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The Rebirth of Beirut

1.

Beirut was never one of the great Arab cities; as a historic center it could never have competed even with such a city as Aleppo, still less with Damascus and Cairo. But for almost thirty years after the end of the Second World War, which was also the first period of Lebanese independence, it was a city with its own brash charm. In a manner that still managed to beguile the visitor, it mixed the French provincialism inherited from the earlier French colonial mandate with the cosmopolitanism of new hotels, nightclubs, banks, and a casino put up by entrepreneurs without any urban plan in mind. Its natural setting, as a little port flanked on two sides by terraced hills, one of which led to the Cedars of Lebanon, was Mediterranean in a way that could recall Naples, though that is perhaps too grand a comparison. Some of the smaller ports of Sicily also come to mind. The large westernized element among Beirut’s businessmen and intellectuals reinforced the impression of a town only lightly Middle Eastern.

The peak years of Beirut’s prosperity and confidence were the late 1960s, when the new oil magnates of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf had not yet figured out how to deal with Western financial institutions or got their children through business school or Harvard; the Lebanese bankers were able to act for them in a way that they found culturally and linguistically comfortable. Beirut was also enterprising in showing them how to spend their money. I remember from those days a flamboyant Beiruti uncle of mine inviting a prim academic colleague to “Come to Beirut: we’ll show you a lot of flesh!”

Lebanon is tiny: its population in 1932 was not much more than three quarters of a million, and it is now something like 3.4 million. Its northern and southern frontiers are only eighty or ninety miles from Beirut; its eastern frontier with Syria is half this distance. When the French created a separate Lebanon under their mandate following World War I they found a rationale for doing so in the privileged status that the Ottoman Empire had granted, under pressure from the European powers, to “the Christians of Mount Lebanon,” an enclave of Maronites native to the region who had been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church since the Middle Ages.

The zone actually occupied by these Christians was very much smaller than the present Lebanese state; French diplomats separated Lebanon administratively from Syria and expanded it into a region considered to be the minimum size necessary for autonomous status. Their success lies behind the relative splendor of Lebanon’s past, as well as the misfortunes of its present. The Christians, though at the start a majority, were themselves divided into sectarian groups, of which the Maronites were the largest and had the closest links with the French mandate power. The Muslims were also divided into Sunni and Shi’ah communities, while the Druse, an ancient dissident Muslim sect, were very firmly settled in some of the hill zones, as well as in and around Beirut.

That Lebanon had claims to be a nation was no more than implicit when a French-dominated State of Lebanon was first set up in 1920, and was first made explicit two decades later, when its independence was formally proclaimed by France in 1941. The Lebanese had justified doubts whether France intended this independence to be real. In the National Pact of 1943 the main political leaders of the country’s Christian and non-Christian religious communities agreed to cooperate with one another in order to achieve full independence. The pact, though informal, subsequently became the basis for the consensus on the part of the religious communities that a single Lebanese state could exist. Under the pressures both of Palestinian immigration and a large demographic shift in favor of the Muslims, that consensus started to crumble in 1958. It deteriorated further with the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and finally broke down in 1975, the first of sixteen years of intermittent but terrible civil war, in which the fighting between Christian and Muslim groups was accompanied by bitter conflicts among the militias of different Christian clans and among Palestinians and Lebanese.

It took the appalling experiences of hate and destruction to convince the Lebanese factions of what should have been obvious at the outset, that Lebanon could become neither a Christian nor a Muslim state. The government’s weakness, including its inability to control its Palestinian enclaves, was plain, and the international consequences were disastrous for everyone concerned. They included the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the Israeli siege of west Beirut, and the subsequent attempt of an international force to intervene after the massacre, with Israeli complicity, of Palestinians in the camps just outside Beirut. International intervention ended badly in 1983 with the bombings of US and French troops and the US and French embassies. During the same period the Israeli security zone was set up in South Lebanon, where it is still in place.

Syrian troops first tried to police the Lebanese civil war in 1976, and Syrian military pressure was the deciding factor in bringing the fighting to an end. By 1989 only a few of the main Christian factions were still hanging on to their old fanatical and violent ways. In September 1989, sixty-two of the seventy survivors of the ninety-nine-member National Assembly met at Taif in Saudi Arabia and worked out a new, modified version of the Lebanese constitution. It transferred much of the executive authority formerly exercised by the Maronite president to the Sunni Muslim prime minister, and increased the number of legislative seats in order to allow Shi’ah Muslims and some other smaller groups increased parliamentary representation.

