Lebanon is smaller than Connecticut and scarcely more populous. Its economy, still struggling to recoup the losses of the 1975–1990 civil war, hardly amounts to the annual turnover at McDonald’s. What is so special about the country? The immediate answer is that this statelet, which was subtracted by French imperialists from greater Syria, has suddenly found itself to be the fine point upon which the fate of a much wider region balances.
That sounds an oversized claim, but an extraordinary passion play has been unfolding in Beirut over the last few weeks. It is a drama that happens to pit forces which, in a particularly stark fashion, seem to represent the competing narratives that will ultimately define the Arabs’ vision of their recent past and soon-to-be-revealed destiny. These forces are, in many ways, similar to those that have clashed within every Arab society, and continue to do so, in what some historians describe as a struggle between the cosmopolitan Arabs of the coastal cities and those of the inward-looking hinterland. And just now, on the Arab airwaves transmitting scenes from the streets of Beirut, a turning of the tide in this struggle may be fleetingly discerned.
On one side stand what might be called the Pan-Arab nationalists, whose strident voice has dominated the past half-century. This voice was first raised in anger against European imperialism, and later against the intrusion of Israel into the Arab heartland, but it has grown increasingly inflected with the rhetoric of militant political Islam. On March 8 these “nationalists” poured into the city center in force, heeding the call of Hassan Nasrallah, the forty-one-year-old leader of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia-cum-political-party that became a national force through its resistance to Israel’s long occupation of Lebanon’s south. Perhaps half a million people, poor Shiites from South Beirut’s slums, Palestinians from the country’s miserable archipelago of refugee camps, young and old, veiled and not, cheered the bearded Nasrallah (whose name, incidentally, means Victory of God) as he denounced the usual villains, Americans and Zionists and their lackeys. Death to Israel, they chanted, to a backbeat of amplified hymns condemning America as the Mother of Terror.
It was the largest gathering of people in Lebanon’s turbulent history, and a persuasively fervent show of support for resistance to all forms of non-Arab, non-Muslim influence. In local politics, this meant support for Baathist Syria, seen as a last redoubt of Uruba, or Arabism, amid a rising sea of American hegemony. It also meant backing for the Syrian-supported components of the post–civil war Lebanese order, including political parties allied with Syria, the intelligence services, and of course the small but effective Hezbollah guerrilla army which, having hounded Israel out of its long occupation in the south, is seen by many as the only deterrent to future Israeli aggression. To the “loyalist” camp, those who support the connection with Syria, this is the order that has ensured Lebanon’s return to peace and to its natural place as an integral part of the Arab-Muslim motherland, or umma.
Yet less than a week later, this show of force was trumped by a considerably larger gathering. As many as a million Lebanese, mainly young and middle class and largely Christian, but including representatives of all the country’s seventeen recognized religious sects, converged on Martyr’s Square, the giant, as-yet unreconstructed empty space in the historic heart of Beirut. A quarter of the country’s population was there, and despite the variety of political parties in attendance (for which, in Lebanon, read: people who used to kill each other) the convergence of feeling was both palpable and poignant.
One feeling in evidence was a newfound pride in simply being Lebanese, and an even more newfound exhilaration at having the power to show this pride. Another was a deep hope that the future promises release from the country’s peculiar burdens: from its paranoid divisions among religious factions, from its people’s hapless despair and cynicism, and from the nation’s unwilling entrapment in the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. It was, in other words, the hope, at least for many Lebanese, of joining the community of peaceable nations enjoying secular, open societies, democracy, and the rule of law. But perhaps the emotion that most unified this vast crowd was of pent-up rage against the forces that many Lebanese see as having blocked this kind of evolution, forces which many also hold responsible for the Valentine’s Day bombing that killed Rafik Hariri, the controversial and visionary former prime minister, a very rich businessman who oversaw the country’s emergence from the ruins of civil war.
This anger is directed most readily against Syria. That is partly because the larger, more backward neighboring state is a convenient villain, a specter against which to piece together a coherent identity out of Lebanon’s own fractured parts. After all, Syrian troops entered Lebanon, way back in 1976, at the invitation of Lebanon’s then president and with the goal of separating warring Lebanese. They succeeded, in a fashion, after serially bloodying virtually all of Lebanon’s myriad factions, including later allies such as Hezbollah.
Yet the anger is also grounded in the experience of Syria’s subsequent meddling. Since imposing peace fifteen years ago, the occupiers have increasingly worn out their welcome. Syria’s presence is subtly pervasive. The ill-paid conscripts who man scruffy checkpoints represent merely the visible tip of a pile that includes racketeering Baathist political bosses and a shadowy army of plainclothes thugs. Specifically, Syrian agents have been implicated in, though never charged with, several of the frequent assassinations that have shaken Lebanese politics.
