The Rebirth of Beirut


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.


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.

Going to Ras Beirut was rather like visiting a quarter of a strange Middle Eastern city that you see for the first time only to find that your friends and relatives have also mysteriously been spirited there. The Lebanese bourgeoisie and intelligentsia still live there, more Anglo-Saxon in culture than French, and still inclined to be secular in their thinking. In this social milieu people feel skeptical about Hariri’s government and occasionally antagonistic, but the absence of any obvious political alternative makes most people willing to give it time to prove itself.

The ubiquitous Syrian military presence (Syrian soldiers often act as traffic policemen) and the Syrian political dominance are widely resented by those outside the Shi’ah community; but the unspoken fear of a renewal of the civil war curbs people’s tongues. In this respect the press, like everyone else, exercises self-censorship and there has also been some spasmodic direct censorship under a law allowing control of the press. To do the government justice, the intention of the press law was to discourage inflammatory words that might reawaken communal strife (a small Maronite TV station was closed on these grounds in 1993). However, the recent political trial of the Maronite leader Samir Geagea and others accused of directing the murder of another Christian leader has been fully reported, and the TV stations (especially the popular Maronite LBC) maintain news services. Compared with the ruthless censorship imposed in Syria, this looks like liberalism, although Hariri’s power and his personal stake in TV stations help protect him and his top officials from criticism.

In Ras Beirut there was a sprinkling of women wearing the veil, but there were also a few girls wearing miniskirts that would get their throats cut in Algiers. There are troops on the streets, as there are all over the city, but they seemed no more numerous or intrusive than the Egyptian soldiers I saw this winter in Cairo. In Hamra, the main street of the Ras Beirut quarter, traffic is jammed for much of the day. The American University is the same grassy, Gothic-Presbyterian village overlooking the sea, and it was hard for me to believe that a few years ago a young friend had been chased round the campus by armed men trying to kill him; hard also to credit that its president, the modest Malcolm Kerr, who was widely admired for his fairness to differing factions, had been assassinated on his own campus.

People are still tired from the war. They have spent so many of their nights taking shelter in basements and corridors. Lebanon lost two thirds of its capacity to generate electricity, and year after year there was no power for refrigerators or elevators. Most of the apartment houses had to install their own generators. Since there is still no power available for half the day, these are far from obsolete now, and they contribute to the considerable pollution.

Walking from Ras Beirut to the old city center, you reach, after half a mile, a district where the sidewalks have disintegrated—not that that would be strange in, say, Cairo. When you come to the busy street of Fakhr ed-Din you see army vehicles parked on the other side, and everything changes. As you walk down toward the old center there is suddenly less traffic, then none; the narrow streets, all pock-marked by gunfire, smell of bad drains. The houses on either side—many of them once fine places—are in utter disrepair, some obviously occupied by poor squatters. They are supposed to have been paid to leave, or to have been evicted, by the government, but plenty of them are still there. They reminded me of the poor I saw in abandoned villas outside Rome shortly after the war.

Further downhill is the Bab Idriss area, where my wife’s Lebanese uncles used to sit patiently outside their shops in the large market called Souq Ayas, waiting, usually in vain, for business. There is no longer a Souq Ayas. Instead there is a huge, bulldozed field, with a couple of ruined Ottoman half-buildings sitting forlornly in the middle of it. In the foreground, just before the wilderness starts, is a large, burned-out, nineteenth-century Italianate building, with cornices and swags. Beyond the field of rubble is a huge, new landfill of bulldozed spoil and trash which extends into the sea. In the other direction, still on the edge of this desolation, is an immune, dignified street of banks, which the militias carefully left intact in case its destruction should prejudice their arrangements for financing arms purchases. In that street are the offices of the authorities in charge of rebuilding the city.

The reconstruction of Beirut is not the main political problem of Lebanon, but it reflects most of the others. The Hariri government has made it the top priority, and has done this in a typically Lebanese manner, by setting up the private company Solidère to reconstruct the destroyed center of the city, an area about a square kilometer and a half in size, which once contained the main public buildings and the commercial and hotel quarter. The head of Solidère is the prime minister himself, and in some respects the legal powers conferred on it make it a temporary parallel government.