The plan also looked forward eventually to the achievement of nonsectarian politics, though this hope has yet to be fulfilled. The Syrians promised to withdraw from Lebanon in two years, an undertaking that also has yet to be honored, though most Lebanese are still too fearful of a renewal of the troubles to want the Syrians to leave.

In 1990 the Christian General Aoun, whose militia was the last big obstacle to peace, was driven out of east Beirut. The remaining US hostages were released at the end of 1991, and Lebanese elections, which were boycotted by the main Christian parties, took place in the autumn of 1992. That politics had deeply and irrevocably changed became clear when the largest parliamentary bloc was formed by the Shi’ah groups Amal and Hezbollah, the militant, religiously inspired organization that had broken away from Amal early in the civil war and whose troops for a time actually fought Amal. The Shi’ah, among whom the poorest social groups in Lebanon were to be found, had long been disregarded or disdained by the powerful merchant class composed of both Christians and Sunni Muslims. They are now almost certainly the largest single group in the country, and their political and military power grew swiftly during the civil war.

The Shi’ah were described to me by a Christian leader as “the new Maronites.” So far as their social status is concerned, the description is exaggerated, but demographically it seems correct. However, while they shared the same ticket in 1992, Hezbollah and Amal did not settle down together happily: their respective militias still occasionally clash. Nevertheless, the revived parliamentary system shows some signs of escaping from the rigid sectarianism of the old Lebanese politics. That Hezbollah has for a time had a tactical political understanding with the Kata’ib, formerly the most extreme of the Christian groups, shows that Lebanese political methods have to some degree changed.

After the 1992 elections the political leaders who survived the civil war period allowed the billionaire businessman Rafiq al-Hariri, then in his late forties, to form a government. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who comes from Sidon, made a fortune running a construction company in Saudi Arabia, and it was originally thought that his close connections with the Saudi royal family would exclude him from office. Like the former prime minister Berlusconi in Italy, he is a business tycoon who is in no way apologetic about it, and in fact he largely bought his way into power, laying out considerable sums for humanitarian aid after the Israelis withdrew and announcing his readiness to invest his own money in reconstruction from that time onward. Hariri’s appointment was a critical one because of the recent shift of much of the executive power formerly held by the Maronite president Elyas Hrawi to the Sunni prime minister. While Hariri’s predecessor as prime minister, ‘Umar Karami, failed to deal with the postwar economic collapse, Hariri, by contrast, has occupied one of the most difficult political posts in the world with great skill, and his administration has prompted as much of a political and economic recovery in Lebanon as seemed possible to hope for.

Hariri did not arrange peace among the warring factions: that had been worked out before he came. His two great achievements have been to stop the runaway inflation that was causing social chaos, particularly by its pauperization of the salaried middle class, and to change the postwar mood of exhaustion and immobility. To do these things, he not only spent millions of dollars of his own money—investing heavily, for example, in Solidère, the private company that is reconstructing part of Beirut—but brought in able technocrats who have managed to set in motion at least the beginnings of an economic recovery.

Hariri’s reputation for personal integrity is high by Middle Eastern standards, though last December he was accused by members of the cabinet of favoring certain businesses with government patronage; he was indignant about the charge and offered his resignation, but after pressure from Damascus he withdrew it. However, he has already, on paper, made a fortune from the rise in Solidère stock without violating any law. And he must be given some credit for helping to preserve the new peace. Hezbollah and Amal still control armed militias in the south, but the Lebanese army has been revived, and the other militias (with the exception of the “South Lebanon Army” in the Israeli security zone) have been disbanded.

But it is Syrians who are, in the last analysis, the custodians of Lebanon. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Syrian troops remain in the country, and perhaps as many as half a million Syrian citizens have joined the Lebanese work force. No political decision of any consequence can be taken by the Lebanese government without approval from Damascus.

2.

I visited Beirut early this spring, trying to assess the chances for recovery of a city I once knew well but hadn’t seen since the civil war began. I began my stay at Ras Beirut, the “modern” mixed quarter in west Beirut, around the American University. The neighborhood houses people from all the main religious groups and, partly for this reason, it was less seriously damaged by the war than the center of the city, though it was heavily shelled. It is no longer as glamorous as it was, and the shops seem less aggressively smart. Down by the sea, the promenade of the Avenue de Paris as far as the Roc des Pigeons, once the preserve of the chic and expensively dressed, is now as much the promenade of working-class Shi’ah as of anyone else.

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