There is among Lebanese another, subtler layer of anxiety about Syria. The two countries are unusually close, sharing the same language and culture and religious diversity. Damascus and Beirut are barely two hours’ drive apart. The flight of Syrian capital and migrant labor have helped to sustain Lebanon’s more dynamic economy. Yet history and trade have bequeathed radically different outlooks, with liberal, freewheeling Beirut serving as a sort of Hong Kong for the gray, conservative Beijing of Damascus. Capitalist, cosmopolitan, and by tradition democratic, the Lebanese tend to look on the Syrians as country cousins. Being ruled by them, however veiled that rule, is humiliating.
Yet the onus of resentment falls equally on what many Lebanese see as their own collaborationist and parasitical political class. One thing practically all Lebanese share is a sense of being a talented but thwarted nation. They are right. Lebanese emigrants (some ten million people, from Mexico to West Africa to Australia, claim Lebanese origins) make up one of the most widely dispersed, successful, and influential global diasporas. In the rich Arab Gulf they dominate such professions as advertising, entertainment, and banking. Lebanon itself remains, despite its violent unrest, a well-educated and surprisingly prosperous society, with a level of personal income that is more than double Jordan’s and triple Syria’s. Its banks hold assets equal to three times its GNP.
Yet for all its entrepreneurial flair, Lebanon has remained stymied by very slow growth and a huge public debt, for the simple reason that its politicians have spent more time bickering over spoils than figuring out how to make the economy grow. At the same time, Syrian tutelage is seen by many as having slowly undermined the key institutions, such as the judiciary, that vitally underpin Lebanon’s service-based economy.
Lebanese politics had, in recent years, degenerated into an increasingly ugly tug-of-war that threatened to destroy the vision of a revitalized country that Rafik Hariri embodied as prime minister and was elected, and then reelected, to fulfill. A billionaire construction magnate, he strongly believed that, given confidence and a decent infrastructure, Lebanon would inevitably prosper. During the 1990s his free-spending ways transformed Beirut from a gutted wreck into a city that is, in parts, a gleaming model of a modern metropolis (in other parts it remains a warren of sweatshops and shanties). In doing so he amassed a $35 billion national debt; paying it off hinged on sustaining growth through privatization and encouraging foreign, particularly Arab, investment.
This tricky gamble stumbled into increasingly entrenched resistance from Syria’s allies in Beirut, led by President Émile Lahoud. Their objection stemmed partly from fears that the flamboyant Hariri, who built his estimated $4 billion fortune in Saudi Arabia, and then spent much of it winning friends through charity and generous patronage, was bent on further enriching his own favorites and giving them more power. They also saw that Hariri’s reforms threatened the web of patronage and monopolistic concessions that sustain other Lebanese political grandees, and in many cases tie them closely to the Syrian regime.
Increasingly deadlocked, the contest between the president and the prime minister reached a breaking point last fall. First came news that Syria, in a direct snub to Hariri, was pushing its allies in Lebanon’s parliament to amend the country’s constitution so as to extend Lahoud’s mandate. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Asad, bluntly warned Hariri not to oppose the move. Soon after, the UN Security Council took a sudden interest in Lebanon, voting to demand an immediate Syrian withdrawal, proper elections, and the disarming of all remaining militias.
Perhaps rightly, this unusual motion was read by Hariri’s opponents as having been inspired by the prime minister himself, who was known to be a close friend of the French president Jacques Chirac—France, along with the United States, being the main proponent of the resolution. Barely a week later, Syria’s allies rammed through the amendment granting a further three years in office to Lahoud. Hariri, perhaps believing he could still play a mediating role, voted reluctantly in favor of the motion. But shortly thereafter he resigned.
It was not only that Lahoud’s and Syria’s interventions in Hariri’s cabinet were now rudely obstructionist. On October 1 a car bomb targeted, but narrowly missed, Marwan Hamade. A respected economist from one of Lebanon’s main Druze clans and a close friend of the prime minister, Hamade had been one of four ministers to resign over the constitutional amendment. This warning seemed clear. The cabinet installed following Hariri’s retirement was solidly pro-Syrian.
This appeared to be the end of the game, a sign that Syria, in defiance of the world, was at last exerting full control. Many analysts concluded that the Damascus regime, isolated by America’s invasion of Iraq, its army dwarfed by Israel’s military might, its socialist economy lumbering toward extinction, had decided to take a defiant stand over Lebanon. What was expected next was that President Lahoud, backed by his security chiefs, ministers, and a mostly pliant parliament, would so arrange things that by the time of legislative polls scheduled for this May, the election of a crushingly pro-Syrian parliament would be assured. Hariri would be relegated to the political wilderness.
One of Lebanon’s oddities is that it has maintained, throughout decades of Machiavellian maneuverings, corruption, and violence, at least a semblance of a democratic process, although the country’s constitutional arrangements have always been flawed, as Lebanese are quick to admit. From independence in 1943 to the end of the civil war in 1990, an unwritten compact granted Christians a 60-to-40 dominance of parliamentary seats, in addition to the powerful presidency and control of the judiciary, senior economic posts, and the main armed services. The weak prime minister was by custom a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Other top positions and parliamentary seats were apportioned to lesser minorities, such as the Druze, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Alawites.