In some countries it might have seemed eccentric or even irregular to give a private company run by the prime minister sole control of building the capital city’s center, but in a country as devoted to private enterprise as Lebanon, the project managed, after some delay, to win parliamentary acceptance. There has been opposition to its radical methods: one particularly articulate critic, an architect, said that Solidère was plotting the city’s reconstruction on Saudi lines, “as if you were operating in a desert.” He was referring to the bulldozing and dynamiting of a part of the city center, where he claimed that the feasibility of restoring many of the old, damaged buildings had not been adequately considered. The owners of the demolished property, who are supposed to be awarded appropriate shares in Solidère, tend to regard it with considerable skepticism if they do not actually oppose it. But a cousin of mine remarked, perhaps from a deeper cynicism, that “anything they give us is better than nothing.”

There is also a government agency for reconstruction, which in most respects works in tandem with Solidère; it is typical of the private-enterprise mentality of the government that the president of this reconstruction agency wants to set up a new private company, on the Solidère model, to undertake the rebuilding of particularly war-hit areas outside Beirut, like the city of Tripoli.

There are many architectural and economic objections to what Hariri is doing, and perhaps some political ones as well. But people of very different tendencies, even some on the left, accept that there is no alternative program in sight that would bring together the constructive elements in the country, and especially the young technocrats who want to fix things, in a way that will give hope to diverse social groups, and that will take the initiative away from the religious communities that have so disastrously called the shots in Lebanon during the past thirty-odd years. As in so much of the Middle East, a genuinely secular government offers a better way to economic progress, but people are reluctant to fully adopt a secular outlook.

Were it not for Hariri’s initiative, Lebanon might be facing a political vacuum. It is not at all clear that the Lebanese can at the moment agree on the form of government they want: the complex disputes over how to choose a new president, or retain Elyas Hrawi in office as president, make this evident. There is some agreement that a new attempt must be made to get the different religious communities to live together in a single national state. But the war has weakened the basis of political consent: a minority element in Hezbollah still clings to the notion of an Islamic state, and some Christians, like Samir Geagea of the former Maronite Lebanese forces, want the country split up into a so-called federation of Christian and Muslim zones.

Many of the economic arguments are on Hariri’s side. To take the most obvious example of all, Beirut (rather like Renaissance Rome or Madrid) is now a huge construction site, and this has created a great many jobs for workers who are building or rebuilding the city. There is, it is true, no other serious industry in Lebanon; but unemployment, discounting the Palestinians in the camps, is still reckoned to be only 12 to 14 percent, which is not bad for a postwar economy with heavy immigration, especially from Syria.

Solidère is self-financing. Its cash was raised through a successful issue of shares valued at $650 million. Almost double this number of Solidère shares are to be issued over several years to people whose property in central Beirut has been expropriated under the reconstruction plan. These shares, which are being issued very slowly because of the complexity of the property rights to which they correspond, are theoretically the government’s compensation for the expropriated property.

Solidère also has an arrangement with the government that compensates the company for its huge costs in building roads and other infrastructure by granting it ownership of the enormous landfill site that projects into the sea. Since the costs of reclaiming the dump site will be immense, and the hazards (such as methane gas) of reclaiming such a site are still not exactly known, this deal, like everything else in the arrangement, is a gamble for Solidère. Still, one day it may construct profitable buildings or a marina on the reclaimed site.

