated as a personal endeavor.

‘The royal family’

Mohammad Mahdi’s devout videos, Jawad’s fervent tributes to “resistance,” and Zeinab’s unassuming demeanor collectively serve to bolster Hassan Nasrallah’s portrayal of the “ideal family.”

“In times of global crisis, politicians often invoke traditional values, such as familial unity, to garner support from conservative constituencies and provide reassurance,” observed political scientist Joseph Daher. “Hezbollah is no exception to this trend.”

Ali Amine, editor-in-chief of the Janoubiya website and a vocal critic of Hezbollah, concurs.

“It’s almost akin to a royal family,” he said, noting the resemblance to tactics employed by authoritarian regimes.

There is a notable parallel with the Assad family in Syria, which endeavors to cultivate a comparable image.

“Hafez, Bashar’s son and appointed heir, occasionally features in videos engaged in charitable activities or interacting with the public,” Daher said.

“In essence, Nasrallah has gradually positioned himself not merely as the secretary-general of a party, as per Hezbollah’s more institutionalist tradition, but rather as a Shiite Zaim [political boss],” Amin said.

“Consequently, the delineation between Nasrallah’s private life and his political persona is increasingly blurred, prompting him to present both facets in the most favorable light possible,” he added.

Nasrallah’s enduring tenure since 1992 underscores the erosion of institutional mechanisms within Hezbollah in favor of the Zaim.

In that pivotal year, the youthful Sayyed (Nasrallah’s nickname) was elected by the Shura, the party’s consultative council, for a stipulated three-year term with the option of renewal once.

While Nasrallah’s initial ascension to leadership received the nod from Iran, exercising its authority under the velayat-e faqih framework after a seamless re-election in 1995, Hezbollah abstained from holding further internal elections.

“While a prolonged leadership tenure spanning 32 years may engender a sense of stability,” said Daher, “it inevitably begets considerable uncertainty in the search for a successor.”

In theory, Nasrallah’s designated successor is Hashem Safieddine, the head of the party’s executive council. However, Safieddine lacks the charisma and notoriety typically associated with leadership.

Given this context, Nasrallah may consider promoting one of his sons to perpetuate familial succession within the party.

“At a time when Israel is escalating targeted assassinations against Hezbollah officials, Hassan Nasrallah may harbor concerns for his safety and thus seeks to introduce his children to the public,” Fayad said.

Furthermore, Hezbollah’s online supporters shower Mohammad Mahdi with accolades for his “charisma” and striking resemblance to his father across social media platforms.

“While Hassan Nasrallah undoubtedly holds an extraordinary position within the party, it doesn’t automatically translate to his son succeeding him,” said the source with close ties to the party, acknowledging the possibility of such a scenario.

Similarly, in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei faces accusations of grooming his second son, Mojtaba, as his successor, consolidating power within the Islamic Republic (and even the global Duodecimal Shiism).

“If Hassan Nasrallah is indeed contemplating such a succession plan, it would undoubtedly be a protracted process in its nascent stages,” said the aforementioned Hezbollah detractor. “However, what is unmistakable is Hezbollah’s increasing intertwining with its leader.”

Hezbollah appears to be achieving a form of “Lebanonization” at the very least.

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.

A singular influencer has emerged as a formidable presence on the digital landscape. In early March, Mohammad Mahdi Nasrallah, the son of Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, made a notable debut on Instagram, sharing succinct video content centered on religious and political subjects.Coincidentally, a photograph surfaced across social media platforms around the same period,...