As with other ravaged, third world countries, the main external economic problem arises from foreign financing of reconstruction. Investment attracted by the prime minister’s company has largely come from emigrant Lebanese. A successful Eurobond issue of $400 million gives some evidence of the confidence of Western financiers in the present Lebanese regime. Foreign loans, foreign investment, and foreign aid have produced a foreign currency inflow that gives the country currently a balance of payments surplus of over a billion dollars. But the country exports relatively little in the way of goods, and its very large purchases of consumer goods, added to the need for expensive foreign equipment for the reconstruction program, have produced a huge visible trade deficit. Over 80 percent of government revenue, moreover, goes for current expenditure, of which half is already designated for debt repayment. The other half has to cover all normal government expenses, which means, among other things, that civil servants are paid pittances, virtually guaranteeing corrupt practices, since they have no other way of making a living. Taxes are low and largely indirect, and gasoline is dirt cheap; the government does not appear to be making a really determined effort to raise new public revenue.

How much foreign aid Lebanon can obtain in the form of credits without incurring obligations it cannot afford is a question that is hard to answer. The official government handout claims a total amount of promised foreign financing of something approaching two billion dollars, of which about a third is in commercial loans, another third in “soft” loans, a fifth in direct grants, and the remainder in export credits. Many countries and institutions have promised help; some money is expected to come from the World Bank, some from European countries (notably France, Germany, and Italy), and some from Arab development banks, notably Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti. But frank discussion of this financing with foreign officials in the embassies gives a rather different story. Much of the financing depends on negotiations that are still pending. Italian export credits are an example. And even more is tied to projects, like the irrigation project in south Lebanon to be financed by the World Bank, that are still in a very early stage. There must also be some doubt whether the Saudis are at the moment in a position to fulfill all their promises, in view of their present financial troubles. No significant American aid is being offered—indeed, the former president of the Reconstruction Agency, Al-Fadel Chalak, now a minister in the government, said that he had not asked for any.


The reconstruction of Beirut is partly a matter of national symbolism. The Solidère project affects only 1.8 square kilometers, perhaps a tenth of the badly affected area; and about a seventh of even that central district is at the moment made up of the big shoreside dumpsite. But the heart of the old city is there, and Solidère plans to build a sunken road around it and then, within it, an archaeological park that will emphasize the Phoenician and Roman past of the city as well as its more recent Arab and Ottoman influence. One finds similar projects in other Middle Eastern countries seeking a national myth that is not just a part of Muslim tradition. Solidère has launched an international architectural competition for the rebuilding of the souqs: an American architectural firm (Drisin, McFarlane) is among the three finalists. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such an international competition, although aesthetically it is far from being the ideal solution. When the development of other Middle Eastern and Asian cities is considered we can say that it is probably going to happen anyway. Although efforts are being made to commission architecture of high quality for the restoration of public buildings and for the rebuilding of the souqs, the center of new Beirut will have a rather homogeneous, up-to-date, international character. If, at the end of fifteen years or so, the city core is rebuilt according more or less to the present planning ideas—ideas because Solidère will sell the sites, not actually build the new commercial buildings—the corporate style familiar from Sydney to Atlanta will dominate, although here it will have a slightly Oriental flavor. That it will be surrounded by a moat would make the new enclave seem even more exclusive. There is no way that the small shops and businesses, once an important visual and economic aspect of Beirut, will return to the city’s center; that, again, is a worldwide story, and a sad one.

The high-powered atmosphere surrounding the project may foster the myth that Beirut is the Middle East’s new center for financial and other services, and the natural entry point for Western capital and elites to do business. Clearly, this is a useful myth to assist the present reconstruction plans, but the Lebanese are bit players when compared with the magnates of Hong Kong or Singapore; and their bankers lack the expertise that would be necessary for them to get back into the Middle East financial game near the point where they quit it in the 1970s. The Lebanese planners recognize this, and are trying to find “niche” strategies that will allow their country to compete with the Israelis on carefully selected ventures in which Lebanon might have special advantages. For example, although as a port Beirut stands no real chance of competing with Haifa, some think it has good prospects of being transformed into a container shipment center that will feed road transport to Arabia and the Gulf, and bypass the sea route through Suez.

Besides the problem of central Beirut there is the fate of the continuous urban strip that runs along the coast from the airport to the south, to the north of the Bay of Jounieh: a coastal distance of over twenty miles. The demographic history of this area, with its declining Christian and growing Muslim populations, is the history of the Lebanese civil war. The coastal strip south of the city is virtually a Shi’ah enclave—it contains the Hezbollah headquarters—which was physically constricted by the airport and militarily constricted by the Druse command of the hills to the east. The coastal strip to the north joins with Christian east Beirut on one side, and with the traditional mountain strongholds of the Maronites on the other. This was the heart of embattled Christian Lebanon, but it now looks more like a scraggly suburb on the California coast than a mountain fortress. The Bay of Jounieh, once one of the finest in the east Mediterranean, has been encircled by tower blocks that reach almost to the tops of the hills. There are a few beautiful buildings on the hillsides, like the medieval church of the Maronite Order in the village of Ghazieh. But there are some ugly buildings by the sea; a typical one is the Casino that its Christian owners hastened to rebuild in Jounieh.

The ugly urbanization is largely a product of the civil war. There were mass migrations to the city by the Shi’ah from south Lebanon and by the Christians from the Chouf mountains. The people living on the coastal strip from Beirut airport to Jounieh probably make up a third of the population of Lebanon. It is doubtful that there will ever be a really significant return to the countryside. It is impossible for the Shi’ah peasantry of south Lebanon to go back to their villages; in fact Israeli pressure within the security zone is still forcing yet more of them to leave. Some Christians are beginning to go back to the Chouf mountains, but the conditions of life in rural Lebanon are discouraging. Credit for rural investment is prohibitively expensive; oldstyle moneylenders still charge 100 percent interest. The government talks of reviving the prewar agricultural investment bank, but it is unclear where the capital could be found.

The rebuilding of Beirut will depend in large part on Christian-controlled companies that have already made big investments in construction during the war. Some firms that have already built new headquarters in east Beirut or in the Bay of Jounieh will be reluctant to move back into the center of town. The government agencies are still far from reviving urban services, especially in the partly devastated area around the Solidère enclave. The power shortage means that there is still no street lighting. It is easier to telephone the States than to call someone across the street, so people call New York numbers that are linked back to Beirut.

In late May, there was a political crisis when Hariri resigned and was rein-stated after a couple of days at Syrian insistence and with the support of a majority of the Lebanese parliament. His new cabinet contains a larger proportion of men politically tied to him, and he clearly hopes that it will be more pliant to his wishes than the old one. It is too soon to say whether Hariri’s plans will succeed, and particularly whether he will manage to control the Shi’ah speaker of parliament, the Amal leader Nabih Berri.

The Palestinian immigrant question, which was one of the causes of the civil war, remains. Well over 300,000 Palestinians remain in Lebanon, of whom 170,000 are still in camps. Proposals to resettle permanently even a limited number have been met with warnings that such moves would be opposed by both Lebanese Christians and Muslims. Hariri himself has said that under no circumstances can the mass of Palestinians in the camps all be granted Lebanese citizenship, as some have done over a long period. The status of the rest remains a problem that the Lebanese political leaders still cannot face, and that the Palestinians are still trying to define.

The recently translated book of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish about the Israeli siege of west Beirut in 1982 provides eloquent testimony of the mentality of the secularist, Arabnationalist PLO at the moment of its military defeat by Israel, and of its subsequent weakening in the face of religious sectarians like Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. For Darwish this was a time when “the grand Arab meanings are in retreat, when the stray sheep have returned to their sects, mystical beliefs, and symbols.”*

Besides their internal disputes the Lebanese politicians and intellectuals talk about their country as a “hostage” to the Middle East peace process and its success or failure. It is true, as one of the reconstruction officials told me, that what happens in Lebanon depends upon decisions that are taken in Tel Aviv, or Damascus, or Washington. If President Assad suddenly left office, the Lebanese would be worried by the political uncertainties that would surely result, though none of the factions wants to renew the civil war.

So far as foreign policy is concerned, Lebanon is, as a former foreign minister remarked, “hibernating.” When nothing can be done without Syrian consent, and while Syrian and Israeli attitudes to the peace process remain cautious, Lebanon lacks all freedom of movement. There is bitter resentment about the Israeli security zone in the south, and early this spring a day of government-organized protest and a “strike” about this got very wide support. Even conservative Sunni Muslims feel that the Hezbollah militia are defending their national interests in the south. Such sentiments are often heard, although it is common knowledge that Iran continues to take an excessively close interest in the activities of Lebanese Hezbollah and that a small number of Iranian troops may still be present in Lebanon in the Bekáa region. Lebanese magazines and television have been directed by the government to describe the Hezbollah militia operating in the south as “the resistance.”

One constantly hears in Beirut that the US has no serious interest in Lebanon; its assurances that it wants to maintain Lebanese independence are not given great weight. When Warren Christopher recently visited Israel, the Israeli blockade of the south Lebanese fishing ports was lifted for a few days but was resumed almost as soon as he left.

My visit to the US embassy now located outside Beirut was like a trip to a remote and forgotten outpost in the hills. The building is manned by a couple of dozen lonely Americans with flak jackets and combat helmets at the ready. The traumatic events of 1983, when nearly three hundred Americans died in the attacks on the embassy and the Marine barracks, are still fresh in State Department memory. So are the capture and torture of a CIA official. Europeans have reacted rather differently. The French, who suffered over sixty fatal casualties in the same 1983 attacks, and who had earlier lost their Beirut ambassador in a terrorist assassination, never closed their embassy, and are now extremely active in Beirut. Most EEC embassies are open for business in the normal way. The British Council has reopened, and a small new British airline has recently been set up expressly to fly to Beirut and Damascus; on the other hand, British subjects are still discouraged from going to some parts of the country.

The ban on US travel to Lebanon, which was renewed in March for a further six months, makes it extremely difficult (though not impossible) for US firms to participate in reconstruction contracts—it also makes things difficult for the president of the American University in Beirut to recruit teachers and raise money. Lebanon would naturally like to have the ban lifted, and negotiations this spring with the US have centered on “the security situation in and around Beirut airport,” which is State Department shorthand for the strong Hezbollah presence in south Beirut in the Shi’ah area near the airport. The State Department points to “the persistence of real threats” against the safety of American citizens, but its fears are quite hard to explain, since large numbers of US citizens have during the past four years found loopholes in the regulations and have visited Lebanon, and none has been harmed—nor, for that matter, have subjects of any other Western country been harmed during the same period. But US negotiators are said to have declined to further consider lifting the travel ban unless the Lebanese government acts against Hezbollah both in south Beirut and in southern Lebanon. This, if it has been correctly reported, was tantamount to a request by the US for renewing the Lebanese civil war, and it is amazing to hear that it was made.

It was, of course, an anomaly that the Hezbollah militia was not dissolved at the same time that the Christian and Druse militias were dissolved between 1990 and 1992, just as it is anomalous that there should still be an area within three or four miles of central Beirut in which the writ of the Lebanese government does not run. But the source of the anomaly lies in the nature of the bargain that was struck between Christians, Muslims, and Druse to end the civil war. If Lebanon is really to be an independent and united country, all its private armies must be dissolved, and not just some of them. That cannot happen until the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon has ended. If that happens, the raison d’être for the Syrian protectorate over Lebanon would cease to exist, together with the excuse for maintaining private armies. Such things could only occur with Israel’s and Syria’s consent and agreement as well as Lebanon’s.

The peace process, in other words, can no longer be short-circuited either by putting pressure on prominent Sunni conservatives or by a separate deal with the Lebanese Christians: these were the disastrous errors of 1982. It may seem extraordinary that such issues, which are those of peace and security in the Middle East, should have been thrown up by a seemingly minor dispute about airport security. The incident has shown how intractable are the problems of this small, precariously united country, which has already suffered so much from quarrels that were originally not of its making.

May 25, 1995

  1. *

    Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi (University of California Press, 1995).